News & Politics » Neighborhood News

House on the Rocks

Near-west-side medical district lines up the bulldozers.



By Neal Pollack

From the back porch of their graystone two-flat on 13th Street, James and Ruth Guy look out across a landscape of rickety old houses and muddy vacant lots. To the north, across Roosevelt Road, they see the University of Illinois' parking garage in the last phases of construction. To the west, at Damen Avenue, they see a police crime lab just built by the state that's all shiny glass and brick and takes up more than a city block.

This area was once full of little houses like the Guys', some better maintained, many worse. To make room for one project or another, residents were bought out and their houses torn down. Now the Guys are worrying that their house will soon fall as well. "We have the nicest house here on this street," James Guy says. "I've been here a long time, and I want to stay here. We're between three bus lines. We have Damen, we have the Roosevelt, we have the Ashland. We don't have no high water here. We're right here at the hospital. As far as I'm concerned I like to stay right here."

The Guys' house is located in the Illinois Medical District, which is run by a little-known commission that by state mandate has eminent domain within its boundaries; at any time it can buy as much land as it needs for "medical purposes." The district extends south from Congress to railroad tracks along 14th Street, and west from Ashland to Oakley. Its 560 acres include Cook County Hospital, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, the Chicago Technology Park, the west-side veterans hospital, the UIC Medical Center, the new Cook County juvenile court and detention buildings, several state-agency offices, and various parking lots. In early November the medical district held a public meeting where it announced its "master plan" for future changes in the area. These included a proposed "district development area" that would run from Roosevelt to the district's southern border, a part of the district that had never before been slated for development.

Guy attended the November meeting. During a citizen comment period, he stood up and said to the commission, "My name is James Guy. I have the nicest house on 13th Street. And I would like to know, what are your plans for me?"

They told him they would have to talk to him later.

He asked the question again.

They didn't answer it.

Finally, William Wallace, the liaison between the medical district and neighborhood residents, said, "Mr. Guy, you are eventually going to have to move."

The "district development area" is better known to its residents as the "Valley." It includes an old school, a new church building, a few corner stores, a lot of ramshackle houses, and many, many vacant lots. Most of its residents are black, quite a few are elderly, and many have lived in the Valley for a long time. Over the years many residents have given up and sold their houses, knowing that the medical district was authorized to come in at any time.

Bill Lavicka, a neighborhood rehabber and activist, says the district could reserve at least a block or two of the Valley for residential use, since it has yet to develop empty lots it owns throughout the northern half of the district. "The chance of them filling up 40 blocks with medical buildings is real slim--no matter what they say," Lavicka says. But William Wallace said those lots are spoken for under existing plans and will eventually be developed. Wallace said the medical district has a number of projects in mind for the development area, though none are definite. These include a medical-waste processing facility, a nursing home, headquarters for an organization that provides organs and cadavers for medical science, and several others.

"A decision far beyond us, older than us, was made to develop a medical district," he said. "The charter reflects that. Our charge is to accomplish that mission in as humane a way as possible. It's not as if there's nowhere to relocate within the vicinity of the neighborhood. Look, everybody wants to keep his house. Everyone. Nobody likes to move when he doesn't plan to move."

Cleven Wardlow has been in the Valley for 40 years. He and his wife live in a two-flat flanked by buildings owned and occupied by their two sons. Before retiring from the CTA a dozen years ago, Wardlow was known in Chicago as the "happy bus driver," famous along his various north-side routes for greeting his customers with, "Be of good cheer, the happy bus is here. Come in, God's wonderful people." He was the subject of several newspaper articles and appeared on Donahue with a friend who conducted the CTA's "love train." Since retiring, Wardlow has transformed 13 vacant lots into what he calls a "rest oasis for the weary traveler" at Wood and Hastings. The park is marked by the hand-painted sign, "Welcome to Gethsemane--The Beautiful Garden of Prayer." It offers a dozen cream-colored concrete benches claimed from a Roosevelt Road renovation project, a trellis arbor, basketball and volleyball courts, and a picnic area.

