“We lost a lot of people last year,” said Christopher Curtis, 36, a lifelong resident of the Harold Ickes Homes. “You don’t ever hear about it in the news.”
Curtis knows the development—and its residents—well. Most days, he might be found coaching an Ickes youth soccer team, rounding up residents on a school bus for neighborhood police meetings or fretting endlessly about how the newcomers from demolished buildings have made “The Ickes” one of the most dangerous public housing developments in Chicago.
He was reminded of the February 2005 triple-homicide, conducted in broad daylight, on the Ickes basketball court that looks onto State Street.
And the problems didn’t start last year.
In 2004, there was Tina Noel—a resident of the South Side’s Lowden-Trumbull Homes development and known to many in the Ickes Homes as “Tall Tina.” She worked as a janitor at the Ickes Homes, frightened to take on work orders in the building where she was eventually gunned down.
In 2002, Rita Haskins, a 10-year-old girl on the youth soccer team Curtis coaches, was killed in a building lobby as residents checked their mail in the early afternoon. Gunfire broke out in the adjoining stairways—violence that residents say resulted from gangs sparring for territory. “The bullet bounced off the mailbox and ricocheted,” Curtis said. “Rita had her arms on back of her head.
Curtis recounted the events, deliberate and slow, going over the same incident several times to make sure he’d been understood. He describes the current Ickes in terms crisp and resigned. He’s had a lot of practice. “I’ve been saying it for years: ‘We in a hole down here,'” he said. “You can’t mix new people in a hole.”
As insider slang, “The hole” doesn’t do justice to Curtis’ apartment, a boxed-in oasis of bright linoleum floors, vacuum-cleaned sofas and walls so shiny they belie their cinderblock origin. But it may describe the hallways that lay immediately outside.
“You have to live it to even believe it. You got addicts using whatever it is. You got apartments where they breed. [The lobby] is like a bathroom. They stand right upside the wall,” said Idella Ross, vice president of the residents’ local advisory council at Ickes. “Anything can come in; anything can leave. I tell my neighbors, ‘Ickes is no place for decent people to live anymore.'”
The Chicago Housing Authority has used the Ickes and Dearborn Homes as “relocation resources” to house residents whose buildings were rehabbed or demolished as a part of its “Plan for Transformation,” according to the CHA’s Web site. Many displaced residents have also been relocated to the LeClaire Courts Extension development.
But Curtis, Ross and other longtime residents of these developments say the influx of newcomers—some relocated despite prior lease violations or eviction notices—and drug dealing markets from the demolished high-rises have led to years of violent crime and rampant drug dealing near their homes.
While the Ickes, LeClaire and Dearborn developments comprise just 10 percent of the CHA’s occupied family units, during a nine-month period ending Aug. 2, more than a quarter of the crime reports on CHA property occurred at those developments.
“Ickes is a dumping grounds,” said Ross, a 20-year resident of the development, which runs along State Street from Cermak Road to 25th Street. “I’ve never been as frustrated and humiliated in my life. I didn’t want to teach my kids to fight. But I got no choice.”
The average annual income at the Ickes is just $6,687, the lowest of any CHA family development with more than 10 occupied units and slightly more than half the average annual income for all family developments—which is $12,752.
CHA Board Chairman Sharon Gist Gilliam said the authority has a strategy for breaking up the concentration of poverty at Ickes but admits that relocated residents to Ickes and Dearborn tend to be the very poor. “People who are being relocated into Dearborn/Ickes as a temporary relocation resource are more likely to be the nonworking and, therefore, lowest income. Those who are working and, therefore, have a higher income are more likely to have temporary Section 8,” she said.
The most recent CHA data show that just 352 of the Ickes’ 740 units are occupied. But, on a wilting July afternoon, a walk down State Street in front of the tan brick Ickes buildings revealed a lively scene. The sidewalks and pathways bustled with foot traffic, the basketball courts were packed with shirtless men competing in a summer tournament, and a steady stream of cars rolled through the streets that crisscross Ickes.
A closer look revealed some of the problems that Ross, Curtis and other Ickes residents have endured.
