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Altgeld Gardens public housing deserves a spot on the National Register of Historic Places

The designation would draw attention to the positive aspects of the much-maligned development, and help with its redevelopment and restoration.

Altgeld Gardens and the Philip Murray Homes, the sprawling Far South Side public housing developments that helped incubate the environmental justice movement — and drew a young Barack Obama to Chicago — could take a step this week toward being listed on National Register of Historic Places.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will decide Thursday whether to ask that a state historic sites panel seek a National Register listing for Altgeld Murray.

The city’s recommendation is all but a surety; the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council already has the housing complex on the agenda for its Oct. 29 meeting.

Here’s hoping all this action leads to a National Register listing. The designation would draw attention to the positive aspects of the much-maligned development, while opening up millions in potential tax credits that would fund the redevelopment and restoration that Altgeld Murray — and its residents — deserve.

A city-within-a-city

The 190-acre Altgeld Gardens and Murray Homes, located south of 130th Street and just west of the Bishop Ford Freeway, were built by the Chicago Housing Authority beginning in 1945 primarily to house Black veterans returning from World War II and their families.

Murray Homes, designed as an expansion of Altgeld, were built in 1951.

The entire development is primarily composed of two-story brick rowhouses with backyards and small garden spaces out front. And it’s 1,600 residences are laid out around suburban-style curvilinear streets and broad expanses of green.

But because of its remoteness — Altgeld Murray is virtually surrounded by industrial land, roads and the Calumet River, rather than traditional neighborhoods — architects Shaw, Naess & Murphy originally designed the complex to function as a self-contained community with its own schools, church and a shopping center.

Altgeld Murray’s design is among the three criteria that will be used to decide if the development is National Register-worthy.

In addition to its design, officials also will consider any nationally important historic events or people associated with the Altgeld Murray.

The Obama connection could be enough to fill those two bills. The future U.S. president moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer in the area, particularly around the issues of environmental pollution there.

But far more interesting is the story of Obama’s one-time mentor, the late Hazel Johnson, an Altgeld Murray resident who became a national voice in the environmental justice movement beginning in the 1970s.

Dubbed “the mother of environmental justice,” Johnson’s work at Altgeld, located in a notoriously polluted area of the city, forced factories to improve their anti-pollution practices and also shut down incinerators and landfills.

Johnson, who also fought for physical improvements at Altgeld Murray, died in 2011.

An Altgeld makeover

The CHA has been working with consultants Studio ARQ and MacRostie Historic Advisors to create the National Register nomination for Altgeld Murray. A CHA spokesperson said the process is expected to last through the first quarter of next year.

If the National Park Service grants the designation, Altgeld Murray would be in line for likely millions in federal and state historic tax credits that could be used by a developer hired by the CHA to help fund rehab and restoration work at the development.

All of this is good for Altgeld Murray, and for the city. We encourage a yes vote from the landmarks commission and the state’s Historic Sites Advisory Council.

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