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Habitat rehab: building careers on the west side

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By noon the businessmen from the suburbs and the kids from the inner city had been at it for three hours, knocking down walls and hauling away rubble. Their pants, shirts, and shoes were covered with dust.

Their efforts are part of the latest and most ambitious endeavor hatched by Uptown Chicago Habitat for Humanity. What they're doing goes beyond the well-intended efforts of a bunch of suburban missionaries temporarily dropping into the inner city to build a house: They're renovating 44 units in four smashed-up three-story apartment buildings on the 4100 block of West Kamerling, not far from the intersection of North and Pulaski. They're also hiring local teenagers, giving them valuable construction training, and working with a local community group, the Nobel Neighbors, to improve the area and push the gangs out.

This kind of concerted effort may be the last and best hope for low-income inner-city housing in the post-Reagan era of budget cuts, when even a Democratic president can't get much urban aid through Congress. "We're addressing problems of substandard housing while teaching kids skills that can help them find a job," says Kevin Keyser, a Habitat spokesman.

The buildings are located across the street from the Nobel elementary school, in a section of Humboldt Park that was once a thriving working-class community but for the last few years has suffered from crime and neglect.

"Six people had been shot [nearby] in gang fighting in the months before we took ownership of these buildings," says Laura Leon, executive director of Nobel Neighbors. "Last year two people were shot right outside the Nobel school. Their bodies stayed there for two hours before the police took them away. That's how bad things got."

Rival gangs had been fighting over the local turf. "It's dangerous for a kid around here," says Miguel Melendez, a 17-year-old senior at Prosser high school who works on the Kamerling Street project. "I get along with the gangbangers because I have to. I'd be sitting on the porch with my mother and they'd come by and say, 'Hey, can we talk to you?' They'd take me out into the street and say, 'We want you to join.' I'd say, 'That's not my style.'

"When I was younger, about 14, I was walking home and these two or three kids, little kids, maybe six or seven years old, started hassling me. It was funny. I was giggling. They were so small. All of a sudden I see 20 [little kids] coming after me. I started to run. They chased me to my house. Later the gang leaders said, 'We were testing you to see if you were worthy of being one of us.' But I don't want to join. I don't like fighting--that's not who I am."

Local residents were particularly distressed by the four abandoned apartment buildings near the intersection of Kamerling and Karlov. "You had a bunch of gangbangers hanging out there--they had taken them over," says Leon. "It was worse than an eyesore. It was dangerous."

For a while Nobel Neighbors thought about developing the buildings themselves, but they dismissed that proposal as impractical. "We didn't have the money or expertise to tackle that big a project," says Leon.

So they started looking for a not-for-profit developer who might work with them. "We heard about some company that works in poor neighborhoods called Habitat, or something like that, so we called," says Leon. "Only that was the for-profit Habitat company, the one that built Presidential Towers. That was a funny conversation. They were saying, 'What neighborhood did you say you're in?' And I was saying, 'First tell me something about your company.'"

Eventually they found their way to the Habitat for Humanity branch in Uptown, one of the most successful Habitat affiliates in the country. "There's no magical formula for what we do--it's based on hard work," says Keyser. "Habitat was based on the rural principles of Amish barn raising--coming together as a community to raise the roof and build a house. It doesn't always work in the city. Here it's more complicated. We're gut-rehabbing an existing structure. It takes more money. And you always have to gain the community's trust to make it work."

Habitat, which started in Georgia, made its local reputation when former president Jimmy Carter came in the 1980s to help build several houses on the west side. On that project, as on most Habitat projects, the work was done by volunteers from inside and outside the community who worked with the families who would eventually live there.

Habitat doesn't build rental units. It subsidizes mortgage payments. "We want to promote home ownership," says Keyser. "When families are on a mortgage they have a higher stake in the community because they know they'll be there for 20 years. As much as possible we require sweat equity. The people who will live here should help work here."

The Uptown-based affiliate, run by executive director Jim Lundeen, has built units throughout the north side. For each project Lundeen has recruited volunteers from churches and corporations such as the Johnson & Higgins insurance company.

By January 1993 Habitat had agreed to work with Careers for Youth, a not-for-profit job-training group that helped hire the teenagers to work on the Kamerling site. Together the groups created a partnership called the Young Builders Program, funded by federal antipoverty money funneled to it by the Daley administration.

The groups also convinced Citibank, which held title to three of the four Kamerling Street buildings, to sell. That wasn't easy. Even though the buildings were abandoned, Citibank hung tough, finally settling for $75,000. An anonymous donor came up with the money. The fourth building was acquired for almost nothing at a scavenger sale.

Work on the project got under way earlier this summer with a crew of 80 teenagers. The community benefited as soon as the project began. "The gangs don't congregate here anymore," says Keyser. "Unfortunately, they may have just moved to another block. But it's given this community a fresh start."

The teenagers work Tuesday through Friday from 9 to 3:30 for about $4.50 an hour. For the most part they've been knocking down old walls, carting away debris, and then framing and building new walls. They work under the direction of experienced builders employed by Habitat.

"You learn to be a carpenter by working with a carpenter--we all start the same way," says Doug Simpson, a crew chief who supervises 16 students. "Some kids on this project know what they're doing. You can turn them loose and they'll be leaders. Other kids don't know, but they have a head on their shoulders and a willingness to learn."

It's hard, often frustrating work, says Simpson. "I come home some nights mentally drained from trying to get them to understand. It's not always easy to get a group of eight kids to learn the principles of carpentry. Some listen, some don't. Sometimes you walk away, and when you come back you find a kid sitting on a radiator not doing what you just asked him to do.

"Think about what you were like in high school. You were lazy. You wanted the easiest job, the easy way out. I was a lifeguard. I had the cushiest job in the world. In some ways I was the same as these kids."

Simpson also recognizes that he and the kids he teaches are different in many ways. "I grew up in the North Shore. These kids don't have the luxuries I had. It's tougher for them. Part of the reason I love doing this is that there's a fulfillment you don't get from regular carpentry. It's exciting to watch them learn and get better. They'll frame a wall and stand back and say, 'Hey, I did that.' If you ever built a wall, you know that's an accomplishment you can't take away."

Most of Simpson's students say they're determined to take advantage of the skills they're learning. "When I get to college I'll major in electrical engineering," says Randy Brider, a 16-year-old from Foreman high school. "I'm learning discipline--how to get up early and get to work on time."

Cory McGregory, a student at Near North Career Magnet, says he plans to become an architect. Others say they will pursue construction careers. "I don't mind getting dirty," says Tiffany Smith, an 18-year-old from Orr High. "Some kids tell me, 'This is a boy job--why do it?' I say, 'I like it and that's where the money is.'"

The experience is important even for those kids who say they want to find jobs in other fields. "I want to be a physical therapist--like a chiropractor," says Melendez, who works as an assistant crew chief. "It's not just the carpentry work that's important. It's learning how to work. Some of the guys say, 'Hey, how come you're the boss?' I say, 'It follows rank. I earned this job. I come in earlier than the rest. I stay later. I did volunteer work [for Nobel Neighbors].' But it's not always easy to handle these questions. I have to assert myself with guys who are my age. I get nervous, but I figure the things I'm learning to do here, they'll be with me for the rest of my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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