This is the last house remaining in the 500 block of West 57th Place in Englewood.

This is the last house remaining in the 500 block of West 57th Place in Englewood.

Manny Ramos / Sun-Times

Why tearing down Englewood to save it hasn’t worked

Englewood and West Englewood have experienced the second- and third-most demolitions among Chicago neighborhoods since 2008. Still, development lags, and huge stretches of vacant land remain.

F
or most of his life, Karl Mables has lived in the 6400 block of South Honore Street.

But he struggles now to recognize the neighborhood he’s called home for decades.

“When I was growing up, there were houses on each of these lots, and now that I am older, there seem to be two vacant lots in between every home,” says Mables, 30. “It hurts.”

Since 2008, 10 single- or multi-family homes on Mables’ block have been demolished, according to city data. A block west, on Wolcott Avenue, 11 homes have been torn down. Ten more came on Wood Street, a block to the east.

The city owned 27 of the 31 demolished homes.

What’s happened on Honore Street isn’t unusual for Englewood.

From 2008 through 2018, 861 buildings were razed in Englewood. In West Englewood — Racine Avenue is the dividing line for the two neighborhoods that together make up what’s known in the area as Greater Englewood — the number was 829.

Those are the second- and third-most demolitions of any community area in Chicago. About 74% of the structures that came down were owned by the city.

The only area with more demolitions in that period was West Town, with 933.

But West Town also saw 1,400 new-construction permits issued over the past decade — far more than in Englewood and West Englewood, which together had just 140. The number of permits in greater Englewood accounted for less than 1% of all that were issued citywide.

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Drive through Englewood, and you see the result. There are craters where homes previously stood. Vacant lots become vacant blocks.

Vacant buildings usually are torn down only as a last resort, says Gregg Cunningham, spokesman for the city buildings department. But demolition remains “an important part of the city’s overall work to eliminate neighborhood blight,” Cunningham says.

Mables argues that large stretches of vacant land just drive people away — and put those who remain in danger.

“I’ve seen many times cars jump onto the lots from one street and drive straight through like it’s a shortcut,” says Mables, who volunteers with I Grow Chicago, an organization trying to change how abandoned properties and vacant lots are dealt with. “Do you think that’s safe when we have kids playing on the sidewalk?”

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Blight isn’t the only reason for the demolitions. In 2013, Norfolk Southern Railway bought 105 city-owned lots for $1.1 million to expand its rail facility at Englewood’s eastern edge. The company also has purchased homes directly from residents, using the power of eminent domain — which not only allows government to seize private property but also, under the Illinois Railroad Powers Act, lets railroads acquire land for projects deemed beneficial to the public.

Norfolk Southern — which came under fire last summer for helping to organize a “bait-truck” scheme to lure would-be thieves — demolished more than 100 homes between 2008 and 2018 in an area of just 0.15 of a square mile in Englewood.

Steven Rogers, a Harvard Business School professor and Englewood native, has spent nearly seven years fighting Norfolk Southern’s attempt to seize his properties and says: “What we are seeing in the area at the moment is a cleansing. I believe the master plan is to clear all of these poor African Americans out of here, and then they’ll start gentrifying this area.”

From 2010 to 2017, the African American population in greater Englewood fell from 69,776 to 51,015. The area’s Hispanic population has tripled, though African Americans still make up more than 90% of the population.

Why Englewood?

Residents of greater Englewood make less money on average today than during the height of the Great Recession. Home values have dropped significantly as well. In 2009, the median household income in greater Englewood, adjusted for inflation, was $28,915. In 2017, it was $25,880, according to the Census Bureau. The median home value fell from $141,000 in 2009 to $102,000 in 2017.

The community also was at the center of a series of mortgage-fraud cases in the runup to the housing crash. In one case, a South Holland man went to prison for fraudulently purchasing 109 homes, many in Englewood, with no intention of making mortgage payments, using straw buyers and taking kickbacks. The $35 million scheme sent most of those homes into foreclosure.

Most mortgage fraud involves bogus appraisals and faked documents to obtain a loan for more than a property is worth. The borrower pockets the extra cash. Such fraud is one reason Englewood residents lost their homes.

Englewood and West Englewood averaged nearly 500 foreclosure filings a year from 2007 to 2012, according to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. The citywide average: 260 a year.

