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Waiting for the stadium: a walk on the west side

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The usual picture of the west side is a desolate, empty one. It's supposed to be an ugly, terrible place.

If it's not the stark black-and-white image of the bombed-out buildings in the aftermath of the riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder almost 20 years ago, then there are scores of more common anecdotes about the trials of Bulls and Blackhawks fans. There are all sorts of stories about what happens to cars not parked in the lots of the Chicago Stadium, the cavernous hall where both teams play. And even the supposedly well-watched lots have generated a tale of woe or two.

James Tate, an unassuming but clearly physically powerful man who has worked security in and around the area, says some of the stories are true.

"People here are poor," he said. "Some people around here can't even afford a pair of shoes."

Tate has worked for the nearby Henry Horner public housing project, the subsidized Damen Courts Apartments, for the Stadium itself, and also for Saint Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"When people are hungry, when people can't find jobs," he explained, "then clearly vandalism is high. It's simple economics."

More complex economics are now assaulting the west side, an almost entirely black enclave of stately but often run-down homes with only a sprinkling of businesses. The Chicago Bears, increasingly uncomfortable with their lakefront home at Soldier Field, have been making threats of a suburban jump unless Chicago, and especially Mayor Harold Washington, can accommodate the Super Bowl football franchise in a new, more profitable stadium.

"This is my community," said Mary Palmer, an older woman wearing thick eyeglasses. She has lived on the west side her entire life. "No matter what anybody else says, it's my community."

The Bears and the city's Department of Planning have looked at a number of sites, including at least another one with a lake view, but more and more, their sights are set on Palmer's neighborhood. The area currently under review encompasses Damen Avenue on the west, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Paulina Street on the east, and Washington Boulevard on the north.

"Everybody agrees the west side is prime real estate," said Clarence Jackson, a young resident of Henry Horner. "Great public transportation, real close to the Loop. They always make it sound like the west side is a shithole, but if that was true, nobody would want it."

Some plans have called for development to go as far north as Lake Street, which would erase Henry Horner from the map; some have gone a little further south to the Dan Ryan Expressway and others have dared to dream as far west as Pulaski Avenue. Nothing is certain, nothing is permanent, and west-side residents know that may well mean their future.

"A new stadium would be real nice," said Tate, "but not over here. All it's going to do is take houses, schools, and churches. Unfortunately, I feel they're going to do it no matter what people say. You know, money talks and bullshit walks."

Particularly on Jackson and Adams, residents are inviting money in but asking the Bears to stay out by displaying large posters in their windows that say: "Redevelopment YES; West Side Stadium NO."

Carlee Sneed, a west-sider since 1945, realizes her protest may be futile. "I don't want to move, but I don't believe their promises that we'll be able to stay," she said. "Most of the residents in my building, we're ladies, and we know we can't do anything about it if it happens. It still don't make it right, though."

The area currently under study seems to resemble the stereotype on a first glance. It's flat, with the Chicago Stadium like an alien craft in the middle of nowhere. The off-season parking lots are barren and surrounded by mostly grassy empty lots.

But first impressions can be deceiving: Inside the designated square are 330 families that will need relocation. Monroe and Adams streets are almost entirely residential, with clusters of buildings that are shabby but clearly inhabited.

Madison has an insurance company and a currency exchange. On slanting Ogden Avenue the American Limb and Orthopedic Company does business. The corner of Jackson and Paulina, just off the elevated train tracks, hosts Mrazek & Sons Funeral Home, its red awning worn. East of Paulina, liquor stores abound on the side streets: Red Dot Liquors, Z & N Liquors, Clearview Liquors, Liquor Mart, Kaplan's Cut Rate Liquor.

"Since 1968, that's the only industry that's had redevelopment," Tate said sadly.

At Paulina and Washington, scaffolding surrounds a large graystone. Going west on Washington, the Henry Horner homes fill the blocks--Hermitage to Wood, Honore to Winchester, and so on.

On Washington and Damen, the Revival Center Church of God in Christ holds outdoor meetings with a full band and a working PA system. Across the street, Saint Stephen's fills up with a steady stream of good-looking parishioners dressed to the nines.

Malcolm X College, a glimmering, modern member of the City Colleges of Chicago, sits on the corner of Jackson and Damen. Across Jackson there are more parking lots; across Damen, West Point Plaza, a secure, monolithic senior citizen building which controls the landscape.

The Damen Courts Apartments are also there, little modern duplexes with Weber kettles on their balconies. These are privately owned. Rumors abound that upscale blacks have begun to move into Damen Courts, which many of the residents find unsettling.

"It's supposed to be subsidized housing for neighborhood residents," protested James Tate. "They're just out here getting a good look at the real estate." In fact, the parking lot at Damen Courts sports two city cars.

"If you really look around here, you'll see how false the argument for a Bears stadium really is," Jackson said. "Check it out: They're saying the Bears stadium is going to bring in development and then suddenly everybody's got a job. But that's not true. They said the same damn thing about the [Chicago] Stadium that's here now, and if you look around, the worst part of the west side is right around the [Chicago] Stadium. I mean, the Stadium hasn't done shit."

Indeed, the worst surrounds the home of the Bulls and Blackhawks. The contrast is to the west of the designated area, where there is a bumper crop of housing, although much of it aches for repair.

Madison is particularly run-down and neglected, but Warren Boulevard, newly designated Nancy B. Jefferson Boulevard after the neighborhood's well-known and tireless activist, is dotted with poor but nicely manicured little homes. On a Sunday afternoon, families are sitting on their front porches and watching the street traffic. Two women are talking across a fence. Kids are tossing a football on the street. A basketball lies idle.

