Saying goodbye to Henry Horner Homes

Former residents of Henry Horner Homes gathered outside the last original building Friday afternoon to say goodbye.

The seven-story brick building at 1936 W. Washington Boulevard looked lonely in the way empty buildings do, despite the dozen or so people smiling, shaking hands and hugging on the sidewalk outside the front entrance.

The CHA plans to demolish the building in early May.

"There was a time you lived here when you could eat off the floor," says former resident Blondean Gartley, 51. "There was a time when you didn't have to lock the doors. And now, it's gone."

Horner Homes, built in 1957 and named after Illinois' first Jewish governor, is being redeveloped as part of the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation. Some of the buildings have already been torn down and replaced by either mixed-income units or by rehabbed traditional public housing.

The Plan for Transformation has affected Henry Horner residents differently than those living in other public housing developments because in 1991 several residents sued the CHA. They won a decree in 1995 saying the CHA must reach an agreement with a resident committee on all changes related to the Plan.

Some of the old Henry Horner buildings have been replaced by Westhaven, a cluster of town homes. Apartments in the Henry Horner Annex have been rehabilitated.

A tall fence stands around the property's lawn. It used to be knee high, says Crystal Palmer, president of the Horner's Local Advisory Council. But everyone knew to stay off the grass.

Gartley recalled the Christmas decorating contests where the different buildings competed against each other. Children played outside in the summer without worrying about gunfire from opposing gangs, and parents kept an eye on everyone's offspring, not just their own.

"There was a time when you could say we were family," she says.

The development began to deteriorate in the 1980s after the Reagan administration cut funding for public housing, said William Wilen, the attorney who argued the lawsuit. In 1980 3 percent of the development's units stood vacant; 10 years later that number increased to almost half.

Drug dealers started conducting their business in the open, said Keith Jackson, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. The trade grew into the local economy. Gangs battled in the streets, often warning parents and children to go inside before the shooting started

Palmer moved out of Henry Horner in 1983, but she returned in the mid-1990s. It was home, after all. What she found shocked her. Urine and feces littered the hall, and garbage piled up. Things had changed.

Things are continuing to change. The demolition of 1936 W. Washington will be bittersweet, Jackson says. It's progress. And yet ...

"It was a thriving metropolis, a healthy community" Jackson says. "We weren't any different in our visions and dreams and hopes."