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At Lathrop Homes, CHA's talk of transformation brings worry

When Mary Thomas talks about the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, she likes to reflect back to a time when the public housing complex was filled with a diverse mix of working residents, many of them active in contributing to the community.

But these days, nearly all of the historic apartments in Lathrop Homes are boarded-up and locked behind tall, dingy gray fences. What was once a vibrant neighborhood is nearly deserted, patrolled by private security guards. Few cars pass and few people wander.

Thomas, like several others, has chosen to live in Lathrop among the boarded-up buildings, vacant units and neglected playgrounds so she can stay involved in the redevelopment of the site, she said. Hers is one of about 170 households still left in the sprawling Lathrop Homes complex, which has 925 units and was once considered by many to be one of the safer and more attractive public housing complexes in Chicago.

For more than a decade, the Chicago Housing Authority has planned to transform the Lathrop Homes into a mixed-income development, with only a third of the units to be made available for public housing. Though the CHA pledged in 2006 that reconstruction was imminent, the agency once again is asking for feedback from the community, saying it's still trying to determine how the complex will be redeveloped.

The CHA Plan for Transformation is part of a national movement to replace public housing complexes with mixed communities, where poor residents can live side by side with more prosperous homeowners and stakeholders. But Chicago's revamping of public housing is years behind schedule, and for many residents, it's a tedious and scary process.

Thomas and her neighbors said they live with anxiety and fear, unsure what the future holds.

"This is where I grew up. I don't want to leave," Thomas said. But because of the vacancies and poor conditions, Thomas said she feels she is being subtly pushed out: "I've spoken to all my neighbors, and I tell them, 'Please stop running. Please don't go.' The more who go, the less we have to fight."

Situated on the borders of the Bucktown and Roscoe Village neighborhoods, near West Diversey Parkway and North Clybourn Avenue, Lathrop Homes is now surrounded by expensive homes and upscale shopping outlets. But the few residents left have been relocated to the southern end of the complex, isolated from the booming community around them.

There are no final plans yet for how Lathrop Homes will look after the transformation, and CHA officials said they have not determined how many units, if any, will be sold at market rates. They do know only a third of the final complex will be used for public housing. But officials don't know if they will rehab the current units or build new structures, said Veronica Gonzalez, development manager with the CHA.

For now, officials are seeking feedback from residents, activists and the public.

"It is important for Lathrop residents and neighbors to be involved in the process because CHA is listening," said James Isaacs, director of the Office of Development Management at the agency. "We are excited about having a dialogue with people to see what we need to do at Lathrop."

The CHA has budgeted $1.45 million in the planning and preplanning phases for the transformation, Gonzalez said. But there is no timeline for when construction begins.

"So much is up in the air," she said.

Despite CHA's statements that no plan is set, residents and activists fear the worst. Once the site is revamped, many of the low-income residents won't be there to reap the benefits.

"This is the beginning of the planning process, but not the beginning of the struggle," said John McDermott, a housing and land use director with the nearby Logan Square Neighborhood Association. "CHA has paid some lip service and said, 'We know Lathrop is different.' But then they revert back to the mixed-income formula that they have used at many of the other developments."

McDermott and many others are discouraging the CHA from one proposal by a working group to develop 1,200 apartments and turn a third of them into market-rate units. He argued that nearby Lincoln Park has enough condominiums and private homes. What the community is slowly losing is affordable housing for the working poor, he said.

"This is a community where, unfortunately, only affluent families can access homeownership," he said. "There is no way you can argue that the surrounding community needs the government to spur market-rate development. To sustain economic diversity and ethnic diversity, the best way to do that is preserve the affordable housing stock."

Preservationists say Lathrop Homes should be restored, not demolished.

Built in the 1930s, Lathrop Homes was designed by first-rate architects such as Robert S. DeGolyer and Hugh M.G. Garden, who were out of work because of the Great Depression, said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, which advocates for preserving historic architecture.

The complex still features handsome brick archways that lead into parks, playgrounds and public areas. Unlike many public housing high-rises of the past, Lathrop Homes is a low-rise complex on the Chicago River, with curving walkways along the water's edge. There is ample green space, carefully designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen, Fine said.

In 2007, Landmarks Illinois, a preservation group, named Lathrop Homes one of the state's 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois and has pushed for a redevelopment plan that would restore the historic site.

Though the complex needs some renovation, its architectural significance and community-friendly design make it public housing worth preserving, Fine said.

"What's interesting and ironic is Lathrop Homes, in its current form, is already what CHA's plan for transformation set as its goal in 1999," he said. "They wanted to get rid of the high-rise housing complexes with elevators surrounded by asphalt parking lots. They wanted more green space and a more friendly environment. Lathrop already embodies all of that. It's really beautiful. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Lathrop also has a place in the community's history, with residents who helped diversify the area and push for change. After the housing complex integrated in the 1960s, it became one of few that retained a diverse mix of residents, McDermott said.

Many of its residents worked, formed community organizations and helped shape the neighborhood as they raised families there, McDermott said. One organization made up of Lathrop residents helped push for jobs, job training programs and a living wage at factories and retailers in the neighborhood. Other residents took part in building a church that still remains.

For more than 22 years, Sandra Cornwell has lived in Lathrop Homes. The sounds of children playing and neighborhood block parties are gone, and yet she wants to stay. She, too, fears that as the complex is redeveloped, she'll be forced to move and won't make her way back.

"This is all about making poor people move. 'Get those pesky poor people out; we don't want them here,'" she said.

Because the planning process is taking so long, residents said they don't know what they will have to return to, or when.

"Once Lathrop is gone, it's gone," said the Rev. Liala Beukema, former pastor of the Church of the Good News, built by Lathrop residents. "The opportunity to provide safe, secure housing for people in this area probably won't come in a lifetime if we let this go."

Keywords: CHA, James Isaacs, John McDermott, Jonathan Fine, Lathrop Homes, Liala Beukema, Mary Thomas, Preservation Chicago, Veronica Gonzalez

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