Still, the argument can be made that the Bears and the city are going to use an area that is freely described on the west side as a "bad neighborhood."

But at Saint Stephen's, 27-year-old parishioner Titus Simms, like Clarence Jackson, has doubts about what could happen here if the Bears move in.

"If it's going to run people out, then I say no to a Bears stadium," he explained. "Politicians, you know, a lot of times they make promises but it don't make it true. Look at what happened in Lincoln Park, when they did all that building there and they told the Puerto Ricans who were there that they could come back. Well, hey, nobody could afford to. And look at what happened with Circle [the University of Illinois at Chicago]. You know, there were blacks and Italian people living all over that place, and now, there's nobody. Same thing happened with the University of Chicago. I mean, what makes the Bears stadium so different?"

Sandra Banchu, another parishioner at Saint Stephen's and a member of the neighborhood's steering committee on the stadium, thinks it is different, which is why she supports the idea.

"There are only about three or four houses that are going to be affected," she said. "If the Bears give them money, then it's a good deal for those people. The west side needs money bad. It's been neglected for too long and this is a good move. I'm for it. I'd hate to see that kind of money go anywhere else; we need it."

James Jackson, another Henry Horner resident, doesn't argue the need for money, but he doubts the west side will actually get it.

"You know those people coming to see the Bears are going to be bringing everything with them; hell, even if we had a something to sell them, they wouldn't buy it from us," he said. "Besides, man, we're not going to be here by the time that thing goes up. We'll be long gone; mark my words."

Up the street, at Virginia Foods, Jimmy Abdullah, a Palestinian who works behind the counter, agrees. "I don't live around here, so the Bears thing is for the people here to decide," he said. "For us it'll be the same thing. We're a small neighborhood store. Fans won't come here. This is for residents. I suppose they'll have to do something for the fans, probably build something that will drive us out of business. I don't know. I don't know what to think. I think most of my customers, they don't want it, but I don't know."

Abdullah's store is small and cramped. There are hand-lettered signs everywhere advertising store policies: "No exchanges, no refunds"; "Sorry, we do not take food stamps"; "Please, do not ask for credit"; but the signs' message goes further--this is a poor, dependent area.

Banchu isn't the only one who thinks the Bears could be the kind of good neighbors the west side needs. Clarence Battle, a young family man who was out mowing his lawn on Sunday morning, believes the stadium could be a real boon to the area.

"If the Bears come, services from the city will improve, including police protection," he said. "People will move in here that wouldn't ordinarily move in."

Battle knows that could mean white people, but he's up for the change. "Sometimes that's what it takes to get services," he explained. "Look, if we end up having to go, well, then we'll have to go. I imagine that the people that lived where the Dan Ryan is now felt the same way. I haven't really thought about moving. I understand this is problematic. If the Bears don't put in some good low-income housing around here, some people are out for good. I'd love to move to Oak Park, but I don't know if I can afford it."

Davis, an elderly man with blue, bloodshot eyes and white cotton hair, is sitting on a stoop on Washington nursing a beer and says Battle's got it all wrong. "Take it to the suburbs!" he declared. "They got all the land out there that they need without tearing anything down. Hell, man, we can't move to the suburbs but they can move the stadium out there."

James Tate, the security guard, believes the stadium is an inevitability, something that was planned long ago. He'd like to think there's a silver lining. "I've never been to a Bears game," he said. "Maybe I'll go when they're here."

"You don't make enough money to buy a ticket," Davis yelled.

"True." Tate chuckles.

"Let 'em take it to where the people are that go to the games!" Davis continued. "See what happens, then. Now you try to move to the suburbs and they burn crosses on your lawn. If they tear down what we got here, where are we going to go--Elmhurst? River Grove? Cicero? That's nuts."

Some, however, think that's precisely what the plan is: "They want to move the blacks out of the city to integrate the suburbs," said Tate.

"But there's no decent transportation out there, no drainage, the houses are made of cardboard!" Davis exclaimed.

"They want all of us to leave so they can tear it all down and build it up for white folks," Mary Palmer said. "That way they'll have a straight line downtown where they all work. I bet they make condominiums out of the projects."

"In 15 years, this'll be all white," predicted Tate. "All us blacks will be in the suburbs."

"That's crazy!" yelled Davis, irritated and amazed. "We don't have no place to go."

"You know what's really sad about all this?" asked Tate.

Palmer finished his thought: "Harold."

"That's right. This is Chicago, we got the first black mayor . . ."

"And he wants the fool stadium," Palmer said.

"But if they put the Bears in and the blacks move out, with white people here, who's going to vote for Harold?"

Davis can't take it anymore: he packs up his beer and heads inside. He is in a bitchy mood, ready to pick a fight with anyone. Walking toward his door, he mutters, "That's crazy . . . just crazy . . ."

"The community is having a lot of input. If the community sticks together, I really think we could get something out of this," Banchu, a lifelong west-sider, said. The steering committee to which she belongs has 15 community organizations as members, including the 27th Ward Chamber of Commerce and newly elected alderman Sheneather Butler's ward office.

"If people can get jobs . . . we really need jobs. This area's so depressed, no one's working," she said. "I realize there could be problems. At Presidential Towers, I know it's true, the residents there didn't get their jobs, but whatever we get out of the deal, it's gotta be better than what we have now."

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

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