Fighting to Save a Piece of Our History

This is a guest blog by ​Cheryl Johnson, Executive Director of People for Community Recovery, and Kyler Sumter

Google Street View of Building C, located at 839 E. 132nd St

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing community originally built for Black soldiers returning from WWII. It was here where my father died from lung cancer at the age of 41 and where my mother Hazel Johnson conducted environmental research and learned that the South Side has the highest incidence of cancer in Chicago due to the toxic industry that emits air pollution all around us.

In 1979, my mom founded People for Community Recovery (PCR) right here in Altgeld Gardens to raise environmental awareness and help residents impacted by pollution. It was this work that later earned her former President George Bush’s Environment and Conservation Challenge Award and the title of “mother of the environmental justice movement” in the 1990s. And it’s here in Altgeld where Chicago Public Schools now wants to tear down a crucial piece of our history.

Since my mom’s passing in 2011, I’ve been proud to continue her work as PCR’s executive director. There has been more awareness and recognition of environmental justice but there’s still a lot of work to be done in the very neighborhood where she got started.

CPS plans to demolish Building C, a historic building in my neighborhood that served as the school for the children of the Black service members returning from war. It was built in 1944, closed in the 1980s and since then has sat abandoned. Where residents see an opportunity to transform Building C into a much-needed community center with wrap-around services such as job training, CPS sees a building “well beyond its useable life”.

CPS failed to maintain the building and has made plans to tear it down and replace it with a playground without informing any residents. If CPS sought our input, or did some research, they would know we already have 10 playgrounds but fewer opportunities for economic development. When does a playground take precedence over knowledge or the opportunity to be trained and certified?

Landmarks Illinois included Building C on its 2021 list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois  while Altgeld is also up for consideration to be put on the National Register of Historic Places which would create stronger restrictions on demolitions and bring about new resources for revitalization to our community. If redeveloped in a meaningful way, this building can transform the landscape of Altgeld. It can create a tax credit in our community that can incentivize other developments to come and help with bringing tax revenues. But if it’s demolished this will have a negative impact on our national landmark application. 

Though we were not consulted about CPS’ plans, we won’t be silent. A lot of plans are being developed around our community but not inside the community. So we’re taking ownership of our neighborhood and demanding that CPS retract their plans to demolish a piece of our history.

We know all too well about the rampant pollution, the lack of access to food and transportation and the few opportunities for job training in Altgeld Gardens. Our kids need a center that can provide social services. Our teens and adults need a place they can go for training. Our veterans need wrap around services and assistance for their families. Altgeld has already lost 674 units; we lost Block 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16. And if we lose Building C, we’ll lose its 26 classrooms, 4 washrooms, 2 teachers lounges, administration office and all its potential.

In Chicago we’ve also witnessed demolitions and implosions that have left communities covered in dust and caused people to suffer health-related issues. We must think about the silicone that’s in the bricks, the lead, and the asbestos that’s in the building that will spread all around our community.

If we don’t pay attention, they’ll continue to disinvest in our community and tear our neighborhood down piece by piece. My mother inspired community action and founded PCR to address environmental problems within our neighborhood. She didn’t take no for an answer when elected officials tried to minimize her concerns. She didn’t shrink back, and neither will we. Join our fight by signing our petition to save Building C.

“Every day, I complain, protest and object. But it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and government accountable to the people on environmental issues. I've been thrown in jail twice for getting in the way of big business. But I don't regret anything I've ever done, and I don't think I'll ever stop as long as I'm breathing… If we want a safe environment for our children and grandchildren, we must clean up our act, no matter how hard a task it might be.”

Hazel Johnson

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