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Cheryl Johnson

Layton Ehmke/MEDILL

Cheryl Johnson, of the People for Community Recovery, demands that Carver High School be re-opened to local youth.

In Altgeld Gardens, problems run deeper than Fenger violence

by Layton Ehmke, Justine Jablonska and John Lund
Oct 27, 2009

Altgeld Gardens looks like a war zone. From burned-out CHA structures to potholes deep enough to make streets unpassable, it looks and feels more like war-torn Baghdad than Chicago.

If you live in the housing project, off 130th Street on Chicago’s Far South Side, a few things are within convenient walking distance: A wastewater treatment plant, a rolling mountain range of Chicago’s garbage, a polluted river.

A decent grocery store, however, is three separate bus rides away.

This is where President Barack Obama did his community organizing. Obama worked under Hazel Johnson, his mentor. Obama now lives in the White House, but those who remain in Altgeld – including Hazel’s daughter Cheryl – continue to fight as the community boils over from too many years of alternately being pushed around or neglected.

“This is a state of emergency,” Cheryl Johnson said Monday from her Altgeld Gardens office. “[Attorney General] Eric Holder came down here and allocated $500,000. What is $500,000 going to do? We’re at ground zero here. We have nothing.”

Cheryl Johnson is the executive director of People for Community Recovery, founded in 1979 by her mother to address urban environmental pollution. Today, the organization continues to address that issue, as well as housing rights, youth issues and employment services.

Johnson and her team are now focusing on Carver Military Academy. They want part of it to open as a neighborhood high school for Altgeld Gardens residents – some of whom were involved in the feud that resulted in the beating death of Derrion Albert last month.

Chicago Public Schools officials announced earlier this month that Carver will open enrollment for those Fenger High School students who no longer want to attend Fenger. As a military academy, Carver normally accepts students citywide, but at a freshman level only, and has a selective application process.

But Johnson said that part of the school building should be allocated as a regular neighborhood high school – which is what Carver used to be before CPS began an aggressive effort to improve schools. The effort, launched in 2004 and known as Renaissance 2010, was to create new charter schools, with selective enrollments, throughout Chicago.

Once Carver was turned into a military academy with an application process, Altgeld Gardens students were left with no neighborhood school. Some of them were re-assigned to Fenger, four miles away.

At Fenger, the Altgeld Gardens students were “constantly placed in a situation where they were the targets of ridicule and violence,” said Scott Chesebro, director of the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture in Hyde Park. The situation was additionally heightened by the working- and middle-class students from Fenger looking down on Altgeld Gardens kids, Chesebro said.

Before Albert was killed, members of the Altgeld Gardens community had been requesting for some time that Carver be opened up. That death is the link in a chain of events and policies that put Altgeld students in conflict.

“At least if they were here, they could run home,” Johnson said.

Now, the community members say the need for opening Carver to neighborhood students has reached a critical point.“They have to let these kids go to Carver,” Johnson said. “And we’re not giving up on that.”

Johnson promised that if Carver regains its status as a neighborhood school, the parents would be very involved, and said that Altgeld students would finally be able to focus on their education.

She said the main thing missed in the media coverage of Albert’s death was that “our kids are not being educated.” And for that, schools must become a safe haven for Altgeld Gardens students, she said. “Those kids aren’t learning under fear.”

Not only are they not learning – but they have no educational tools or resources such as libraries or computers easily accessible to them, Johnson said. The nearest Chicago Public Library to Altgeld Gardens is in the West Pullman neighborhood – about four miles away, with no direct CTA route.

That lack of a library and resources speak to the larger issues facing Altgeld Gardens residents.

Even when poverty-stricken communities such as Altgeld reach for solutions that are in their grasp – such as opening Carver for neighborhood residents – the underlying issues still remain, Chesebro said.

“In some ways we’re reaping right now the consequences of generations of segregation and isolation,” Chesebro said. “And because we’ve never addressed it, it’s erupting in this desperation.” In the Fenger situation, Chesebro said, “these kids aren’t so much fighting back as much as they are fighting each other” as they desperately try to work out their problems.

Johnson agrees.

“The kids are acting out,” she said. “But instead of acting outward, they’re turning in on each other.”

She said she and other community members will continue fighting for Altgeld Gardens and its residents.“This is a war zone,” she said. “Send some of that stimulus money down here. Set this place up and use it as an example.”