Vacant homes keep Englewood in downward spiral (Chicago Tribune)

By Antonio Olivo, William Mullen and Dahleen Glanton

June 24, 2011

Englewood is rapidly being abandoned, many of its blocks now little more than weed-choked and trash-littered urban prairies.

A neighborhood that had long been on the brink was pushed over the edge by the foreclosure crisis, leading to a descent that threatens the rest of the city by draining resources and shrinking tax rolls.

What is left in Englewood and West Englewood draws comparison to the worst of Detroit. As residents fled and investors pulled out, the number of abandoned buildings and vacant lots on many streets outnumbers occupied buildings.

Into that emptiness has washed a flood of urban ills. Drug dealers use the abandoned houses to store their stashes, addicts break in to shoot up. Sexual predators drag victims into empty houses and prostitutes find decrepit ruins convenient for doing business.

The residents of Englewood feel forgotten, but say the rest of the city should pay attention.

"People in the north Loop should care about what's going on here because, eventually, it all seeps through," said Emily Dunn, 79, a veteran neighborhood activist. "It seeps into the fabric of the city, and it makes a difference."

Not that many years ago, things were looking brighter. As housing prices rose, investors were attracted by solid bungalows and brick apartment buildings. A new campus for Kennedy-King College was seen as a potential anchor.

But things took a wrong turn when the economy went bad. The population of Englewood and West Englewood dropped by nearly a quarter, a loss of nearly 20,000 people, over the last decade. Some 3,500 properties sit empty, the highest concentration of vacant homes in the city.

Thieves steadily pick away at what is left, stripping newly abandoned houses and apartment buildings of every piece of metal worth taking, leaving behind worthless shells.

"People no sooner than move out and, that night, somebody is in the house stripping everything," said longtime resident Judy Dixon, 69, echoing the mixture of anger and helplessness felt by many of the remaining homeowners. "They even take out the sinks and strip the walls until they are bare."

The myriad problems feed on one another, leaving Englewood stuck in what one sociologist calls a "poverty trap" whose pull threatens surrounding communities and makes it difficult to think the area can ever recover.

"What's happened is that Englewood, along with other communities, has become enmeshed in a vicious cycle of decline," said Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University, who oversaw a project on impoverished Chicago neighborhoods for 15 years.

Many of problems in Greater Englewood trouble a number of neighborhoods already on the brink, like Roseland to the south, where 8,100 residents left in the decade, or Austin on the West Side, which lost 19,000 residents.

"Buildings become vacant. Then, that leads to a perception among residents and outsiders that the community is in decline, which then feeds actions which reinforce that very vulnerability," Sampson said. "We can't just think of communities as isolated, because their borders are porous."

Englewood and West Englewood comprise roughly six square miles of mostly single-family homes set among rail yards and warehouses. The neighborhoods are bordered roughly by Garfield Boulevard and 76th Street to the north and south, and the Dan Ryan Expressway and Damen Avenue to the east and west.

The area's brick bungalows and graystones were seen as a step toward the middle class by African-American families who began moving there during the 1950s and '60s. But by the early 1970s, nearby factory and stockyard jobs began to disappear, starting a cycle of decline.

During the mid-1980s, unemployment rose and foreclosures further eroded the area's stability, as did a local drug trade and other crime. In 1998, the body of 11-year-old Ryan Harris was found in a vacant lot, making Englewood a national emblem of urban despair.

Hope early in the 2000s that things would turn around, buoyed by rising property prices and the new Kennedy-King campus, was quickly dashed.

The housing boom ushered in predatory lenders offering volatile subprime mortgages, which led to a high rate of foreclosures even before the bubble burst. Families fled the crime-ridden neighborhood in search of safety and better schools, and no one was moving in to replace the older residents who died, according to interviews with current residents.

That set up the Englewood area for outside investors who bought empty single-family houses and converted them into rental properties, according to the Woodstock Institute, which has tracked foreclosures in Englewood and other struggling communities.

Many of the new residents were government-subsidized renters, a number of them displaced by the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion overhaul of public housing.

