Ride through projects focuses on soon-to-be displaced Chicagoans



By Don Babwin

CHICAGO – The yellow school bus rumbles through vacant lots and past demolished buildings, full of people who have paid $20 for a tour of what was once among the most dangerous areas of this or any other city in the United States.

But for the woman with the microphone, this “Ghetto Bus Tour” isn’t just another way to make a buck from tourists. It’s the last gasp in her crusade to tell a different story about Chicago’s notorious housing projects, something other than well-known tales about gang violence so fierce that residents slept in their bathtubs to avoid bullets.

“I want you to see what I see,” says Beauty Turner, after leading the group off the bus to a weedy lot where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. “To hear the voices of the voiceless.”

Turner, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Chicago Housing Authority’s $1.6 billion “Plan for Transformation,” which since the late 1990s has involved demolishing public housing high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income housing. Since January, the community newspaper where she works has been renting a bus for the tour, open to anyone willing to pay the fee.

Unlike city officials who have heralded the massive plan to tear down the high-rises, Turner believes that the city that decades ago left residents to be victimized by violent drug-dealing gangs is now pushing those same people from their homes without giving them all a place to go.

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    “I have people becoming homeless behind this plan, people that’s living on top of each other with relatives,” said Turner, who has been giving informal tours for years. “For some it has improved their conditions, but for the multitude of many it has not.”

    For their part, Chicago Housing Authority officials say Turner’s tour distorts both CHA’s history and what it looks like today, that she glosses over the failures of public housing. They dispute her contention that there are not enough homes for those whose homes were torn down, saying that the 25,000 units being built or rehabbed are enough for the number of people whose buildings were demolished.

    “She is running out of bad things to show people,” said CHA spokesman Bryan Zises. “She is taking a circuitous route so she doesn’t have to drive by the new stuff,” including, he adds, Turner’s own home in one of the new mixed-income communities.

    Turner, though, says what she fears she’s running out of are strong, black women like herself who raised their children in the projects.

    That’s who she focuses on for the students, academics, activists, journalists and residents of Chicago and surrounding suburbs who have taken the tour – most of them white and visiting a part of Chicago they’ve only seen on television or from the expressway as they sped by.

    “This is where people lived, played, stayed and died here, just like in your area. … Children played here,” she tells the visitors. “The same thing that you do in your community is what the residents of public housing did in theirs.”

    Turner takes the group by the home of one such woman. Her name is Carol Wallace. She’s 63 years old and lived in the city’s projects for years. When the group makes its way into the dreary looking low-slung building that has not been rehabbed, she tells of her suspicions that she and a lot of people like her are going to be left out of the “Plan for Transformation.”

    “Overall, I think it’s just a way of getting us out of here,” says Wallace, standing in front of her door and the iron security door she lives behind. “Because they’re not letting everyone back in.”

    Wallace’s home stands in stark contrast with the nostalgic picture Turner paints of what life was once like in the projects. She recalls a time when parents like her kept an eye on the neighbor’s kids, a time when the projects shined every bit as much as the buildings now going up in their place and lawns were kept as neat as putting greens.

    She downplays the violence that plagued the projects for years, telling the group that all those news reports distorted what day-to-day life was like, the same way reports of violence in Israel don’t accurately reflect the lives of Israelis.

    “All the horror stories that you heard about in the newspapers, it was not like that at all,” she says.

    But the stories loom over the tour. They are impossible to forget. By the time the CHA started pulling down or rehabilitating the projects in the late 1990s, each one had its own headlines that spoke to the failure of public housing in Chicago.

    At Cabrini-Green there was a boy gunned down by a sniper’s bullet as he walked hand-in-hand with his mother. There was from the Ida B. Wells project the report of a 5-year-old boy who was dangled and then deliberately dropped to his death from a 14-story window by two other children.

    And at Robert Taylor, where the illegal drug trade thrived, a rookie police officer was shot to death while on a stakeout outside a gang drug base.

    Turner could even add her own story. She doesn’t on this day, but in the past she has recalled, for example, seeing a teenage boy shot on the very day she arrived at the Robert Taylor Homes in 1986.

    Her approach had some on the tour shaking their heads.

    “Are they romanticizing these communities?” asked Mark Weinberg, a 44-year-old Chicago lawyer. “These were drug-ridden, violent neighborhoods where people wanted to live a good life but couldn’t.”

    D. Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University professor writing a book about Chicago’s public housing, said that while he appreciated that Turner told the story from the perspective of tenants, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the commentary either.

    “People got killed,” he said. “You don’t make that story up.”

    Still, Turner is determined to tell anyone who will listen that the city has a duty to keep the community law-abiding citizens of public housing built up over the decades, despite their challenges. That, she fears, is what is being lost as the decrepit buildings fall and outsiders move in, and that’s why she’ll keep giving the bus tour as long as there is interest.

    “People that come in don’t want to look across the street and see seven little black churches in a three-block radius,” she said. “What they want to see is a Dominick’s and sushi joints and a Starbucks.”