While walking in front of the Ickes buildings, approaching men were heard shouting “Bottom Line” and “Rawhide”—which are lines or “product brands” of heroin sold at different buildings in the Ickes.
For years, drug markets have flourished at the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens developments located along a two-and-a-half mile stretch of State Street a few blocks south of the Ickes Homes. But those developments have been almost completely demolished over the past several years. At their height, Taylor and Stateway comprised a total of 36 buildings. Today, just one building in each development remains.
This summer, a self-identified drug dealer told Chicago Public Radio that, with the collapse of their drug markets in the Stateway development, much of the drug activity has moved north to the Dearborn and Ickes.
At Ickes, he claimed he makes more than 1,500 sales daily. “I didn’t have nowhere else to hustle. I had to go with the flow, follow. That’s what everybody do. Come and pay to get in the building and get down and hustle,” he told Chicago Public Radio.
But neither Curtis nor Ross need a radio to tell them Ickes has absorbed the drug market from demolished buildings along the so-called State Street Corridor.
The stoop of Curtis’ building spills directly onto State Street making for a quick entrance and exit for drug clients. “People get out of cabs on State Street, run into the buildings and jump back into the cabs,” Curtis said.
Before breakfast or after dinner, Ross can open her doorway to a hallway of men and women, prone on the floor in a drugged-up stupor.
A visit to the monthly Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meeting for beat 0134 reveals even more. Beat 0134 is a rapidly changing slice of the area south of the Loop and east of Chinatown. The beat covers the honeycomb condo towers of the renovated, mixed-income Hilliard Homes as well as a slew of new swank restaurants and condos. But much of the meetings tend to be driven by public housing residents, focusing on the crimes that take place in and around the tan brick Ickes buildings.
Both Curtis and Ross are regulars at the beat meetings. Curtis goes building to building on a rented school bus to bring Ickes residents and seniors from the Hilliard Homes. Curtis sits in the center, stutters when he’s nervous and, even at 36, could still pass as a lanky teenager in his blue tenant-patrol windbreaker. Ross is a formidable, seen-it-all grandmother whose gravel boom can easily be heard from her back-row perch.
At the July meeting, Curtis told beat officers about teenagers who cruise around on scooters at high speeds and about youths who shoot at him with BB guns from the upper windows. Confusion over dates and times ensues. When asked by the officer, Curtis thinks for a while and grasps his sore thigh where he was shot, “I guess it happened last night.”
Ross interrupted the exchange, offering her own opinion of what’s gone wrong at Ickes. “Our problem is that we are surrounded by hypes,” said Ross, referring to drug addicts in her hallway. She worries that they might get her evicted just for trying to keep cool.
Summer heat transpires through the concrete apartment and sticks to the wall like sweat. Periodically, the front door has to be opened just to get a breeze. Ross worries that some addicts might push their way past her doorjamb. “Outside in the hallway is a bunch of hypes,” she told the police officers. “I’m worried one day management is going to say: ‘You got someone on drugs in your apartment. That’s one strike. You’re out.'”
Police officers suggested that she keep her door shut and locked, to which Ross calmly responded: “You all just work there. We live here.”
From Nov. 2, 2005, through Aug. 2, 2006, there were 1,551 reports of narcotics activity on CHA property, according to www.chicagocrime.org. But nearly 30 percent of those incidents occurred at either the Ickes or Dearborn—which is more than three times those developments share of all occupied CHA family units. The Web site, maintained by Adrian Holovaty, logs crime reports culled from the Chicago Police Department’s online utility known as “Citizen I-Cam.”
The Chicago Police Department failed to supply the number of crimes reported at each CHA development, information requested by The Chicago Reporter in June.
First District Commander James Keating says police officers have a daily presence at the Ickes. Officers have walked the buildings’ stairwells and floors from top to bottom, an action known as “walk-downs,” and cited hundreds of visitors for trespassing. Keating says he often visits Ickes. “I want my officers to see me there,” he said. “We do a total of 110 walk-downs of the buildings each week.”
From Nov. 2, 2005, through Aug. 2, 2006, police officers made 548 criminal trespass arrests at Ickes—compared to just nine made at Altgeld Gardens, a Far South Side development more than double the size of Ickes.