Many of those foreclosed homes landed in the city’s hands.

“When the demolitions first started, we were very excited because there were a lot of squatters and a lot of crime,” says Christine James, interim executive director of the nonprofit Greater Southwest Development Corp., which promotes economic development in the area. “Having kids walk across broken glass and broken-down buildings on their way to and from school was very concerning.”

But after the demolitions, nothing happened, James says.

“There are acres of land that have been completely cleared,” she says. “The residents who live in Englewood are desperate for folks outside the neighborhood to recognize this issue.”

More than a quarter of all city-led demolitions happened in greater Englewood.

“Often the short-term goal is merely to stabilize the property and neighborhood through demolition, right?” says Joseph Schilling, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute. “Research tends to show that stress levels of people rise when they live in a neighborhood with lots of vacant homes and abandoned buildings.”

Demolitions are a short-term way of thinking about abandoned property, Schilling says, and “large-scale demolitions dramatically change the physical landscape, the economic market and the social and civic fabric of a place.”

Usually, Schilling says, “Much of the neighborhood decline that caused or drove the property abandonment was already in full swing” by the time government starts the demolition process.

Past redlining — denying mortgages or other services to African Americans — is at the heart of greater Englewood’s struggles, according to James and others. She says by not addressing these issues fully, the city allowed Englewood’s problems to fester.

“When you look at the situation, we are 20, 30, 40 years too late,” she says.

543 W. 57th Pl. in July 2007 (left) and July 2019 (right). | Google Maps, Manny Ramos/Sun-Times.

Schilling says programs and policies need to be implemented to prevent vacancy and demolition of vacant buildings.

James agrees: “We needed to clean the slate, but now we need to have robust incentive programs to get this community rebuilt.”

The city has worked to get vacant lots in the hands of the community through its “Large Lots” program. It also has a $250,000 plan to clean and beautify 50 city-owned vacant lots in North Lawndale, Woodlawn and Englewood.

In recent years, the community also has attracted some large development, including Englewood Square — a $20 million shopping center with a Whole Foods, Starbucks and Chipotle.

Redefining Honore Street

Marquita Dixon, 26, at I Grow Chicago’s Peace House in the 6400 block of South Honore Street with her daughter Harmony Dixon.

Marquita Dixon, 26, at I Grow Chicago’s Peace House in the 6400 block of South Honore Street with her daughter Harmony Dixon.

Manny Ramos / Sun-Times

Like Karl Mables, Marquita Dixon, 26, also grew up on Honore Street. She can list the names of people who once lived nearby in homes that have fallen into decay or been knocked down by a backhoe.

In March, her late grandmother’s home was boarded up. For many homes on the street, the next step would be demolition.

“I would be hurt if it’s torn down because that’s my whole childhood memory,” Dixon says. “My grandma fed everybody. If you didn’t have a place to go, you could sleep at my grandma’s house. Every morning, she fed the birds.

“She raised us in that house. It was like 20 grandkids, and that’s how much love she had.”

Dixon works with I Grow Chicago, which is working to reclaim Honore Street from vacancy and crime.

“The city is just tearing them down and letting them be,” Dixon says. “We have a lot of homeless people here. Why can’t we make homeless shelters out of these abandoned homes instead of just tearing them down?”

I Grow Chicago has bought three city-owned lots and turned them into urban gardens and basketball courts. They’ve painted boarded-up homes with phrases like “Hope Grows Here.”

They’ve also turned an abandoned home slated for demolition into a “peace house” that offers tutoring and yoga.

A “peace house” created by the nonprofit organization I Grow Chicago offers tutoring, yoga and other services in the 6400 block of South Honore Street in Englewood.

A “peace house” created by the nonprofit organization I Grow Chicago offers tutoring, yoga and other services in the 6400 block of South Honore Street in Englewood.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), in her first term, says Englewood has been neglected and development hasn’t gained traction because no one listens to those in the community.

“People have felt as if they don’t have a voice in the process” of trying to attract development, Taylor says.

Taylor says getting more development has been difficult in part because greater Englewood is split among six wards.

“Historically, Englewood’s aldermen haven’t come together to develop a concise plan of action for the community and with the community in mind,” Taylor says. “I plan on changing that.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of the South Side and West Side.

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