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Reunion at Lathrop Homes

What started last fall as a few old friends talking about getting together has snowballed (with the help of a Facebook page) into a reunion of hundreds of former residents of Lathrop Homes this weekend – and connections with current residents who are working to preserve the historic CHA development as affordable housing.

Six hundred former residents are expected for a dinner dance tomorrow night at the White Eagle Banquet Hall in Niles (October 17, 6 to 11 p.m.). The event will raise funds for the Daniel Cotter Boys and Girls Club, where many participants belonged while growing up in the low-rise development along the Chicago River. During the day they’ll gather for tours of Lathrop Homes and nearby Schneider School and an open house at the Cotter Club, starting at noon.

“It was very positive growing up there,” said Jose Zayas, whose family lived at Lathrop from the 1950s to the ’70s, and who still lives nearby. “It still is for the families that are still there.”

“It was a neighborhood; everyone knew each other,” he recalled. “There was all the green space. And there were these anchor institutions, the boys’ club, the Crane Childcare Center, the churches….Looking back, it was the families and it was the institutions that are still there.”

The high rate of vacancies, as CHA has refused to rent out vacated units, “impacts the residents in not really having a neighborhood,” he said. Currently only about 200 units out of a total of 925 are occupied.

“It’s really sad,” said Scott Shaffer, a Humboldt Park resident who cochairs Lathrop Homes Alumini Chicago, of the vacancies. When he visits now, he says, “it really hits you…It’s something so great that they want to take away.”

While CHA’s final plans for Lathrop are still under discussion — it’s the only remaining development listed as “to be determined” in the tenth year of the agency’s ten-year plan for transformation — the current parameters would require replacing existing buildings with new construction at much greater density.

As they’ve learned of the threat to Lathrop Homes — listed as endanged by Preservation Chicago (pdf) and Landmarks Illinois – Shaffer and several other alumni have joined Zayas, who was working with residents and community groups on the Lathrop Leadership Team to preserve the buildings.

They say the current scale and setting is ideal — low-rise brick buildings in a “garden city” design, with landscaping (designed by the lengendary Jens Jensen) now mature and lush — and top-notch supportive nonprofits are on-site. (The Crane Center, which moved to Lathrop Homes in 1963, was founded in 1907 by Jane Addams, who was a colleague of Julia Lathrop at Hull House; among other distinctions, Lathrop was appointed as the first director of the federal children’s bureau when it was founded in 1912.) Preservation would allow developers to make use of generous historical rehab tax credits.

And they say that focusing on public and affordable housing is appropriate in a neighborhood where a wave of high-end condo development has cost residents thousands of units of affordable rentals. CHA’s insistence on including market-rate housing in the redevelopment makes the plan dependent on volatile market conditions, and new construction would expose residents to even longer delays.

CHA’s request for qualifications should be recast so that it is open to nonprofit developers of affordable housing, they say.

“These buildings are good, solid, beautiful, historic buildings,” said reunion organizer Betty Howard. “There’s a dire need for low-income housing, and this area has been set aside for that purpose since the 1930s.”

(It was following protests organized by Howard and some friends in the mid-60s that the Lathrop Homes Boys Club began admitting girls. “We wanted access and we got it,” she said.)

Zayas says he agrees with residents’ demands (see Newstips 10-22-08) that vacant units be occupied. “It’s a moral issue, having 700 units shut when you have people who desperately need that housing right now,” he said.

Current residents will be among those speaking at tomorrow night’s event; the hope is to encourage more alumni to get involved in preservation efforts, organizers say.

Burnham Plan: a critical view

Jane Addams and the women of Hull House might have something to add to the discussions now swirling around the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

They weren’t consulted at the time — though if they had been, the plan could have been much more comprehensive. And more attention to their ideas about addressing Chicago’s problems might have saved us a lot of trouble (and money) over the past century.

That’s the premise of a forthcoming book — entitled “What Would Jane Say?” — which imagines conversations among settlement house workers and other progressives of the day on aspects of the Burnham plan. A reading will be staged Thursday by the author, longtime Chicago activist Jan Metzger, joined by her colleagues from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (details below).

Today the Burnham plan is lauded for proposing large-scale planning on a regional basis and for promoting the lakefront and forest preserves. Many of its central proposals, however — the gaudy “civic center” first and foremost — lent themselves to vivid diagrams but were simply “too grandiose” to be accomplished, Metzger says. As a whole, she says, the plan is “solely for the benefit of businessmen and completely at taxpayer expense.”

“It was a promotional package,” she says. “That’s why the pictures are so spectacular.”

