J.L. Gross moved into the Lathrop Homes, a 925-unit Depression-era public housing complex on the north side, in 1988, two decades after coming back from the Vietnam war with a bullet permanently lodged in his back. He’s lived in six different apartments in the development since then. For years Lathrop was neglected and many buildings stood empty as the Chicago Housing Authority, developers, residents, and the surrounding community negotiated redevelopment plans. Last year Lathrop had a grand reopening as a mixed-income community with public housing, affordable, and market-rate units. Gross’s latest move was to a renovated one-bedroom on Clybourn Avenue.
J.L. Gross: I’ve been in Lathrop for the last 31 years. Originally I’m from the south side, 35th and Rhodes. I was a combat marine, a machine gunman in Vietnam. When I came back in ’68 I was a little screwed up in the head. Veterans had preference, and that’s how I ended up in public housing. It took me about three years [to get an apartment]. I took Lathrop because it was a different side of town. I really wanted anonymity. They put me in a third-floor apartment over on Hoyne—2758. The third floor provided me an opportunity to overlook things in the courtyard or on the street. Black and Brown people, we don’t get a chance to live by the river too often. So living on the Chicago River was a benefit. It had everything, ducks and geese, egrets, it was cool. That was part of the appeal.
In those days, Lathrop was the wild wild west. The gangs literally ruled Lathrop. They were shooting people in broad daylight. They were well ensconced, and people were intimidated by them. I lived in my community for 20 years before I became involved in it. A friend of mine was an organizer for Logan Square [Neighborhood Association], and through him I began identifying with my community, identifying with being an activist in my community.
CHA mismanagement and lack of police protection and the city not really picking up the garbage was really wearing on people. We were a community that didn’t have an investment in it, and it pissed off a lot of people. There were  apartments over here. Where I’m at now was called a row house [before the rehab]—you had an upstairs and a downstairs. There’s a different apartment above me now. This is their idea of gentrification, to cut off the top floor and put somebody else up there. The apartments on the other side [of Diversey] were much larger than these. There were free-standing rooms: a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom. Whereas, as you can see, this is a kitchen and a living room combined.
Personally, I don’t give a shit about this place. [The renovation] wasn’t done for my community. My community was decimated because of a lack of interest from the city and even the federal government. What I wanted all along, what our community wanted all along, was a decent place to live and police protection. That’s what every American community wants. And yet we weren’t afforded that. For all the people who came to the CHA and said, I got mold in my apartment, I got holes in this, I got holes in that, lack of water—we got patchwork attention to what was going on, and [told] there was no money, [given] excuses as to why we should move. But some of us were tenacious enough to say: Hey, whatever you build, you’re gonna have to build me one, I ain’t going nowhere. Look at the area: I’m centrally located, I’m right on the river. There’s no food desert over here, so why would I let somebody run me out of here? If I didn’t succumb to the gangs I sure wasn’t gonna succumb to City Hall or pressure from the CHA. Or the physical deterioration.
[The architectural preservation] was done only as a compromise. I was in those meetings. That’s not what the developers wanted to do, that’s something they had to do. The architecture has a historically significant value. I’m proud of the fact that we fought for the preservation of the architecture. It wasn’t [Related Midwest, the developer]. It was the people who lived within Lathrop, former residents, civic groups, organizers, activists—those are the people who deserve the credit. And as far as them giving me a better place to live—I deserved that anyway. And not just me, everybody in this place deserved better.
I moved five times. First I was on Hoyne. We had a blizzard and my roof caved in, had to have an emergency move, I lost everything. They moved me over on Diversey and then I had mold in my apartment. I went to the hospital one time and when I came home my house had been engulfed by mold, living, breathing mold in every room. I lost everything again. I moved over on Leavitt and lived there for three years. They closed it down, they were going to start to build over there. I waited out all those years that they talked about doing something and it never came to fruition. I moved to 2664 on Hoyne and I became the only tenant in the building, out of 12 apartments. The apartment above me flooded and I lost everything again. From there [they moved me] to 2750. So I’ve lost everything in three out of six apartments—telephone, television, shoes, clothes, everything. I’ve only been reimbursed once.
Lathrop had a reputation of being an isolated community because whites were intimidated. However Lathrop has always been an integrated community. It has Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Assyrians—we’re a melting pot. We would have cookouts, we would have dances, we were a vibrant community, plus we had survived the gangs, so that just made us closer. Fast-forward to now: the developers came here saying they were gonna make it better for the people that lived in Lathrop. And for us it’s just the contrary. All the enhancements that you see now is for white people, not for the community that was here.
Black and Brown people, we do the train, we do the bus, but the majority of us, we don’t do kayaks and canoes. It’s for white people. [The creation of boating amenities] was supposed to be an appeal for us, and it really wasn’t because them building a boathouse over here is taking an apartment from someone else. You’re gonna tell me that you’re gonna get rid of people to put a boathouse?
A lot of people want to return to Lathrop because they feel that it’s better now, but this is something we should have had all along. I suffered too much to live here. I went through too much for me to then turn around and be a cheerleader for Related or whoever the developers are. I’ve earned my right to be here because of all I went through that came before this. You’ve got individuals and families that are good human beings, and everybody deserves a safe place to live. I lost 525 [public housing] apartments. I don’t see how I should be jumping up and down—my community was devastated. Which has nothing to do with the buildings. And in three to five years this place will not look like my community. But I got a place to stay and I guess I should be happy about that. If I say too much more they’ll probably try to kick me out of here. But I can’t help but be brutally blunt.
