Blight, politics, and hope on the west side | Bleader

Blight, politics, and hope on the west side


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2720 W. Monroe, a vacant building turned into public art
  • Mick Dumke
  • 2720 W. Monroe, a vacant building turned into public art

Neighbors are worried about the boarded-up building at 2720 W. Monroe—a once-fine, four-bedroom brick home that's been vacant and problematic for years.

This time, though, they're concerned that the city is planning to knock it down, just weeks after they worked to turn it into a striking piece of community art.

"It's real ironic," says Jay Bellingham, who lives across the street. "Why would they come out now that we've beautified it?"

It's an interesting question.

Abandoned buildings can be magnets for trouble—and for politics.

Mayor Emanuel recently made headlines by relaunching an old program to crack down on vacant properties, only he called it a new program to crack down on vacant properties.

If only it were so simple. The foreclosure tally keeps rising. And what's left behind is often a tangle of legal issues and political connections.

I first noticed the home at 2720 W. Monroe a couple weeks ago, as I was walking around East Garfield Park with Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti. In a community that's struggled with joblessness, foreclosures, and disinvestment, the building is a colorful declaration of hope. The boards covering the windows and doors have been painted bright blue and green. Red, orange, and lime fish seem to swim over the walls. And carefully cut wooden letters form a declaration of faith from Psalms: "though I walk through the valley I will fear no evil."

The words seem to call out up and down the block.

As residents were eager to tell me, the artwork was initiated earlier this month by a group of college-age activists from around the country. They spent the last year living on the block and working in a homeless shelter as part of a Christian mission program.

"The block has a lot of life to it, people are always out, kids are out playing," says Nate Lee, one of the missionaries. "We felt the abandoned buildings on the block were an eyesore and we wanted to bring some life to those buildings."

Once they proposed the idea, it quickly became a community project. Bellingham and other residents provided supplies, and neighborhood kids helped with the painting.

But not long after I posted a picture of the building online, city workers tacked a notice to the door announcing their intention to inspect the property.

Neighbors fretted. When I stopped by the other day, half a dozen people saw me and came out of their homes to talk about the Fear No Evil building.

"It's been vacant three years, and then we had squatters, but we ran them out," says Bellingham, who deems his block the best on the west side.

In other words, the people on the 2700 block of West Monroe have been dealing with this building for some time—along with four other vacant houses and several empty lots, none of which were visited by city inspectors recently.

But city officials say their trip to 2720 had nothing to do with the artwork or my post about it. Bill McCaffrey, a city spokesman, says someone called 311 to report that the front of the building was open, though it was secure by the time city workers got there.

McCaffrey says the notice was meant to inform the owner of the property that it needs to be registered under the city's vacant building laws. "There isn't anything here that suggests it's in danger of demolition," he says.

As with so many vacant properties, the problem is that it's not clear who currently owns 2720 W. Monroe.

Property records show that in 2009 it was purchased by a guy I'll call P.G. out of respect for the dead.

P.G. was a close acquaintance of a number of west-side politicians. He donated to the political funds of Congressman Danny Davis, former alderman Ed Smith, current alderman Roberto Maldonado, and county commissioner Robert Steele. And he did so as he bought up a number of foreclosed and low-cost properties that he apparently intended to fix up and flip.

But when P.G. died in December 2010, he left a trail of troubled buildings across the west side.

One, at 4700 W. Madison, is on the city's list of "Drug and Gang Buildings," where criminal activity has allegedly taken place. Another, at 2715 W. Madison, was the site of a nightclub until it was shuttered after a shooting there in April.

The one pictured below, at 209 S. Whipple, is in rough shape. McCaffrey says city inspectors have stopped by but never heard from an owner.

209 S. Whipple

P.G. also owned this storefront on a weedy stretch of West Fifth Avenue:

2945 W. 5th Avenue

"That's been like that for a minute now," says Donald, a neighbor. "It used to be a candy store. It used to be all kinds of things."

Now it's just empty. The old store sign is still visible under a fading coat of white paint: Poo Poos.

The city says that building will soon get a visit from the wreckers.

Unfortunately, there are more—many more.

Perhaps it's time for a wider-scale art project.

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