Deep Freeze Eviction in Chicago's Projects

Revolutionary Worker #991, January 24, 1999

Chicago's winter turned brutal in early January. The city was shut down for days by a record snowfall; then a wave of bitterly cold air moved in, dropping temperatures way below zero. The local media has filled their coverage with the usual fluffy stories about people shoveling out their cars.

Meanwhile, thousands of people in Chicago's huge housing projects are living without heat or water--under inhumane and even deadly conditions. Heating systems throughout many of Chicago's highrise projects are simply broken. In the bitter cold, water pipes have been rupturing--especially in apartments kept unoccupied by the housing authorities. Toilets stop working and people have no water for drinking or cleaning. Water has seeped through the buildings, filling stairwells and garbage chutes with thick twisted columns of ice. Icicles hang from the ceilings of apartments and thick sheets of ice cover walls and hallway floors. One resident in Robert Taylor Homes told the RW about visiting a friend's usually spotless apartment. "I was just totally shocked," she said. "You could put on ice skates and literally skate in the apartment."

People have been keeping their families warm any way they can--telling children to stay under their covers, putting blankets over windows, and keeping ovens and clothes dryers on. Five families in one building at Robert Taylor Homes had to be evacuated when carbon monoxide accumulated from portable gas heaters.

Some young children have not been able to go to school since the first cold weather. Many older people could not go shopping--especially in buildings where the elevators are broken. People reported living for weeks in apartments so cold that they could see their own breath. Revolutionaries active in the Cabrini Green projects told the RW that one woman there was taken to the hospital after getting frostbitten hands in her own apartment. In her building on Larrabee, residents pointed out that the pipes burst in one of the apartments where the front door was destroyed by police during the major raids in December.

Even before the worst cold hit, the heartless conditions in these housing projects had taken a toll. On December 29, two-month-old Tyrese Walker died of lung infections after three weeks in the hospital. Building heat had been cut off to the four-bedroom apartment where he lived since late November, and the only heat the family had had was a single space heater. All the children in the family had gotten sick. For Tyrese the cold was fatal. The authorities wrote on his death certificate that he had died of natural causes--infuriating his family. His grandmother, Denise Goodwin, denounced that verdict saying, "He died from the cold and his lungs got infected."

There has been widespread outrage throughout Chicago over the death of Tyrese Walker and over the cruel conditions imposed on so many people.

The weather in Chicago may be naturally caused--but the lack of heat in the housing projects is not. Behind the inhumane conditions are the cold-hearted policies, cutbacks, calculated neglect and financial speculations of the federal authorities and the local ruling class.

Twisting the Crisis to Justify More Evictions

On January 7 the Chicago Defender, the city's Black newspaper, started to expose the brutal conditions in the housing projects and reported on the death of Tyrese Walker. Outrage spread, and many people demanded action from the authorities to keep people warm and provide them with decent housing.

One local priest said, "Some of these reports of no heat and water date back from October. This crisis was not created by the Blizzard of '99."

The housing authorities immediately seized on the demands for action by permanently forcing people out of their homes in buildings that had long been targeted for destruction.

Within days, the Chicago Housing Authority announced that the worst conditions were in two highrise apartment buildings of the huge Robert Taylor projects in Chicago's Black Southside. They later added a third building to the target list. They announced that they were evacuating over 120 families who were living there without heat or water. The CHA called on churches, hotel owners, and private landlords to offer living quarters for the evacuated residents. Local politicians announced they would lobby the federal authorities to pay for these emergency evacuations.

However it has increasingly become clear that the targeting of these specific buildings had much to do with high-level plans to destroy low-income housing. Residents explained to the RW that the CHA had already issued eviction orders to residents of these three building in the middle of December. Over a third of the apartments in these buildings were occupied, and the collapse of heating and water supply there--which the housing authorities had allowed to happen--was now being used as an excuse to speed up the evictions.

Thomas Harkless, CHA's assistant executive director for operation, said, "These two buildings are deplorable. We were going to be evacuating and demolishing them anyway. This cold weather just pushed it forward." Day after day, Harkless appeared in the media to insist that the only lesson of the crisis was that the housing projects needed to be torn down as rapidly as possible.

CHA Police Chief LeRoy O'Shield announced that these evacuated apartments would be boarded up--and that residents would not be allowed to re-enter their old homes without a police escort.

At the same time, the fact that the CHA had to make its extraordinary call for emergency housing from motels and private landlords exposed the fact that it remains extremely hard to find low-income housing, and that the CHA itself had no idea how to house the residents that they had long been planning to displace!

CHA spokeswoman Wynona Redmond was forced to admit that the crisis affected far more than just these three targeted buildings. She estimated that "up to 500 families" in other Robert Taylor highrise units alone could be affected by the continued breaks in the water system.

It was later revealed that in the first week of January alone, the City of Chicago had received over 1,300 complaints about lack of heat in apartments throughout the city. CHA reported they had received over 800 heat-related work orders in the projects. Many of these heat problems affected whole buildings and many residents. And many had existed long before the worst cold hit in January and were caused by an official policy of "deferred maintenance" --allowing buildings to deteriorate to make it easier to force residents out.

Project residents explained to the RW that the problem of heat and water affected thousands of people throughout Chicago's public housing--not just in the handful of buildings being discussed in the press. An activist personally went from one building to another at Robert Taylor Homes and reported to the RW that all had similar conditions.

The CHA talk of "emergency evacuation" in those three buildings is being used to carry out pre-planned evictions there and cover up the true extent of the cold-crisis in the housing projects.

Meanwhile a less publicized "evacuation" was being carried out in two highrise buildings in the Henry Horner Homes--once again, it is no accident that these were two buildings targeted for demolition by the CHA.

Many of the residents targeted for evacuation resisted the move--both because they did not trust the city to provide decent new housing, and because they did not trust the officials to protect the belongings they were forced to leave behind. CHA authorities admitted that dozens of families in one freezing building on South Federal Avenue had refused to evacuate.

In another case, residents told the RW that CHA officials banged on their doors at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and threatened to get a court order to force them out. One resident said, "How can it be voluntary when you're given 24 hours to move?"

Meanwhile, project residents were reportedly subjected to insulting treatment after being evacuated from their buildings. Several adults and eight children were sent to the Amber Hotel for overnight housing--and the hotel management refused to allow them to register like everyone else. They were forced to wait in the lobby until the hotel's owner could be found to personally approve their admission to the hotel.

Several figures within the power structure were deeply concerned that the brutal treatment of public housing residents might prove extremely costly to the system. Clarence N. Wood, Chicago's Commissioner of Human Relations warned the authorities: "If we do not have a strategic plan to speak to these issues, the alternative will be to resolve them by violence and political rhetoric."

The Fight Against Urban Cleansing

In the Cabrini Green projects, people came together on January 16 to take on these unjust conditions collectively. Revolutionaries of the local RCYB and leadership within the project's tenant organization called for a "Fix 'em Up" day at the 1340 Larrabee highrise in Cabrini--and went door-to-door organizing the event. Twenty people responded--including numbers of young men and women who had been active in protesting the police murder of Brennan King. They removed the heavy snow and ice clogging the open gangways on several floors of the building, allowing many delighted residents to come and go easily for the first time in weeks. Meanwhile members of the local Residents Management Council worked to get pipe fitters into the buildings to fix the broken water pipes that caused so much spillage.

Revolutionary literature passed hand-to-hand, and many people talked about the death of Tyrese Walker and the criminal treatment the masses get from the housing authorities, and the power structure in general.

It was a day of working together to solve problems and fight the system--in the spirit of "Fix 'em up! Don't tear 'em down!"

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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