The first warning was a knock on Vevelyn Diamond’s back door at about two in the morning. It was a man–Diamond doesn’t know who–crying “fire.” She and her husband, John, had been talking about the fire in the basement that had been extinguished only a few hours before. John flung open the front door, and the flames, which were leaping up the front stairwell, spread into the living room.
John roused their son, two daughters, and granddaughter, and hurried out the back door. As they ran down the back stairs, they pounded on their neighbors’ doors. Then they stood helplessly, huddled against the frigid December cold, shivering in their pajamas, and watching the flames lick the sky.
“You don’t ever expect this to happen to you–never,” says Vevelyn Diamond of the fire that destroyed her family’s three-bedroom third-floor apartment on December 1. “When you’re out there standing in the cold, you’re in shock. Later you get angry. You ask, ‘Why me?’ Then you count your blessings. Thank God no one was hurt.”
Miraculously, all 39 tenants escaped the blaze without injury. That was all the good news. The brick six-flat at 4861 North Kenmore Avenue is uninhabitable, and the tenants have since settled in other Uptown apartments.
Police suspect arson, though they have made no arrests. The rehabbed building was inhabited by six-families–blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. It’s owned by Voice of the People, a not-for-profit group that builds housing for the poor in Uptown. There are no apparent motives. Voice has no known enemies. Remarkably, its leaders have over the past two decades managed to rise above the mindless and futile battles of Uptown politics. Politicians of all ideologies praise them for their efforts.
“Our greatest concern is for the families,” says Janet Hasz, community organizer for Voice. “We’ve relocated them to other Voice buildings. We’re collecting clothes for them. Anyone who wants to make a contribution of clothes or food can come by our headquarters [at 4927 North Kenmore] or call us at 769-2442.
“The larger loss is to the cause of low-income housing. The federal government allotted money for only 150 units of low-income housing for the state of Illinois. That’s for the whole state. That shows you how much the federal government has extricated itself from housing. Here in Uptown we’re losing low-income housing all the time. It’s like we’re on a treadmill; we build some, and we lose some. And we just lost six more.”
Over the last decade, Voice has bought and rehabbed 13 buildings in Uptown, creating 157 units of housing for low-income tenants whose rents are subsidized by the federal government. Since 1985, however, about 700 other units of affordable housing in Uptown have been lost as a result of gentrification or decay.
The six-flat on Kenmore was one of Voice’s early efforts to stem this trend. “The Voice had been around for about 12 years–mostly managing low-income housing–when we decided to actually go into development,” says Marty Kleiber, an architect and longtime Voice board member. “The building on Kenmore was the apple of our eye. We bought it in 1980. It was either our first or second project–I can’t remember. There was something special about it. It represented a lot of hope.”
At the time, the building was boarded up and abandoned. Voice bought it for about $30,000. Those were the days right before unbridled real estate speculation sent the cost of housing in Uptown soaring. “The building was a mess,” says Kleiber. “Part of its roof was missing. The wood was in bad shape. There were two illegal apartments in the basement. They had steam pipes running five feet above the floor. You had to duck when you were down there.
“But the building had a lot to offer. The woodwork was beautiful. At the time, Tom Lenz was organizing tenants for the Voice, and I was designing the building’s renovation. We got the tenants who were going to live there together and asked them, ‘What would you like the building to be?’ We really tried to create ideal apartments. We put in new cabinets and window sashes. We eliminated the illegal units in the basement.
“It wasn’t an easy job. We had to use money from all sorts of sources. But it was a state-of-the-art renovation. People who came in for the open house couldn’t believe it. They shook their heads and said, ‘There aren’t condos in Uptown this nice.’ It was our way of showing you can build low-income housing without apologies.” The building opened in 1982.
“I used to live on the west side, but Uptown is so much nicer,” says Vevelyn Diamond. “There’s more diversity. Different kinds of nationalities. It’s not all just one ethnic group. That’s the way it was in the building, too.”
