In the battle against negligent landlords, west-side resident Mary Johnson won a small victory last month when a Cook County judge sent the owner of a building in her neighborhood to jail.

The landlord didn’t stay locked up long, and his building is still a boarded-up firetrap. But Johnson’s small victory is remarkable given the overwhelming odds against vigilant enforcement of the building code. And her efforts may lead to the restoration or, failing that, demolition of a neighborhood eyesore.

“Perseverance is the key to this struggle,” says Johnson, who lives with her husband in the 1100 block of North Lawndale, just south of Division and east of Pulaski in Humboldt Park. “We’ve been going to court now almost every month for the last year. If you’re not ready to fight with all your heart, your block will continue to fall apart.”

For the most part the Johnsons’ neighborhood is a relatively well-maintained and integrated working-class community of bungalows and small apartments. But here and there are signs of decay: an abandoned building, a weed-filled lot. Unless the residents make an active effort to maintain the area, it could fall into the same disrepair as other neighborhoods to the south.

“When we moved here from Austin back in 1979 this was a beautiful neighborhood,” says Johnson. “People took care of their property and watched out for their kids. I didn’t have any troubles with moving here. I particularly loved the way the trees hung over the street, keeping things cool in the summertime.”

After a few years, however, Johnson noticed a few disturbing changes. Many parents were allowing their children to roam unrestricted, even at night. Stolen and stripped cars were being dumped in the alley, and crime in general was rising.

“I decided to form a block club,” says Johnson. “I started by talking to people who were keeping up their property. I figured they would be the kind of folks who would help out.” In time she made friends with Frances Kellas and her son William, who lived in and managed a six-flat on the street.

“Every block needs someone like Mary,” says Frances Kellas. “She organized cleanups and meetings. You have to have someone who won’t let things rest.”

In 1988, Johnson even started driving neighborhood kids to the local youth center. “I didn’t like seeing them just hanging around the streets,” she says. “I’d take them by the carload to the center so they could participate in some of the activities. It’s hard. I can’t be a mother to all of these kids, especially when their own mothers aren’t helping out. I asked this one mother if she would take her kids and she said, ‘I can’t be bothered with that.'”

But for the last few years her biggest headache was the three-flat at 1100 N. Lawndale. It had been falling apart from lack of care for years; by 1990 it was vacant.

“The gas and water had been shut off, and eventually the families just left,” says Johnson. “After that garbage collected in the yard and it looked awful.”

In August the building was damaged by a fire. “The fire happened in the middle of the night,” says Frances Kellas. “That was the last straw.”

The residents called the city’s Building Department. An inspector was dispatched, who cited the building for its damaged roof and broken windows. The city filed suit in an effort to have the owner either rehab, sell, or demolish the building. On February 15, 1991, the case came to court.

It was at that court appearance that Johnson met Charles Greer, the building’s owner. (Greer could not be reached for comment.)

“We wanted him to at last secure the building,” says Johnson. “The problem was that people were breaking in and stealing and demolishing things. A vacant building is more than an eyesore; it can attract drug dealers and rats. Greer told the judge he needed more time. So another court date was set for March 15.”

Greer didn’t show up for that hearing, so the judge set a new date for May 3.

“On May 3 some woman showed up saying she represented Mr. Greer,” says Johnson. “The woman said Greer was out of town but that he planned to have the building secured. In fact, she said, he had paid a contractor $400 to do it. She wanted to show the judge the receipt but the judge said that it was not acceptable evidence ’cause a little piece of paper doesn’t prove a thing.”

It was at a June 11 hearing that Johnson says she told Greer about Neighborhood Housing Services, a not-for-profit organization that provides rehabbers with low-interest loans.

“Greer had told me that he would do the repairs himself but that he didn’t have the money,” says Johnson. “I told him about NHS and he took the number and said he would call them.”

But Greer never called NHS, and he missed his June 25 hearing. By now the case had been transferred to the demolition court of Judge Edward Marsalek. Marsalek set a hearing for August 13, which Greer attended.

“When the judge asked why he had missed the other hearing, Greer said that he had called the city’s lawyers to say he couldn’t attend,” says Johnson. “The judge didn’t like that. He said, ‘That’s not good enough! This is a court. You don’t call us to say you can’t come. You show up!'”

By this time Johnson and her neighbors (usually the Kellases) had become regular visitors to Marsalek’s courtroom. “It’s very unusual for someone to press this case like Mary did,” says Mike Riordan, director of the Neighborhood Housing Services’ Humboldt Park office. “In a strange way you almost have to feel sorry for Greer–most landlords can get continuances for years because no one’s paying attention. But Mary held him accountable.”

When Greer missed his August 20 hearing, Marsalek awarded Johnson and her allies temporary receivership of the building so that they could clean up the property. A few days later Johnson, the Kellases, and several other neighbors came out with their rakes and shovels. Alderman Ray Suarez saw to it that they had garbage Dumpsters.

“You should have seen all the junk they hauled out of there; it was a disgrace,” says Suarez. “They had to take all the broken glass out of the windows. It was amazing no one ever got hurt.”

On September 10 the case came back to court with Greer attending. “Greer was all feisty, saying that we were picking on him and that the block club should be responsible for keeping up the building,” says Johnson. “The judge told him that it was his building and his responsibility.”

After that came a series of four hearings in two months, three of which Greer did not attend. On November 19 the city asked that Greer be incarcerated. The next day, Greer attended his hearing.

“Greer said that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding,” says Johnson. “And that he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. I don’t know how he could say that, since the judge had been telling him the same thing since day one, which is he wanted him to at least board up the building.”

A building inspector arranged to meet Greer at the building on Thursday, November 21, at 11 AM. Johnson called Channel Five and they dispatched a reporter. “Mr. Greer didn’t show up at 11, he showed up at 10,” says Johnson. “We were already there as was this reporter. And she put Mr. Greer on TV, denying everything that we said and saying he had only missed two court dates.”

But by the time the building inspector arrived, Greer was gone. And at the next hearing, on December 3, Greer told Marsalek that the inspector had missed the appointment. “We had to testify that the meeting was supposed to take place between 11 and 12, not 10,” says Johnson.

It was at this hearing that Marsalek had Greer arrested, although he was released later that day. At the December 6 hearing, Greer showed up with an application for a $10,000 rehab loan.

“That’s not satisfactory, because $10,000 won’t even begin to repair that building,” says Riordan. “It will cost that much just to fix the roof. You have to figure it would cost at least $60,000 to rehab the whole building. Greer told the judge he planned to do most of the work himself. But you have to wonder if he has the expertise to fix a roof or a heater.”

If Greer doesn’t have the building repaired, Marsalek could order it demolished. Johnson and her neighbors hope it doesn’t get to that.

“This neighborhood certainly doesn’t need a vacant lot, though that would be better than what we have there now,” says Johnson. “Maybe he could sell it to a not-for-profit group that would rehab it. It’s a beautiful building, or it would be if it was taken care of.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.