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South Side Struggles With Abandoned Buildings: Demolish or Rehab?

 Englewood resident Gwendolyn Johnson talks to 15th Ward Ald.Raymond Lopez about the abandoned buildings on her block.
Englewood resident Gwendolyn Johnson talks to 15th Ward Ald.Raymond Lopez about the abandoned buildings on her block.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

WEST ENGLEWOOD — Look around the city's 15th Ward and one will find nearly 600 abandoned buildings — some with gaping holes in the roofs, others with broken windows or crumbling bricks.

Residents are eager to see them either rehabbed or demolished. Through a new effort launched by the city to speed the demolition of vacant buildings, at least 96 from the ward will be removed, said Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th).

That can't come fast enough for 78-year-old Gwendolyn Johnson, who lives on the 6400 block of South Wood Street. With the help of a nearby neighbor, Johnson tries to care for three abandoned buildings on her block.

“I’ve been around here trying to keep everything halfway together,” she said. “I try to keep the grass cut, put flowers all around to make it look nice.”

A lot has changed in the neighborhood Johnson has lived in for 46 years: The house next door to her home has been vacant for about eight months, and the one next to that, six years. It’s hard to keep the yards clean when people throw trash on the ground. When she sees people going into the abandoned building next door she calls the police.

“I started complaining right away because that’s a hazard,” she said.

Johnson said the abandoned buildings make the neighborhood look bad and depreciate the homes residents are living in. One abandoned house on the corner of her block has a crumbled roof, and its siding is falling off. In an adjacent vacant lot are liquor bottles and trash. Johnson said she would like to see something for children built on the property after the corner building is demolished.

Most of the 15th Ward's hundreds of abandoned homes are in the West Englewood neighborhood, but about 60 to 75 of them are in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and about 25 are in Brighton Park/Gage Park, Lopez said.

Demolishing rundown structures removes not just an eyesore but helps reduce crime in the area, the alderman said. The homes on the expedited list were abandoned buildings in high-crime areas.

“A number of these houses have been used for drug houses and gang houses,” Lopez said. “Several of them are close to schools, or along paths that children walk to get to school.”

This abandoned home in the 6400 block of South Wood is one of three on the block. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

The city's Department of Buildings demolished more than 180 structures last year in Chicago, working with the Chicago Police Department "to remove these hubs of violence from our community," buildings commissioner Judy Frydland told the City Council last year. The department received nearly 6,000 complaints last year about abandoned buildings, she said.

Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city has demolished 14 buildings so far in 2016 and boarded up more than 400 structures.

Lopez acknowledged that some people think the city is tearing down buildings to help gentrify the neighborhood. Not true, he says: The goal is safety.

“If we are going to see any kind of redevelopment, it’s going to keep with the spirit and character of the neighborhood,” he said. “The last thing I want people to feel is that we are redeveloping to gentrify, especially with all the development further east of us, like the [Englewood] Whole Foods [Market].”

He said he’s trying to make his plans “very clear” to residents.

“As we start looking toward improving the neighborhood and any possible redevelopment, my goal is to ensure the integrity of the community,” Lopez said.

Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th) gave the city addresses of abandoned buildings in her ward. She’s not eager to see more vacant lots, but many of these homes are falling apart and beyond repair, she said.

“If they can’t be repaired, then they need to go,” she said. Ultimately, she would like to bring more small businesses to the ward, she said.

Englewood resident Milton Copeland doesn't want to demolish any of the buildings. The contractor prefers to “rescue” them, he said.

“If you look at the structure I put into the buildings, you’ll see they’re worth saving,” he said about many of the greystones that were built between 1903 and 1911. “They are the same buildings that are in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. It’s the fact that they’re in Englewood that a lot of people won’t come put in the time and effort save them.”

Copeland is on a mission to save as many abandoned homes as he can.

“I’m going block by block,” he said. “I finish one, I go to the next block. People say it’s Englewood and that I’m crazy, but I’m not. Englewood is going to turn around. I know it is.”

The vacant lots left behind after many of the demolished buildings are torn down will be eligible for the city’s “Large Lot” program, an initiative allowing people to buy city-owned land for $1.


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