“All the people in the building got along,” says Carmen Carraballo, who lived on the second floor with her family of four. “Sometimes you might ask someone to have their kids be a little quieter, but that was about it for trouble.”
Until Wednesday, November 30, at about eight o’clock at night, when a resident smelled smoke. Some wood was burning in the basement, but fire fighters extinguished the fire before it spread. “Nobody suspected arson,” says Herman Enderle, the property manager for Voice. “It seemed a strange place to have a fire, but mostly everyone just congratulated themselves for putting it out. We were relieved that no one was hurt. No one knows who started it.”
A few hours later–after midnight on Thursday–somebody slipped into the basement and headed for the boiler room, where fire fighters found a box filled with charred kindling that had been placed beneath the building’s water heater. “I doubt that a fire could have burned through the pipes,” says Enderle. “But if it had, it would have followed the gas line all through the house. I don’t want to think about it. The building would have exploded. It would have been an inferno. I can’t imagine what kind of mind would try this.”
That fire died, however. The box of kindling wasn’t even discovered until the larger fire had been extinguished. “What might have happened is that whoever tried to set a fire under the water heater saw that it wasn’t going to spread, and then walked up the basement stairs that lead to the first-floor landing,” Enderle speculates. “I don’t think he, she, or they would have stayed in the building too long if the gas water heater was on fire.”
It was on the first-floor landing that police and fire fighters found evidence of gasoline splashed on the stairway leading to the second and third floors. “They must have dumped the gasoline on the front stairs, ignited it, and run out the front door,” says Enderle. “The flames just roared up the stairway. It was a case of spontaneous combustion–where the heat level is so high things just erupt.”
“We were all in bed sleeping, when someone banged on the back door and yelled ‘fire,'” says Carraballo. “I believe it was one of the Diamond boys yelling. My son opened the front door and saw the flames going up. My oldest boy got some blankets, we grabbed some jackets, and we ran down the back stairs.”
The families spent that night in a motel. Saint Thomas of Canterbury, a local church, offered them food. The Red Cross provided cots, clothes, and blankets.
Luckily, Voice had six vacant flats in some of its other buildings. “I will say this. The people from Voice have been wonderful,” says Diamond. “They’re helping us–to see if there’s anything that we need. Some landlords–you have a fire, they put you out on the street. But not the Voice. They’ve taken care of us. Without them we’d be homeless. I wouldn’t want to live in any other building except one run by the Voice.”
A heap of charred rubble–mattresses, bed springs, and furniture–lies in the back of the building, waiting to be hauled away. Workers have sifted through the ashes, collecting fragments of clothing, dolls, family photo albums, silverware–whatever they think the tenants might want to save. “Anything we find in the apartments, we’re saving for the families to reclaim, if they want to,” says Enderle. “We’re not throwing anything out. The families should have the right to keep what they want.”
It will cost at least $500,000 to repair the building, which should be open for occupancy in about a year. It was insured, but Voice officials doubt the original beauty can be restored. The Diamonds’ third-floor apartment suffered the worst damage. Its walls are darkened by soot, its floors covered with mounds of frozen insulation. The fire burnt a hole in the roof. “It’s strange. The building looks the way it did when we bought it,” says Kleiber. “We have to start all over again.”
For the moment, however, the memories of the fire are too fresh for tenants to think about returning. “I haven’t been back. Right now I can’t face it,” says Carraballo. “It was a horrible experience. I loved that apartment–it was my home for six years. I’ve never been through something like this before. I haven’t got over it yet. I don’t know if I can ever move back.”
“I don’t have any idea who could have done this or why it was done,” says Diamond. “I tell you this. I lost everything. I lost furniture, dishes, you name it. And we don’t have insurance. It’s just gone. I hate to think where we’d be if it wasn’t for the Voice. This experience has made me realize how good they are. I guess that’s about the only good thing you can say came out of this.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.