Nothing about neighborhoods

Read today, the Plan of Chicago resembles nothing so much as Chicago 2016′s Olympic bid book — high-soaring rhetoric which glosses over contentious issues (the only mention of “slum conditions” is in the middle of a section on widening streets) while predicting a glorious future, if only the citizenry can be inspired to rise to it.

The plan includes “almost nothing about Chicago’s neighborhoods,” and its transportation chapter is mainly about moving freight more efficiently, Metzger says. Amenities were aimed at the wealthy. The discussion of the lakefront stresses yachting, while Burnham’s own ideas about restaurants of varying price levels and transit to get working people to the lake were deleted from the published plan, she says.

Metzger suspects that most folks who are “laudatory and uncritical” have never read the plan’s appendix. “If you read that, an entirely different meaning emerges,” she says. “It’s about the legal implications of the plan, mainly what kinds of projects are eligible for taxpayer support, and how to use eminent domain.”

To the businessmen’s plea for taxpayer support, she contrasts the accomplishments of the “city-building women” of Hull House and other settlement houses. “They were making major progress in actually improving people’s lives, and they did it with very modest investments.”

And to their gathering of the wealthiest men in Chicago — “their idea of diversity was having someone from every club at the table” — she contrasts the women’s ability to join people of every nationality, from the richest to the poorest.

Hot house of innovation

Hull House was something of a hot house for urban innovation, intensely focused on the most troubled district in the city, with a strong practical approach. They established day care, a kindergarten, afterschool programs, and adult education, along with a library, a museum of labor, a book bindery, an art studio, a music school and orchestra, and much more. They built the first playground in Chicago, and went on to found the Playground Association of America, which held its first conference in Chicago in 1907.

Settlement house workers also grappled directly with the kind of city problems that the Burnham plan glossed over. Florence Kelley was the state’s first factory inspector, and helped win sweatshop and child labor laws. And after reporting on inadequate garbage collection which bred rats and disease in alleys where children played, Jane Addams was made sanitary inspector of the 19th ward. She and members of the Hull House Women’s Association filed 1,000 complaints in the first year.

Their programs didn’t hinge on taxpayer support, either. When the state legislature agreed children should no longer be housed in adult jails and tried in adult courts — but failed to provide funding for a juvenile court and detention center — Addams enlisted a number of wealthy women who financed the new institutions through their first seven years. A low-budget effort by settlement houses to set up tents with hammocks where children sick from spoiled milk could be nursed to health — and their mothers educated in prevention — reduced summer infant mortality by 18 percent between 1903 and 1909.

Maps and Papers

Hull House also conducted extensive research, digging deep into neighborhood conditions — just the kind of thing you might expect of “comprehensive” city planners. Using the new method of statistical mapping, Hull House studied overcrowding, truancy, typhoid fever, addiction, infant mortality, and sanitation.

In 1895 they published Hull House Maps and Papers, an incredibly rich and detailed document, mapping ethnicity and wages for each household in the district and including papers on sweatshops, child laborers, workers wages and expenses, labor organization, and county institutions for the indigent. Papers on the Bohemian and Italian communities are by editors of ethnic newspapers.

Indeed, the settlement house movement was deeply involved in a debate at the birth of urban planning over its proper purview — should it deal exclusively with physical layout (and aim for the City Beautiful) or address social conditions? Metzger points out that the first meeting of the National Conference on City Planning (also in 1909, in Washington DC) was organized by Mary Simkhovitch, a New York settlement house leader.

Her campaign on congestion had focused on its social and economic causes and called for parks, schools, playgrounds, and transit, along with housing law reform. She believed neighborhood plans should form the basis of city plans, and residents should participate in planning — including poor immigrants. But before long the NCCP was entirely dominated by architects, engineers and lawyers; Simkhovitch went on to found the National Housing Association in 1911.

(The tide may be turning, though: Metzger notes that Chicago Metropolis 2020, launched by the same Commercial Club that sponsored Burnham’s plan, has a “fundamentally different approach — they start with education, they talk about reducing segregation, they talk about public health.”)

Little plans

Metzger scoffs at Burnham’s edict to “make no little plans.” It’s a philosophy that has given us expensive megaprojects which reinforced inequities and turned out to be unsustainable: miles of high-rise housing projects; massive urban renewal projects separating homes, jobs, and shopping; neighborhoods demolished to build expressways to the suburbs. “All of which would have been anathema to Jane Addams and her friends,” she says. (She also thinks Addams would have hated having a tollway named for her.)

“No little plans” has given us a history of planning which is done to people rather than with them. Metgzer contrasts the approach to assimilating immigrants by the Hull House women — based on educating, organizing and empowering them — with Burnham’s, which sought “to intimidate them by the grandeur of our monuments to ourselves, so they’d stop acting like immigrants.”

