Sunday, November 13th, 2011
Children at Lathrop Homes
Cities are about people, not just buildings. So you can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.
Northside Chicago residents will get a chance to see if they measure up to the progressivist urban ideals they espouse as one of the last and perhaps one of the most important of the public housing project redevelopments in the CHA’s Plan for Transformation gets underway soon at the Julia C. Lathrop Homes on the north side.
This is perhaps a bit more of a neighborhood project than I’d normally write about. But this is my neighborhood, and the people who live in Lathrop are my neighbors. And I believe the particulars of this project make it important to the city and, if done right, potentially an example for the nation.
The Lathrop redevelopment project has been controversial for some time, but I won’t rehash that history here. Instead, I’ll just say that the CHA selected a consortium called Lathrop Community Partners last fall to lead the development of a master plan for redevelopment
The team has been conducting preliminary interviews, and the official public process is about to begin with a public meeting on Wednesday, November 16th at 6:00pm at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen Ave. at Wellington, across the street from Hamlin Park. Anyone is welcome to attend. Please spread the word especially to those you might know who live in the neighborhood. You can find out more about what’s going on at the Lathrop Community Partners website.
What Are the Lathrop Homes?
The Julia C. Lathrop Homes is a public housing project at the intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourn with 900 units, though only about 200 of them are currently occupied. But it’s a housing project unlike any other in the city. When you think public housing in Chicago, you think of the post-War urban renewal high rises like Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes.
Buildings at Lathrop Homes
But Lathrop is completely different. It’s a low rise development constructed under the auspices of the New Deal’s WPA in 1937. The construction quality and architecture are of a much higher order than anything constructed post-War. Frankly, the exterior looks better than some new condo buildings. The WPA built a number of these around the country and they form a unique and historic collection of developments. Alas, not all have survived, and ensuring that Lathrop doesn’t share the same fate as the likes of the partially demolished Lockfield Gardens in Indianapolis is one of the issues at stake in the matter.
Lathrop Homes, aerial view of site
Lathrop is also different in that it was for quite some time an all-white project. Today Lathrop Homes is extremely diverse, including white, black, and Latino residents, making this perhaps the only project in Chicago with a trans-racial history and present. Megan Cottrell wrote about this history in more detail, and actually went on a tour with some former residents from the old days of Lathrop, who decided to knock on the door of the unit they used to live in. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
Problems, or Lack Thereof, With Lathrop
Given the vastly different history of Lathrop from other CHA developments, it’s unsurprising that it had a different trajectory. While not immune from problems, Lathrop has not become the byword for dysfunction and criminality that the high rises did. Everybody knew the Cabrini Green had to go. It would simply never have been possible to make that project function. But Lathrop is different. It made me nervous to drive through Cabrini in broad daylight, but I’d walk around Lathrop at night even before it was depopulated by the CHA. The types of crime you’d hear associated with Lathrop is more on the order of tagging than hard core gangbanging.
Most importantly, there doesn’t appear to be any real community opposition to Lathrop or public housing generally in the neighborhood. I know people who’ve owned upscale condos near there and never once have I heard a complaint about Lathrop.
In short, while there are problems I’ll address in a moment, unlike with other CHA projects, there’s no burning platform for scraping Lathrop and starting over, nor for any displacement of existing residents. Quite the opposite in fact. There are many reasons to want to both preserve Lathrop architecturally and as a significant source of public housing units in the area.
So what are the problems.
Firstly, the buildings are old and in need of repair. Also, while Lathrop was one of the better projects, we know that warehousing exclusively poor people in a high density setting isn’t a very good idea. And Lathrop has traditionally been in an isolated spot along the Chicago River in an industrial corridor without good connections to the surrounding areas, a problem that persists today. It’s difficult to even say what neighborhood it is officially in. The project is split across two city wards, for example.
Intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourne
Beyond Lathrop itself, the Clyborn corridor is an unmitigated disaster, save possibly from a purely commercial perspective. It’s generally low grade strip malls of the early Schaumburgian variety, giving it a grade of F- on sustainability and basic urbanity. Obviously better advantage needs to be taken of the Chicago River. The area is a huge barrier to east-west bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The six way intersection at Diversey/Damen/Clybourn is one of the most pathetic in the city. It is under-served by transit. Only a fool waits for the #50-Damen anymore without checking bus tracker first. This area doesn’t even function well for the yuppie condo owners who don’t live in Lathrop. And yikes, how many different kinds of street lights can you spot in that one photo? That alone shows the extent to which this area has been an afterthought by the city.