When the housing market crashed, scores of investors — many already absentee landlords who had been neglecting their properties — lost their properties to foreclosure or simply abandoned them, experts say. At the same time, gang frictions related to the CHA displacement heated up, chasing away more families.

"Any one of these (problems) would have been devastating, but they are all happening at once, which leaves Englewood in a pinch," said Thomas Sugrue, professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit."

The people left behind deal with growing crime and deterioration, living on streets decorated with teddy bear shrines that mark the latest shooting.

In 2009, not far from the West 72nd Street home of Arnella Holloway, the body of a 12-year-old girl was found strangled and beaten near some trash cans behind an abandoned house. That same year, in an abandoned house two doors down from Holloway, a young boy was raped by two teenagers.

That house has since been rented out, but the one next to it was abandoned and has become a magnet for neighborhood children, she said.

Like many residents, Holloway calls the city constantly to complain about problems at the vacant properties. "We've called 311 so many times, they know our number by heart," she said.

Since 2005, there have been 10 murders, 32 rapes, 57 cases of aggravated battery and 35 arsons committed inside abandoned homes and vacant lots in the area, police figures show.

"These abandoned buildings and houses are very dangerous," said Andrew Holmes, a community activist. "They're more dangerous to me than someone coming up to you with a gun."

Englewood andWest Englewood are among neighborhoods the city recently said would be getting more police officers on the street.

Chicago police Cmdr. Anthony Carothers, whose 7th District encompasses the Englewood area, said local crime has gone down in recent years, as it has citywide. But he acknowledged all of the abandoned houses and vacant lots contribute to one of the highest crime rates in the city.

"In areas like these, there is a certain amount of lifestyle that has just become accepted, not legal but accepted," said Carothers. "People who commit violent crimes need that type of environment to do what they do, because you've got to blend in. They can't stand out there with a pistol in their pocket and be the only one out there."

But fear of gangs and cynicism over police effectiveness are deep-rooted in the community. In Englewood, just navigating the streets can take the skills of a seasoned diplomat.

Judy Dixon's West 68th Street home is on what police say is the border of two rival gangs, where young men clump together on corners, a vibrant drug trade operating in plain sight.

Dixon sits on her front porch, greeting passersby with a bantering "Hey, puddin', how you be?" She points to troubled houses around her.

"That one over there," she nods to a yellow house, "that guy was fixing his place up, and when he went on his vacation, somebody got in there and stripped the whole house clean, his new furnace, everything."

A common sight near local salvage yards are men pushing shopping carts that rattle with copper plumbing, appliances and even aluminum exterior siding.

Alberta Brooks, 89, watched a group of men carry a water heater and a furnace out of an abandoned house on Bishop Street in broad daylight. A bathroom sink was used to prop open the front door.

"They don't care if you're watching them," Brooks said.

"It's such an epidemic in our community," said Ald. Toni Foulkes, 15th, one of six council members whose wards include chunks of Englewood and West Englewood. "I rode the alleys (recently) for three hours, and every single board-up had been broken into."

City officials say they've been trying to keep up with the problems. Through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program that targets foreclosed properties, the city has so far acquired 600 properties citywide, with a third currently being rehabbed, officials say.

But because the ownership of so many abandoned homes in the Englewood area is legally murky, only one property in the troubled community is scheduled for demolition through that program.

"What we're looking at is a national crisis, for which we have few tools and resources," said Andy Mooney, commissioner for Community Development in Chicago. "To have neighborhoods that continue to suffer the way Englewood and others have because of what we have inherited this decade hurts the city as a whole."

Mooney said the city is searching for innovative ways to reinvigorate the area's housing market. But, he said, "This will take some time to do, and it will take some expertise."

The magnitude of what the city faces can be glimpsed on the 6100 block of Peoria Street. Out of 23 properties occupied 10 years ago, 18 are now either boarded up or reduced to vacant lots. A building that covered eight lots was destroyed by fire, said John and Jackie Moody, who live next to an empty house surrounded by a pasture of weeds five feet high.

"One time, I was out here, and my great-grandchildren, who I keep an eye on, disappeared into the high grass in that yard, and I couldn't see them," Jackie Moody said, looking out from her front porch. "I didn't even know they were in there. That really, really scared me. You don't know what's in there."

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