Altgeld Gardens was one of Chicago’s defense housing projects designated for Black occupancy. The nation’s involvement in World War II led to a rising need for war worker housing in cities like Chicago. Thus, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) sought a temporary development located on the far south side of Chicago in the Lake Calumet area, an industrial zone that had previously been a waste dump. After some deliberation, the CHA persuaded the FHA to finance the project as a permanent development.
The CHA selected a 157-acre vacant tract at 130th Street and Ellis Avenue, far from any existing residential areas. The secluded nature of the site was intentional. The CHA hoped it would mitigate the likelihood of white resistance while providing a new residential area for Black Chicagoans, one that essentially kept the Black residents segregated. Despite the isolation of the development, many Black Chicagoans saw Altgeld Gardens as a way to escape the Chicago slums.
Altgeld Gardens consisted of 1,500 units that were divided into 162 groups of two-story houses, a design that adhered to the CHA’s preference in the 1930s and 1940s for low-rises. The houses were built using common brick and asphalt roof shingles, and featured concrete canopies over the doors; each also had a front and back yard. This architectural design aimed to maximize sunlight and airflow in order to promote good health and encourage communal life. The isolated nature of the site, however, also necessitated the need for new community facilities. The development included four one-story school buildings, a shopping center, library, community park and playground, and many other provisions.
After World War II, to address the continued need for quality urban housing, the Truman administration’s 1949 Housing Act provided funding for urban renewal projects and for the construction of larger, better-quality public housing developments. Under this act, Altgeld received an extension of 500 units named the Philip Murray Homes that were completed in 1954. The layout of the units was identical to that of Altgeld.
In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux, a civil rights activist and Altgeld-Murray Resident, together with the Civil Rights Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sued the CHA for violating the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ACLU alleged the CHA engaged in racial discrimination by building segregated public housing sites. When applying for CHA housing, the clerk informed Gautreaux that she would be swiftly situated if she chose a site where its units were predominately Black. After four appeals in the circuit courts, the case went to the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Hills v. Gautreaux in 1976. The court ruled that HUD must impose a metropolitan remedy in which residents were granted housing vouchers that allowed the residents to rent private housing units in suburban areas.
By the 1970s, community advocates gave Altgeld the moniker the “Toxic Doughnut,” after many residents developed illnesses such as asthma and cancer. Originally, the site had been used as a sewage farm that operated from the 1880s until 1907. The pollution and toxins emitted from the hazardous landfills was first noticed by Hazel Johnson, a widow who suspected the cancer that took her husband’s life was caused by extensive pollution. As a result, in 1979 Johnson founded the first environmental justice organization in the country, the People for Community Recovery (PCR). The organization garnered nationwide support after successfully preventing the establishment of another landfill in the area. In 1999, a group of Altgeld residents sued the CHA for allegedly exposing the residents to these pollutants and misleading the residents of the potential risks of living there. However, the EPA ruled that there was no conclusive evidence to correlate the contaminants of the area with any of the residents’ health-related conditions. Regardless, Johnson and the PCR’s efforts ultimately led to the creation of various organizations such as the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the National Advisory Committee on Environmental Policy and Technology. Considered the mother of the environmental justice movement, Johnson led the PCR until her death in 2011. Her daughter, Cheryl Johnson, has continued the organization’s efforts and her mother’s legacy.
Beginning in the 1990s, HUD launched HOPE VI in order to redevelop public housing sites. Despite its intended purpose, HOPE IV contributed to the demolition and ultimate reduction of public housing units. In 1999, mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation of Public Housing sought to replace public housing sites that were in deplorable conditions with smaller-scale, mixed-income developments. Supported by HOPE VI and the mayor’s plan, the CHA demolished all high-rise public housing developments in the city but spared low-rises like Altgeld. Although environmental issues plagued Altgeld, renovations were realized in 2005 when 1,200 of its 2,000 units were fully rehabilitated. The remaining 800 units remained vacant until 2018, when the development received a complete rehabilitation of all of its units.
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