The Lathrop Opportunity
The unique history, condition, and setting of Lathrop provides what I believe is a unique opportunity for Chicago to do something truly special. If there’s community and city leadership will to make it happen, we could stack up a truly staggering list of wins here:
- Nearly zero displacement of residents. Supposedly 400 units of traditional public housing are penciled in for Lathrop, and the city has guaranteed a unit to anyone who is a current or recent resident dating back to 1999 who meets some qualifications. The devil will be in the details here for sure, particularly on matters like “lease compliance” requirements. Certainly no one should be compelled to stay nor be blamed if they take the money and run, but unlike with previous CHA redevelopments, there’s simply no excuse not to make sure the vast bulk of residents end up back in the new Lathrop. In fact, given Lathrop’s depopulated state, there should actually be a net increase in public housing residents when the project is completed.
- Creating a true mixed income, diverse, cohesive neighborhood in a city that desperately needs it. It’s no secret that Chicago is heavily segregated and balkanized. The pure gentrification wave that was sweeping through the area crashed with the housing market, leaving the Hamlin Park area bordering Lathrop as an interesting pocket of diversity, with an eclectic mix of pretty much at least one of everybody. It reminds me a bit of my old neighborhood in South Evanston – and in a good way. Because of the diverse surroundings and general lack of suspicion of Lathrop by non-residents, I believe there’s an opportunity to achieve something very special here. It won’t be easy, and the process will be as important to achieving it as the master plan itself, but the potential is there.
- Preservation of the historic buildings. Again, this is a much higher grade of architecture than typical public housing, and these buildings are historic. Wholesale demolitions are not warranted here.
- Leading edge sustainability. In addition to energy efficiency upgrades and such in the buildings, this ought to be Chicago’s first actual LEED-ND development actually built. There’s no reason not to do this, and again the neighborhood desperately needs improvement in this arena.
- Reconnecting with the Chicago River. Helping to build another major link in reclaiming that waterway for people.
- Enhancing the boulevard system. Another unique aspect of this project is that it is on the Chicago Boulevard system. Both Logan Blvd and Diversey are technically part of that, though neither seems it. The difference between Logan east and west of the Kennedy is profound. The entries in the NETWORK RESET competition to re-envision the boulevards have to contain good ideas that could be adopted into the Lathrop plan. This redevelopment could also be the first phase in the next generation boulevard treatment.
- Improving multi-modal access and connectivity. Damen Ave. is already a major north-south bike route, but is still less than bike friendly in my view. East-west connectivity from Logan Square and beyond into the lakefront and adjacent neighborhoods is poor. I noted the extremely pedestrian-hostile six way intersection and less than idea transit service in the area. All of these need addressed. This is of particular importance for the Lathrop residents who are isolated by the poor design features of the area, as well as the commercial district that does not well serve the needs of anyone without a car.
- Starting the healing process of the Clybourn corridor. There’s no reason more neighborhood serving retail and other institutions can’t be included in the mix.
I don’t see any of these as mutually exclusive. Funding may be challenging for some of the capital elements, but this is a multi-year process and there’s no reason everything has to have money in the bank on day zero.
It won’t be easy, but if Chicago can pull this off, it would not only be the best outcome for the neighbors, Lathrop residents and non, but would create an national showpiece and demonstration of what a mixed income area could be and how to provide affordable and public housing in a way that’s great for everyone involved.
How You Can Help
I’d encourage everyone, especially those who live in the area, to attend this meeting or otherwise get involved and be a strong advocate for the right outcome.
I believe strong, collaborative, and positive neighborhood involvement is critical to getting the right project here. I think city leadership through the aldermen in the area legitimately wants a good outcome. So I don’t believe it would be productive to assume “the fix is in” or the other various conspiracy theories people often love to tout when it comes to local government. I personally don’t believe that to be the case, though obviously different parties have different perspectives on what should be done.
On the other hand, like Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” I’ve got concerns myself. For example, that the CHA will impose templated elements, particularly around housing mix, based on the rest of the transformation program in a place that is very different from other CHA properties and in an environment where market conditions have changed radically. Everything I have heard to date suggests that the CHA plans to shoot for their typical 1/3 public housing, 1/3 affordable housing, and 1/3 market rate housing mix. But with 46% of all Chicago mortgages underwater, we need more “market rate” condos like a hole in the head. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a significantly increased public housing component here.
Also, the CHA has already deferred this kickoff meeting for six months. They basically forced everyone who lived north of Diversey to move south of it. And they planned to seal off the north part of Lathrop with a huge 8-foot perimeter wall built right to the sidewalk. Not neighborhood friendly to say the least. So there are reasons to be concerned about what’s going on.
That’s why I plan to be involved, to make sure there are strong voices advocating for the right outcome for our neighborhood. I hope you will be too.