“Drive south on the Bishop Ford Expressway to Altgeld Gardens and you’ll pass plenty of reminders you’re in a landscape not meant for inquisitive visitors. There are looming grain silos next to a parked shipping freighter, a village-scaled water reclamation plant, and plenty of anonymous warehouses. But once you pass 130th Street and drive into the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) largest surviving traditional public housing community, that spell breaks on approach to the new Altgeld Family Resource Center (FRC), a combined childcare center, community center, and Chicago Public Library.
“With more than 1,500 townhouse apartments over 157 acres, Altgeld was built in the mid-40s for returning Black WWII veterans, and was one of few places in Chicago they could live. It was meant to be self-contained and comprehensive, and included a library, schools, an auditorium, a clubhouse, and a shopping center.
“At Altgeld, the buildings are small but landscapes are vast. These are industrial tracts comprising landfill hills, factories, and refineries; infrastructural landscape behind fences and retaining walls, inaccessible and inhuman. Altgeld was alone on an industrial frontier. But these 50-some landfills and hundreds of industrial facilities spread beyond their borders via the water, soil, and air, and residents of Altgeld have suffered from cyanide-contaminated drinking water, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination, and 250 leaking underground storage tanks, and more, with some pollutants dating back to George Pullman’s railcar empire in the late 19th century.
“In the 1970s, water left the faucets with a light brown hue. The community had the highest incidence of cancer in the entire city. In response, Altgeld’s Hazel Johnson created the People for Community Recovery (PCR) in 1979 to lobby for remediations that could clean up what became known as the “toxic doughnut.” (She got a bit of help from a young community organizer named Barack Obama, including a push to expand the neighborhood’s library.) Now known as the “mother of environmental justice,” a stretch of 130th Street has been named after her.
“For Black veterans returning from WWII, a chance to live at Altgeld Gardens was an Edenic dream deserving of its name. Long time residents tell stories of a neighborhood chorus, Halloween bonfires, and block clubs with enough kids to each field a baseball team.
“Boxed out of expanding suburbs by racist lending practices and redlining during a historically tight housing market, Altgeld offered Black families subsidized housing in a tidy suburban atmosphere. Generous shared courtyards connected long, two-story apartment blocks with gabled roofs that could look quite a bit like single-family homes if you squinted. In J.S. Fuerst’s book When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago, Claude Wyatt, a resident of Altgeld for ten years from the mid-40s to mid-50s, tells of the revelatory joy at not having ‘to go into a big building. I would put my key in the front door, go out through the back, come around to the front door again, and walk in and go through—again. I couldn’t believe it.’
“Despite its failings, Altgeld’s design pedigree put residents on even footing with the burgeoning middle classes. Altgeld was designed by the Chicago architecture firm Naess and Murphy and built in 1945, and the development was joined by the Philip Murray Homes in 1954. Altgeld made historic preservation nonprofit Preservation Chicago’s 2017 most endangered list, and Executive Director Ward Miller says it should be considered for the National Register of Historic Places for three reasons.
“First, there’s the history of President Obama’s involvement there, and second, the history of the environmental justice movement, embodied in Hazel Johnson. But there’s also the architecture. Miller praises Altgeld’s quirky stepped parapets that frame its gabled roofs, and its intimate neighborliness. It “exudes a certain human scale,” he says. “It has a certain charm about it.”
“Altgeld offered a quality of life that was “perhaps not too different from suburban developments happening at the same time,” says Miller. Unlike the maligned high-rises to come, it was “an attempt to connect people to the ground around them”; a dark irony, considering what was below the surface.” (Mortice, Chicago Reader, 4/27/21)
Is this library politics? A new building filled with social service and education amenities at Altgeld Gardens is a test case for the limits of design and architecture, Zach Mortice, Chicago Reader, 4/27/21