The Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Henry Horner Homes opened in 1957. Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and named for the Illinois governor who served from 1933 to 1940, the project covered a ten-block area in Chicago’s Near West Side. The original eleven buildings (four sixteen-story and seven seven-story) were arranged on oversized blocks or superblocks, which were created by closing off streets on the traditional city grid. The additional space between the buildings allowed for more light and air; breezeways on the tower facades were built for the same purpose. These high-rise buildings were cost-effective: with 920 units constructed at $13,182 per unit, Henry Horner Homes was the least expensive CHA public housing project during its 1957–1968 building program.
In 1961, the first of two extensions was built, adding 736 units across seven high rises: four fourteen-story buildings and three eight-story buildings. The Henry Horner Extension covered twelve blocks, bounded by Lake Street on the north, Oakley Boulevard on the west, Washington Boulevard on the south, and Damen Avenue on the east. Notably, the gallery-style high rises contained duplex apartments, with the living, dining, and kitchen areas on the lower level and bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper level. Typical of the Chicago public housing complexes, however, the galleries featured wire fencing, which contributed a carceral effect.
The last extension of the development, the Horner Annex, was completed in 1969. This complex, located a few blocks south of the first two developments between Monroe, Wood, Adams, and Honore streets, consisted of a single seven-story mid-rise building and two three-story walk-ups, which added 109 units to the whole development. Upon completion of this last extension, Henry Horner Homes contained 1,765 units in total across nineteen high- and mid-rise buildings with two additional walk-ups.
The Near West Side experienced significant demographic changes in the decades leading up to the construction of the Henry Horner Homes. From a largely white population (Irish, German, Italian, and Greek) in the early twentieth century, the neighborhood became home to a majority Black population by midcentury, largely due to the influx of people relocating from the South during the Great Migration. The neighborhood had also become home to a substantial Mexican and Puerto Rican population. Given the proximity of the Near West Side to downtown, white city officials viewed the increasing Black and Hispanic population as a threat to downtown’s economic viability. These racist views guided the city’s development, including the construction of public housing, highway systems, and the University of Illinois Chicago campus, as city officials attempted to attract wealthier white populations while displacing many non-white residents.
In its initial decades, the Horner Homes provided adequate housing compared to previous slum tenements in the area, but living conditions soon started to decline. At first, residents reported that the buildings and apartments were clean and well maintained, prospective tenants were strictly screened based on personal records including criminal activity, the CHA enforced housekeeping and groundskeeping rules, and the apartments were well heated and offered hot and cold running water. But, as a result of poor architectural planning and failed maintenance by CHA, the building rapidly declined in the early 1980s. The gallery-style hallways were exposed to the outside elements, causing elevator cables to freeze during winter, rendering them inoperable. Trash chutes on each level constantly faced pile ups and occasional fires since they were too narrow for such heavy use. In addition to physical and environmental damages to the buildings, lack of security and vandalism also became an issue. There was no form of communication between visitors and the residents, resulting in uncontrolled traffic entering the buildings. Concentrated poverty, the isolating architectural design, and lack of employment opportunities for residents led to increased violence and gang activity.
The CHA continued to move families into hazardous conditions, which led to a women-led grassroots movement to improve quality of life in the Horner Homes. In 1983, Maurine Woodson, who described how the CHA had painted over dirt and filth on her walls when she first moved into her apartment, formed the Henry Horner Mothers Guild as a means for resident mothers to cope with life in public housing and gain control of their community. The Mothers Guild ran clean-up campaigns, pushed for the city to tow abandoned cars and tear down abandoned buildings housing drug addicts in the area, pushed for repairs and security solutions, and initiated projects with neighborhood gangs in efforts to stop shootouts.
Despite community efforts, the conditions at Henry Horner Homes continued to decline. By the early 1990s, the CHA reported that residents, staff, and housing activists alike found the Henry Horner Homes the most distressed public housing property in the nation. At the time, the conditions at Horner included inoperable elevators; darkened hallways, lobbies, and stairwells; broken and boarded-up windows; missing exit, stairway, and fire escape signs; broken and missing stairwell doors; and defective stairway handrails, treads, and landings, among other issues. Additionally, the majority of Horner tenants at the time were unemployed, and the residents who did find jobs were forced to move out since rent increased for working tenants. In 1991, 97 percent of Horner residents had an average household income of $4,135, most of it from government programs.
Worsening conditions inspired the Mothers Guild to sue the CHA for continuous neglect in 1991. Yet residents feared eviction and believed rumors that the Horner Homes would be demolished, making it difficult for the Mothers Guild to document its case. But the Mothers Guild persevered, and in 1995, the CHA and the plaintiffs reached an agreement: the Horner Homes would be revitalized in phases in order to minimize tenant displacement, and for each Horner unit demolished, one replacement unit would be provided for each Horner family. Families had the option to move out of Horner, or remain and move into newly constructed or rehabilitated on-site housing. All of the high rises were demolished in 2008, and the completed revitalization project resulted in 1,325 units of low-rise and mid-rise mixed-income housing.
This project was part of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation for Public Housing, which called replacement of high-rise public housing with mixed-income, low- to mid-rise housing. The Horner development was replaced by Westhaven Park, which consists of three-story townhouses with small lawns and iron gates. Constructed by Brinshore Development LLC, Westhaven Park is made up of public, affordable, and market-rate housing. As of 2021, Westhaven Park is in the final phase of the Horner Homes revitalization plan. Westhaven Phase IID will add 96 units to Westhaven Park in a twelve-story building, as well as retail spaces on the ground floor. After Phase IID is completed, Westhaven Park will have 575 units in total. This number is significantly less than the amount of original housing units in Horner Homes, which means that many Horner residents were ultimately displaced due to the revitalization.
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