Along with her own community-level involvement in affordable housing and schools — she served on Mayor Washington’s 1987 commission which launched Chicago’s school reform — Metzger worked for years with CNT’s Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, focused on involving communities in planning their own future. She’s also served on the board of Association House, the social service agency descended from a settlement house.

Her book is written as a series of conversations by small groups drawn from about a hundred historical figures in the settlement house movement, women’s networks, and progressive supporters. Based in many places on their own prolific writings, the characters meet to discuss Burnham’s plan for parks, transportation, and the central business district, with further chapters on what’s missing: education, housing and neighborhood development, public health, justice, immigrants and labor.

The title is a bow to Addam’s prominence, but one of the book’s goals is to highlight the overlooked contributions of many other women city-builders in Chicago history.

Metzger and other CNT staffers will stage a reading of one of the chapters this Thursday, March 26, at 5:30 p.m. at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W. North. (Reservations are requested at 773-269-4031 or katherine@cnt.org.) Publication by Claremont Press is expected later this spring.

Jane Addams Day/Gay Day

An interesting conjunction of events -a nationwide protest against California’s recent vote against gay marriage falling on Jane Addams day, December 10, the state holiday marking the date that Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Gay rights advocates including the Gay Liberation Network protest at the Cook County Marriage License Bureau, 118 N. Clark, at 11 a.m.; Mirian Wright Edelman of Children’s Defense Fund speaks at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, 800 S. Halsted, at 4 p.m.

Historians debate whether Addams had a lesbian relationship or a “romantic friendship” with her companion Mary Rozet Smith; talking to Newstips in 2006, when the state holiday was inaugurated, Addams Museum director Lisa Yun Lee said Addams and her colleagues at Hull House “redefined domestic space and intimate relationships” in ways that supported women as public actors.

As Lee pointed out, Addams’ work is incredibly relevant to today’s struggles — she led efforts for labor organization and immigrant rights and against war, while experimenting with domestic politics, providing sex education for youth and advocating for legalizing birth control.

A civil rights activist and attorney in the South in the 1960s, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. She’ll be reading from her new book, The Sea Is Wide and My Boat Is So Small, described as “a series of letters to a variety of audiences—educators, faith leaders, youth, mothers, elected officials and concerned citizens nationwide—that reflect on the social and economic progress as well as the setbacks since [Martin Luther] King’s death 40 years ago.”

Museum Highlights Jane Addams’ Continuing Relevance

Peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly will speak at the first annual birthday celebration for Jane Addams, founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, on September 6.

Sponsored by UIC’s Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the event launches a year of increasing activity by the museum to “breathe new life into Jane Addams’ legacy,” according to museum director Lisa Yun Lee.

This year will also mark the inauguration of Jane Addams Day in Illinois on December 10, the date that she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. It’s the first state or federal holiday in the U.S. that honors a woman.

Kelly, founder of the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, will discuss her recent trip to Beirut working with nonviolent activists there. She’ll be joined by Beth Richie, whose work links domestic and international violence with a feminist and anti-racist perspective, and Dawn Dalton from the Domestic Violence Court advocacy program at Uptown Center Hull House, an organization with historical links to Addams’ Hull House Settlement House.

Lee is working to expand the museum’s reach to highlight Addams’ legacy on a range of issues of continuing concern. “On so many of the issues that are so pressing on society today – immigration, war – I don’t think there’s anybody more relevant than Jane Addams,” she said.

Plans in the works include a labor film series; an exhibit documenting the collaboration and conflict of Addams and Ida B. Wells on the issue of lynching; and explorations of the role of gender and sexuality at Hull House, where women “redefined domestic space and intimate relationships” in ways that supported women as public actors – while also conducting sex education for youth and advocating legalization of birth control, Lee said.

Building on Addams’ work bringing prominent philosophers and scholars into contact with working people, Lee sees the museum serving as a bridge between academic researchers and activist community groups. She also hopes to address the conflicts in the founding of UIC itself – a “wonderful urban institution” built at the cost of the destruction of a community – a story which the University itself has never addressed, Lee said.

The Hull House Museum consists of the old residence and dining facility from the sprawling, 13-building settlement complex which was demolished when UIC was built. The settlement house included classrooms, dance halls, theaters, and arts and crafts workshops, with programming and services for immigrant workers and their families. According to Lee, it included the first public art gallery, the first public playground, and the first public bath in Chicago, which was used by thousands of neighborhood residents who lacked running water.

A birthday cake will be shared in the courtyard of the museum, 800 S. Halsted, from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, September 6, and the First Annual Jane Addams Conversation on Peace and Justice will be held at 3 p.m.



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