Cynthia Scott and Joseph Burrell moved to Lathrop in the 1980s. They met at the development and eventually combined households. They were the last tenants in an otherwise boarded-up building on the corner of Diversey and Hoyne and met with the Reader as they prepared to move to a rehabbed two-bedroom unit at 2980 N. Clybourn.
Cindy: I moved in in 1985, I was 23 or 24. My ex-husband was stalking me and it was an emergency move. Usually people are on the waiting list for a long time. I had one daughter, she was five, and I moved in at 2805 N. Leavitt. It was a one-bedroom. [The development] was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. There were benches where you could sit, they had a really nice playground. My neighbors were supernice. When I moved in they were having a back-to-school [event] and there were pony rides and all that. People were very friendly.
[My apartment] was on the second floor. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the color paint they used, it was like a pee yellow, like somebody had peed on the wall for days. But I was told that I could change it. I loved the kitchen. It was small, but I could look outside into the courtyard if the kids were playing. I had three more kids, another daughter and twins [in that apartment]. When I found out I was pregnant with the twins I went to management and they said they’d be moving me into a three-bedroom apartment—2700 N. Hoyne. I stayed there until the pipes broke down in the basement. I was stepping in boiling water.
Joseph: Most of the projects were all Black, and this was one of the most integrated ones. I came in 1983. I had separated from my wife and she had been on the list for low-income housing. We had decided that she would take my daughter and I’d take the two boys. She moved over here and then she decided she was going to move in with her girlfriend but wouldn’t be able to take [our daughter]. She said, Why don’t you come over here and take over the apartment and all four of you will have a place to stay? They just grandfathered me into the place. I had an apartment, it was called the penthouse, on the fourth floor of 2624 N. Hoyne, two bedrooms. You could get out on the roof; many times we would sit out and eat on the roof.
I thought it was very nice because I had seen other low-income housing, with family living in the Robert Taylor Homes, and because I was a Red Cross volunteer I had serviced people in other complexes that had been burned out. This was definitely the best of all the ones that I’d ever seen. There were flowers, there was grass everywhere. At night, people would sit outside on the benches. [The gangs] came later, that started happening in the late 90s, we started having a lot of trouble between the Latin Kings and the Deuces over in the Hamlin Park area.
Cindy: When I first moved in I was working, and then I got pregnant with the twins and I couldn’t. I had to get on assistance. At that time it was called public aid. I would have under-the-table jobs that would give me cash, which was a big help. But I never could get two steps ahead, always ended up two steps backwards. And when I would get ahead, they would take 30 percent of that [for rent]. Whatever I made they kept taking out. And now I’m on disability and I really can’t get ahead.
I had two girlfriends and we were called the Three Musketeers. We would sit outside during the day and watch our kids ride their bikes and play, and we’d sit outside and goof around and just talk, and people did that, they barbecued out in front of their house. And everybody was so friendly, so helpful. We became really close, like sisters. If our money was tight at the month, Brenda would cook some meat, I’d make a side dish, and [the third friend] would make a dessert.
Joseph: It’s really nice, but I see it as being isolated. Because you don’t get to meet other people outside of the neighborhood. I had met kids who had never been to the zoo, and I couldn’t believe it—the zoo is like two miles from here. So when I would take my kids to the zoo I’d see if [the other kids] could go with us. You got a 227-square-mile city, you need to see more of the city and see what other people are doing. [In mixed-income housing] who knows? You might meet somebody who might know somebody who might get you a really good job. And you might become really good friends and do things together, things that you would never have done before.
Cindy: There’s already been problems between the [public housing] residents and the market-rate people. We sit outside here. They don’t want you to do that over there, market-rate people are going to the office and complaining about us. We’re still stigmatized, you know?
Joseph: There’s a saying that’s been going around for years: you can take a person out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of them. Some of it is resident-created problems. I’ve seen on Leavitt already where people have actually had chairs in the street, up against their cars, sitting in the chairs with the kids playing in the street. They’ve got this nice field to play in. They’ve got the nice river walk with benches, but they’re not using that. I think because they’re so used to being nosy and seeing who’s coming and going [that] they feel isolated if they go somewhere where there’s not a lot of activity. Where they would get away with throwing garbage on the ground, and graffiti, and loud talking and stuff over here, they’re not getting away with it over there. They were warned that the same kind of activity was not gonna be put up with.
You got two different cultures, where you got people that have to actually go to work and they go to sleep at a certain time, and they don’t have the luxury to sit up at night outside laughing and talking, or sit outside all day. That’s the conflict. You gotta have some give and take, you have to have some compromise, and the only way I see that happening is if both sides were to get together and discuss how they’re gonna work it out.
Cindy: The people who have been here for years and years are being mistreated. I mean, I’ve been here for years and I’ve never stopped doing volunteer work. But we get less priority. You’ve got money? You can pick out the apartment you want. Whatever they choose for us is what we have to take. There’s no reason why I should have fought and fought and fought, doctor’s note after doctor’s note, to get my two-bedroom apartment. I think there’s not gonna be any more CHA people living here [in ten years]. This is all gonna be market rate.
Joseph: It’ll probably look like Lincoln Park. Actually, this is Lincoln Park, but on the neighborhood maps they only call this area Lathrop Homes. Maybe once it looks more like Lincoln Park it’ll be grandfathered in. We still have a lot of seniors left over that probably will pass away. A lot of people died in the last few years, more moved away. When you see people moving in you only see the younger people, people in their 20s. And their children are dogs. v