Just south of the Loop and along the east bank of the Chicago River, there’s a sprawling parcel of land overgrown with trees, wildflowers, and thistles. Rabbits, turtles, and even coyotes hide in the underbrush. For a minute you forget you’re in the city—until you see the foliage is masking slabs of crumbling concrete, protruding rusty pipes, broken glass, reservoirs of fetid trash, discarded clothing, liquor bottles, and beer cans.
Developers have eyed this 62-acre site between Roosevelt Road and Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park for decades, with visions of high-end condos dancing in their heads. This land is sometimes referred to as “Rezkoville,” since it was formerly owned by developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was later convicted on extortion and corruption charges. But Rezko abandoned his development plans nearly a decade ago, selling the land to a company led by Iraqi-British billionaire Nadhmi Auchi.
The land remains undeveloped. And yet, for an increasing number of people, this wild, overgrown lot is home.
Tents, shacks, and other makeshift encampments are scattered throughout the site. Although the size of the community changes depending on the season, around 50 men and women from across the city, the suburbs, and other states and countries live outside here year-round. They suffer through both the misery of winter, with its frigid temperatures and howling winds, and the relative comfort of summer, still marred by mosquitoes, ticks, sweltering humidity, and the occasional deluge, theft, or bout of violence. Their reasons vary: unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, criminal records, immigration status, and the economic crisis. Many struggle with more than one. Police officers and railroad staff pass through periodically, but they mostly leave the residents alone.
In May, Auchi’s General Mediterranean Holding formed a partnership with local developer Related Midwest. They announced plans for a massive residential and commercial development in Rezkoville, just days after Rezko himself was released from federal prison.
On June 20, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that says Auchi owes $17.4 million to a businessman who gave loans to Rezko, loans meant to be repaid by the land sale.
The Related Midwest development was originally slated to take 15 years; the court ruling now casts doubt on the plan.
Still, land so close to the Loop can’t stay vacant forever, and development will eventually mean eviction for the inhabitants of Rezkoville. This limbo is perhaps fitting for a place where residents’ lives have long been defined by uncertainty and precariousness, where, as one resident put it, “You don’t know how hard it is just to make it from Monday to Tuesday.”
Among the residents of Rezkoville are 30 or so men who’ve immigrated from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, and now work in Chinese restaurants around the midwest (the restaurant owners provide housing, but when the men are between jobs they stay here). They’re often placed by Jiao’s Employment Agency or Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, two companies under investigation by the Illinois attorney general’s office for alleged civil rights and labor law violations.
Thirtysomething Michael, left, peeks his head out of the tent that serves as his home.
Elmo, 34, considers himself a “country boy.” He loves animals, including his cat, Ghost, with whom he sometimes panhandles downtown. Elmo had to move from this shack north of River City when residents there were evicted to make way for development on an adjacent lot.
Dolly the Drifter, one of Elmo’s sculptures made from Chicago River driftwood and other discarded items. Elmo has been traveling the country and living outside since leaving his home in Kentucky at age 11.
Jeffrey, 60, doesn’t know when he last washed his hands. He spends nights in a concrete form under Roosevelt Road, or riding trains to keep warm. Slight, unassuming, and friendly, he hopes to one day reunite with family in California and Chicago.
Thirty-four-year-old Kevo, front, is from the Chicago exurbs and survives by selling his artwork on downtown streets. Pyro, also 34, is from Georgia. He wants to leave Chicago but feels trapped by his addiction and other circumstances.
Matt and Lauren (not her real name) grew up comfortably in Chicago’s western suburbs. They are educated, come from supportive families, and never thought they’d be living in a tent. But they’re now struggling with heroin addiction, and are trying to find detox and rehab programs so they can rebuild their lives.
Jim, 48, owned a home and a successful flooring business in the southwest suburbs until the economic crisis hit. For a while he lived in his truck; when that was repossessed he became homeless, and lived in an alley in the Loop. Through friends he found a safer and more comfortable existence in Rezkoville. But he says he’s suffering from cancer, which only makes it harder for him to fight his heroin addiction.
Winter is a brutal time in Rezkoville; snow can lie heavily on the tents, and the leafless trees do little to block the biting wind.
Mexican and Central American men have created elaborate encampments throughout Rezkoville. In the summer, leaves provide extra cover.
Jose, 46, one of the restaurant workers who lives in Rezkoville. He was robbed and severely beaten in an incident in November. v