Raquel Garcia, her husband, and their four-year old daughter moved to Pilsen in 2012 to be closer to their jobs at local elementary schools. They were in search of an affordable place to live, but more importantly, a place they could put down roots and be surrounded by a like-minded community. “This is the first time we have stayed anywhere for more than two or three years…I had moved around the city so much growing up,” she said in an interview. “Coming to Pilsen, for the first time, I felt in community. It’s been like coming home.”
Last week, the Institute for Housing Studies (IHS) at DePaul University released its newest annual report on the state of rental housing in Cook County. While the report shows small changes within individual neighborhoods, the overall trends across the county are largely unchanged from previous years: less traditionally affordable housing, high levels of cost-burdened tenants, and a large gap between the supply and demand of affordable housing.
Everyone deserves a place to call home. The sentiment—drawn from this issue’s opening essay—is simple, and we all know it’s easier said than done. But given the roadblocks, it’s worth restating—this powerful right forms the backbone for this year’s Housing Issue. In a year in which rent control has been hotly debated in the city, in which more and more Chicagoans are coming to believe that housing is a basic human right, we at the Weekly are thinking about the fact that this issue has always been about homes as much as housing. Home is not just the built landscape and physical places in which people dwell, but the ways in which they find comfort, permanence, and community in those places. In the struggle to ensure decent, affordable housing for everyone in our city, how do we make sure that they can also become homes—and that the homes people make in them can be sustained? This year, these questions have led us from Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side to the future Imani Village in Roseland and everywhere in between: the itinerant, years-long journeys that result in steadfast birthplaces of poetry; the ongoing battles fought over gentrification and self-determination; the homes we lost of which only histories, memories, and excavations remain. Although, as rents keep getting raised and the threat of eviction must be prepared for, these intractable questions are sure to endure, the stories in this issue testify to a promising range of answers, and to the answers yet to come.
In 2010, when the last families were moving out of Cabrini-Green and the last tower was being prepared for demolition, Ben Austen, a magazine writer and South Side native, began researching this end of an era for a Harper’s article. In a recent interview with the Weekly, Austen reflected that the more he dug in, he realized that this was “not just an important Chicago story but one of the most important Chicago stories…the whole history of the city exists within it.” Seven years and hundreds of interviews later, Austen would document that history in a deeper way with High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.
Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Greater Grand Crossing, an unassuming house boasts a rich legacy. From 1953 to 1994, the house located at 7428 South Evans Avenue was home to none other than Gwendolyn Brooks, the Topeka-born, South Side-raised poet, author, and teacher. Built in 1890, today the house remains modest but well-kept by its current owner. Its one-and-a-half story gray and white exterior is a welcome change among the predominantly brick two-story houses surrounding it. Though the house is far from flashy, a closer look reveals endearing details, such as the delicate white latticework tucked below its welcoming veranda. Its simple structure is transformed into something truly remarkable when one imagines the world of creative expression it held for the four decades that Brooks lived there—and what it took to get there.
They don’t want to give agendas to the community. They don’t want to give us anything,” reflected Anderson Chávez, a youth organizer with the Pilsen Alliance. The “they” Chávez was referring to is the Pilsen Land Use Committee (PLUC), an advisory committee set up by Alderman Daniel Solis (25th) to advise him on large-scale developments seeking a home in Pilsen. PLUC is intended to represent the community voice in decision making and uphold an only-in-Pilsen mandate of twenty-one percent affordable housing in all new developments over eight units. The committee is comprised of executives from four local nonprofits: The Resurrection Project, Alivio Medical Center, Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.
Nothing in the facade of the fire station at the intersection of 55th and University Avenue betrays the location, underneath the firehouse, of a Cold War–era bomb shelter. All functioning bomb shelters are alike, but each decommissioned shelter was decommissioned in its own way. This one turned into a gym.