WICKER PARK — A 7-foot-tall cinder block shelter built by a homeless man in a vacant lot in Wicker Park was torn down Friday by workers clearing the site.
Bruce Johnson, 51, who has been squatting on the failed Wicker Park condo development site since June, built the 8 foot by 10 foot shelter from piles of cinder block and brick initially intended to be used for condos.
The shelter had enough space for a twin mattress, a rack of clothing and a dresser.
The homeless man's possessions, including shoes, VHS tapes and cleaning supplies, were strewn around the lot in the 2300 block of West North Avenue after three workers dismantled the shelter by hand Friday.
Workers began working Thursday, removing trees and brush from the back of the site before moving on to Johnson's shelter.
Johnson was not at the lot as the workers cleared the site.
The workers said they told Johnson of their intentions Thursday night in order to give him time to remove his possessions. Those items included a Scooby-Doo figurine, a mini-gumball machine, Christmas bells, toy cars and trinkets that Johnson picked up from years spent working for carnivals as well as salvaging from the trash.
Casey Princess, who was working to clear the lot, said that when he met with Johnson Thursday night to tell him of the plan, Johnson did not appear to be too upset. Johnson said he would be back to clear the cinder block structure of his possessions but did not re-appear by the time the shelter was dismantled.
Princess, working with another man, Gerry Zuzia, a contractor with Schiller Contracting, said he's never seen anything like Johnson's house.
"It's impressive," said Princess.
Guillermo Arauz, who lives next door to the empty lot, said, "Technically, I know it's illegal to be squatting but I feel bad" for Johnson.
Arauz said Johnson actually helped keep the lot tidy.
"I feel horrible. He's going to be uprooted," said Arauz.
Another neighbor, who didn't want to be named, said a developer plans to build a mixed-use building on the site, with retail and housing, beginning in the fall.
In an interview last week, Johnson explained he built the structure because "I was looking for a place to be dry, to not be bothered. I was looking at the bricks every day, figuring why not put a bunch together? Why not use what's here?"
Johnson's hut, which he built in a day, is on the southern end of the lot, while the front portion of the lot faces a busy street and contains concrete foundations that at one point were supposed to house three, three-story condo buildings.
The condos would have brought a total of nine new residences to a somewhat sleepy corner of Wicker Park, just east of Western Avenue.
"The bank owns it, but they never come around," said Benny Hernandez, 78, who lives next door to the lot, which is guarded by a tall fence covered in green canvas.
Before living on the lot, Johnson said he was thrown out of a foreclosed home he was living in in Humboldt Park.
Johnson discovered the empty land in Wicker Park in May.
"The gates were open. There were no signs saying no trespassing," Johnson said.
Johnson used a blue tarp salvaged from a garbage bin as a roof and put a stuffed dog he found in an alley on the roof for decoration.
A recovering alcoholic, Johnson said he's not worked since 2001 but gets by selling bottled ice water on street corners, selling scrap metal and cans he salvages and mowing lawns for a landlord he struck up a friendship with when he was squatting in Humboldt Park.
Johnson last week told a reporter that he realized, "It might not last long."
"I'm taking it day by day," Johnson said then.