The residents of the CHA building near Leavitt and Diversey are a peaceful bunch, a little up in their years, perhaps, but a bother to no one.

You’d think the folks who managed their housing would leave these seniors alone. But no–in the last few years their lives have been filled with aggravation brought on by one controversial scheme or another, the latest a plan to turn several air-conditioned first-floor common rooms into a Head Start school for local youngsters.

A CHA spokeswoman says the residents of the seniors building voted to move the school in, so it’s coming whether a few cantankerous types want it or not. But several residents contend there was no free and open vote, and they want the matter reconsidered. “The folks who run this place ain’t got no heart, man–they’re just a bunch of sick and mean, nasty people with nothing better to do than make an old man’s life miserable,” says David Booth, a retired railroad worker who lives in the building. “Stick a school in a home for seniors; no one asked me about it. They talk about human rights violations in China, but they got more respect for old people than we do.”

Lathrop Homes is a complex of about 1,000 units by the intersection of Diversey and Damen. By most accounts, the eight-story seniors building at 2717 N. Leavitt is one of the better-run units in the complex–its lawn well maintained, common rooms clean, and elevators functioning. “I lived in the family units before I lived here, and compared to that this is heaven,” says Lois Ulrey.

And yet as Ulrey and other residents tell the story, neither the CHA nor the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was ever content to let the building remain what it was supposed to be: a home for seniors and the seriously disabled. A few years ago HUD allowed several nonsenior drug addicts and alcoholics (their addictions defined as “disabilities”) to move in. After a public outcry the addicts were moved elsewhere, but then someone decided to move a GED center in. Soon there were tough-looking young men hanging around the TV room (“between classes,” they said). The seniors complained, the GED center was moved out, and for a while peace reigned. But last month management delivered the word: the Mary Crane Nursery School (currently housed in a nearby church) was moving in.

According to the CHA, it’s a wonderful idea. “It will encourage intergenerational harmony and cooperation,” says Shirley Hammond, who lives in another seniors building and is president of the CHA’s senior tenants advisory council for the north side. “What else do they have to hold on to? They have the little children, the little babies. The seniors will be assistants to the teachers who are there.”

But many tenants say they had no say in the matter, which was “approved” at a sparsely attended tenants’ meeting in April. “The managers told us it was coming and they called for a vote,” says Ulrey. “That’s not exactly democracy in action.”

It’s not that Ulrey or any other resident automatically opposes the idea. It just seems too rushed. There was no discussion, no debate. The Head Start school’s operators made no official presentation, no attempt to say, “Hello, this is who we are and why we want to be here and what we can do to improve your community.”

“Something like this should take months of planning. It’s not an easy thing–adapting a school to a seniors building,” says Ulrey. “There are a lot of questions. Who will be there? What are the hours?”

As word of the school spread, opposition grew. The school was taking over several downstairs common rooms, which meant residents would have fewer places to go during the day. “What do they expect us to do–stay in our rooms all day?” asks Sam Brown, a retired cook. “Old folks gotta go somewhere during the day. You can’t just leave us in our rooms to die.”

In the tenants’ view, it all boiled down to a lack of respect on the part of the CHA and the building’s managers, who were running the building as though its occupants were invisible. (The building is managed by Lutheran Social Services, a not-for-profit agency hired by the CHA. Manager Victor Hernandez did not return a phone call.) They didn’t seem to appreciate that these were men and women who should be respected for their full and long lives–that resident James Douglas was a veteran of World War II or that Booth served in Korea or that Ulrey once published a magazine on the blues. Such a proposal would be handled differently if they weren’t old and poor. “I got nothing against little babies,” says Brown. “But this is a place for the seniors. It doesn’t make sense. We got to think this out.”

The proposed Head Start center was only one of several controversial matters. Some residents complained that management has been too stringent in enforcing a prohibition on visitors after 11 PM. “They say you can’t bring in no friend, like we’re children,” says Booth. “They say you can’t bring them in unless it’s life-threatening and they’re family. Hell, man, if you’re over 80 years old every time you’re sick it’s life-threatening, especially in the summer when it’s hot. If you’re gonna get sick you better be sick before 11. After that they’ll let you lie in your bed and be sick.”

But what upset Booth and other residents most was a recent plan to move several benches from the front of the senior building to the back, in order to create what CHA officials called a “little picnic area where residents can barbecue.”

Residents say the area behind the building is infested with gangbangers. “No one’s going to go out there unless they want to get shot at,” says Brown.

In front of the building, the benches offer residents a fairly pleasant view of the Chicago River. “When we asked them to leave the benches in the front they said, ‘No, it would be too expensive, we can’t afford to buy benches for the front and the back,'” says Brown. “So let’s see. It’s gonna cost them as much to move those benches, which are stuck in cement, as it would to buy some new ones. They could just leave the benches where they are and save everyone a lot of time and aggravation.”

When the weather’s right, there are usually at least a half dozen seniors sitting on the front benches. The seniors suspect that management thinks they’re obnoxious, but they’re hardly a threatening bunch. “The most you can say is that we’re loud, but that’s the way black folks are,” says Brown. “We’re a loud people–we even laugh loud. It goes back to slavery days. Black slaves be working those fields from dusk to dawn and then they come home and sing and laugh. Them white massas wonder, ‘What those niggers so happy about? I whipped a bunch of them today and they still singing.’ Now they saying we can’t sit in front of our house by the river and laugh. Even the white massas couldn’t stop that.”

Since the preschool was announced the complex has been rife with rumors that the CHA intends to empty the Lathrop complex and sell the land for upscale development. “If you take our benches and common rooms away, where we gonna go? We ain’t going to go to a tavern,” says Booth. “It’s some kind of conspiracy. I don’t know what, but ain’t nobody does something so stupid without a reason.”

CHA officials contend there’s no plan to sell the land, but they’re short on answers to many relevant questions about the preschool. They say the matter was approved by residents, but they have no record of the vote. They dismiss the vocal objectors as malcontents, but can produce no tenants who endorse the school. They say that some residents will work in the school, but they don’t know which ones or how they’ll be selected or what the school will pay them. They don’t even know how much it will cost to transform the common rooms, who will receive the rent checks (the management company or the CHA), whether the lease requires CHA board approval, or why a multimillion-dollar agency can’t afford to keep a few benches in front.

Certainly Mayor Daley cannot be pleased by the plan. After several hundred seniors died in the heat wave of 1995, Daley ordered cooling rooms installed in every seniors building. The CHA says it’ll replace whatever cooling rooms the school moves into, but mayoral aides remain skeptical. “A school in a seniors building? That’s wild, that’s not what they were built for,” says a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Aging. “We’ll look into this.”

Hammond says she will reverse her support for the school if most Lathrop residents oppose it. “I’m going to go over there and talk to people,” she says. “If residents don’t want it, it won’t get done. Maybe we should have a new vote on this thing.”

Meanwhile, many Lathrop residents remain defiant. “This building comes from the federal government. It’s here ’cause of federal law and I have a right to be here too,” says Booth. “I’m not going to relinquish my rights ’cause someone’s acting crazy. I’d rather stay and fight.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lois Ulrey, Sam Brown photo by Jon Randolph.