Over the years Wardlow's park has been home to various neighborhood events, religious revivals, and a wedding. "We helped make the west side," Wardlow says. "It's been a quiet area. We don't have much rowdiness right here. We fell in love with the neighborhood and we hate to see them tearing down buildings. It doesn't make you feel good, seeing all the vacant lots appearing, your friends leaving. It hasn't been heartwarming at all. It's been really degrading here. But we plan on standing our ground."

Wardlow's son Wayne is an associate minister at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the Valley's main religious institution. Both he and his father would like the medical district to reserve a few Valley blocks for residential use, as was done in neighborhoods such as Tri-Taylor and Little Italy. "They can put funds to rebuild into all these other areas, but not the south side of Roosevelt?" he says. "Nobody's looking for a handout, but just don't eliminate us."

William Wallace said, "People in residency in the community will indeed have to be relocated as program development calls for it. We're focused on how they are relocating. I myself like to describe it as 'When they will go, where they will go, and how they will go there,' not a program of 'Here's your ticket out, so long.'"

Wallace said the medical district will pay Valley residents to relocate to "acceptable" housing. When the new state crime lab was put in at Roosevelt and Damen, it paid 34 families between $40,000 and $60,000 for their property. Kenneth Scheiwe, an attorney for the district, said that since he started buying land for the district in 1987, the price of vacant lots in the area has gone up from 60 cents a square foot to more than a dollar in some locations. But according to Bill Lavicka, nearby Tri-Taylor lots go for around $20 a square foot and even in the lowest-rent near-west-side neighborhoods they're never priced much lower than $4 or $5.

The district's offers, said Scheiwe, are based on outside professional appraisals, and residents have 60 days to appeal before the district exercises eminent domain. Scheiwe was reluctant to give an absolute range of property values in the area. "Obviously, a well-maintained building will be appraised higher than a poorly maintained one," he said. He added that any price offered by the medical district would be enough for residents to buy property in a like area. A three-flat in Tri-Taylor would be out of reach, he said, but one in the nearby neighborhood adjacent to Mount Sinai Hospital would not.

"We've torn down a lot of buildings," said Scheiwe. "Every time you get rid of an abandoned building it basically improves the neighborhood." The district argues that if it doesn't acquire all the land that belongs to it by state law, it cannot attract developers to come in and start big-ticket projects. "Basically, having the assembled property is the inducement for the developer," said Scheiwe. "When the developer comes and sees buildings sitting there, he knows the time factor involved, especially if those buildings are inhabited. He knows it will be a long time before he can begin construction. If we have an assembled site that is vacant he will know that we can begin almost immediately. Any steps where we can improve our position over the suburbs, we're going to take. They can go out to Naperville and find a five-acre site, completely leveled. Knock down the corn."

None of these arguments work for the Guys. Ruth Guy has lived in the two-flat since 1945. James Guy, her second husband, has lived there since 1960. His major passion, he says, is working on his house, and he's finally got it to a point where he likes it. "I don't want to move too much nowhere. I've moved around too much when I was coming up. I was working, and you go from here to here and here to here. Never get yourself settled. So I would like to stay right here. I'm too old to be moving on, and all this kind of stuff. Too old for that now. I'm 83 years old now. Keep on moving? I don't want to go anywhere."

Wallace said that the district understands the Guys' concerns, and that when the time comes when the district needs the property, the Guys will be dealt with fairly. "Mr. Guy has a problem," he said. "And I told Mr. Guy, 'Yes, you do have to move, and we will work with you in doing that. We want you to get a fair price.' I don't think there's anything in the charter that requires us to deal with relocation as we do. As fairly as we do. We elevated it. Here. These commissioners."

On a cold fall day, Guy looks out onto Roosevelt Road and wonders if his neighborhood and his house's last days have arrived. "I don't know if it's too late now or not," he says. "It looks like it is too late to do anything about it. We've been talking about this for some time, this development, but nobody had a plan. So now they've got the plan, and it doesn't include me. You know what you call this? In a way, this is what you call taking advantage of a person."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Ruth and James Guy by Nathan Mandell.

Add a comment