Ross applauds the work of police officers patrolling the Ickes buildings, especially those who typically work the area. “They steady rolling,” she said. “The ones from the 1st District: they on it. I got to give them credit for it.”
Law enforcement officers have helped remove some problem tenants. In July, Cook County Sheriff’s deputies placed couches and the personal effects of a dozen families on the State Street sidewalk. Seven were evicted for lease violations and five for nonpayment of rent.
But Ross said the problems and the problem tenants are still there.
Word of the troubles at Ickes, LeClaire and Dearborn has spread throughout the CHA.
Even outside these developments, there’s a widely shared perception that these are bad places to end up. “When management try to get you to shape up, they say, ‘I’ll send you to the Ickes,'” said one Altgeld Gardens resident.
Gail Singleton, president of the local advisory council at Dearborn, says she knows her development has acquired a certain down-at-the-heels reputation. She believes that just 10 families have been relocated to Dearborn. “A lot of people refused to come to Dearborn,” Singleton said. “I believe, in most cases, most residents relocated within their own developments, if they were not totally demolished.”
In June, hundreds of officers, including federal agents and Chicago police officers, conducted a massive predawn raid on the Dearborn in search of more than two dozen individuals with links to the Mickey Cobras street gang. Federal officials allege that the gang offered several brands of heroin at the development.
The sting revealed a sophisticated drug operation rooted in a longstanding gang, hardly the sort of scenario that could be pinned on a dozen new families.
Between Nov. 2, 2005, and Aug. 2, 2006, some 705 crimes were reported at the Dearborn Homes—more than three times the amount at Altgeld Gardens, a development with more than twice as many families.
The same paradox exists at LeClaire, a development about a mile north of Midway airport off of Cicero Avenue.
In 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development singled out LeClaire for praise as the lowest-crime development in the CHA. Now, like Ickes and Dearborn, it has a reputation as housing of last resort. Though the low-rise development abounds with boarded-up walls and padlocked doors, LeClaire resident Jackie Norwood says most nights the place hums with illegal activity, including open-air drug dealing.
From November 2005 to August 2006, there were 23 crime reports of battery, 23 reports of criminal trespass and 13 reports of narcotics activity. LeClaire is home to less than 150 families.
Norwood places much of the blame squarely at the feet of some of her newest neighbors—problem residents from other developments, some of whom the CHA has tried to evict. “There’s no screening. You don’t know who’s moving in. They don’t tell you,” said Norwood, a LeClaire resident for more than two decades.
Norwood’s suspicions are backed by a 2005 report by former Cook County Public Defender Rita Fry, the CHA’s court-appointed, independent monitor. “Some residents who are relocated –¦ may be under review for eviction due to failure to be lease compliant. When they are relocated, often CHA does not follow up on the eviction process,” Fry wrote in her report.
Part of the problem is the eviction process. A juried trial for eviction can take 30 to 45 days, said Robert Whitfield, lead lawyer for public housing’s resident councils.
Whitfield said the backlog in eviction cases is something the CHA has privately acknowledged as a problem and promised to provide more lawyers to process evictions.
But, in an interview with the Reporter, board chair Gist Gilliam said, “I don’t know that allocating more lawyers is necessarily the answer to it [as much as] making sure that CHA staff and property management follow through.”
The issue of violent crime stemming from residents who should’ve been evicted comes up often at Central Advisory Council meetings, sources said.
In 2006, the CHA projected that 810 people would move out of teardowns with 500 of them relocating to other public housing developments. The CHA failed to supply a breakdown showing the number of families relocating to each development—information that was requested through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act by the Reporter in June.
The CHA also declined to provide data on how many of these residents were lease compliant. “Lease compliancy is an ongoing state and not a point-in-time status. In addition, not all families have gone through screening for mixed-income housing,” the agency stated in its response to the Reporter’s inquiry.
But the stories connecting violence and relocation are not new.
In a joint investigation, Residents’ Journal and the Reporter found several murders that were linked to disputes over shrinking drug territory in CHA developments slated for demolition.
The publications also found that the rate of gunshot deaths in CHA developments nearly doubled between 1999 and 2003. And, while murders had fallen citywide, they had increased in Englewood and two other neighborhoods where large numbers of former CHA residents were relocated.
In addition, for years, the CHA’s independent monitors have identified violence and drug dealing as unfortunate by-products of the CHA’s relocation process.
In 2002, Thomas Sullivan, the CHA’s first independent monitor, noted that residents moving from a development associated with rival gangs to the gangs operating in their new developments could cause “serious dangers” for the relocating families. “This situation is especially marked in the Robert Taylor Homes where residents fear moving to Dearborn or Ickes because of gang affiliations,” Sullivan wrote.
In 2005, Fry reiterated concerns about clashing gang affiliations. “Most important, however, is the legitimate concern of CHA residents about the location of make-readies, and the potential for violence in the event that residents are relocated to areas where gang violence may interfere with their day-to-day lives,” she wrote.
Sullivan implored the CHA to be more vigilant in addressing the issues, to consider potential gang conflicts when relocating residents and to expand the relocation options available to residents.
“We certainly are following up on the various failings [Fry] may have brought to light,” Gist Gilliam said. “I suspect that one can find individual incidences of just about any and every possible occurrence. So I don’t know the particulars attorney Fry was referring to but I don’t doubt there have been some instances of that when you are dealing with as many people as we’re dealing with.”
When they tell others about the troubles in their developments, some CHA residents say they’re often asked: “Why not just leave?”
Many residents have left. During the seven years of the CHA’s so-called “Plan for Transformation,” Dearborn, Ickes and LeClaire have lost hundreds of residents.
At LeClaire, the development has witnessed a precipitous decline, from having 270 of its 300 units occupied in 1999 to 144 in 2006.
In the public comments section of the CHA’s 2006 Annual Report, the Central Advisory Council warned: “The CAC estimates that less than 75 families will be in occupancy [at LeClaire] in 2008. –¦ We believe that this declining occupancy is not conducive to the safety and welfare of families still living on site, and could result in increased vandalism, crime, higher security and maintenance costs.”
LeClaire resident Tanisha Tyler has adult children living in the suburbs pleading with her to leave the development and move in with them. She knows that would bring her safety but, perhaps, not peace. “They want us to leave here,” said Tyler, who asked the Reporter to use a pseudonym for fear of retribution from problem tenants. “I’m staying put.”
Regardless of the violence, she feels leaving would further reduce the number of people at LeClaire and increase the number of boarded-up units. She feels that would be just one more reason for the CHA to tear down LeClaire altogether.
Dearborn has seen its numbers slip from 603 occupied units in 1999 to 338 in 2006. And, at Ickes, from 1999 to 2002, the number of occupied units slid from 823 to 502. At the latest count in 2006, there were just 352 occupied units.
Curtis knows that the Ickes have problems he can’t solve by himself. But some of his neighbors—people he trusts to keep the flow of gangs and drug dealers to manageable levels—will be leaving soon. And, with strangers moving in to replace them, Curtis said his building might become too dangerous for him to stay.
He’s not sure if we will stay at Ickes after his building is remodeled. But Ross said she can’t go. Her daughter is in an apartment three floors up, and Ross wouldn’t dream of living away from her grandchildren. “My heart is not made of stone,” she said.
Instead, her choice is to hunker down in her corner apartment seizing the moments to teach her grandchildren right from wrong. Ross said she’ll sit on a sofa, turn off the TV, take a grandchild into her lap, and turn his face toward the window from where she has seen drug dealers perched on bench backs and lumbering men and women whose heads roll on their shoulders in a narcotic slumber. “I tell them: This is what happens when you in the ‘in’ crowd,” she said. “I say to them, ‘You don’t have to choose to live it. You can shoot for the moon, and, even if you miss, you’ll be laying in the stars.’
“Wherever you live, it’s got nothing to do with who you turn out to be,” Ross said. “You can grow up in the projects and be the biggest star, or you can grow up in the projects and be a nothing.”
Contributing: Nicole Clark and Sara Semelka. Hannah Ferdinand, Ulysses Floyd and Angelica Herrera helped research this article.