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Melanie Saltzman and Christina Avalos/MEDILL

Watch long-time resident Jean Hamilton and neighborhood police officer Juan Martinez  reflect on the violence and crime in the Henry Horner Homes during the late 1980s.

As West Garfield Park gentrifies, residents ‘hope it doesn’t go back to the way it was’

by Melanie Saltzman and Christina Avalos
Mar 18, 2014

While reactions to Chicago’s public housing redevelopment have varied, some urban planning experts credit improvements to neighborhoods like West Garfield Park, the former site of the infamous Henry Horner Homes, to the demolition of the city’s public housing high-rises.

However residents and community leaders say that while the neighborhood has seen vast improvements since demolition, crime continues to be a problem plaguing the area.

“There are some beautiful apartments around here, it feels good. I feel freer,” said Jean Hamilton, a long-time resident of West Garfield Park and former resident of the Henry Horner Homes. “But you still got some people with their old ways. I like where I live but I could use a few new neighbors.”

A recent Yale study, examining crime rates in Chicago neighborhoods over the past 48 years, shows that while crime is going down throughout the city, it remains persistently high and more concentrated in neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago—areas where a majority of the city’s public housing complexes once stood.

Last year, Chicago experienced its lowest levels of violent crime since 1972, and the lowest homicide rate since 1967, according to the study.

However, the study also shows that West Garfield Park, Englewood and Fuller Park actually had more murders in the 2000s than the 1970s.

Chicago’s crime hit its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with 940 murders in 1992. A bulk of the murders were the result of rival gangs competing to control the unstable drug market as the crack epidemic was on the rise, according to the crime study.

During this time, the Henry Horner Homes were notorious for poor living conditions, drugs and gang violence.

“Gangs, they pretty much controlled everything there. They controlled drugs, they controlled women, they controlled liquor, they controlled cigarettes, they controlled anything and everything vice-related,” said Juan Martinez, a retired Chicago Police officer who served in the Henry Horner Homes from 1989 to 1992. “Basically they ruled it with an iron fist.”

Some residents say the situation became so bad, they thought they needed to leave the community for the sake of their safety.

“I thought to myself it’s pretty terrible to not want to go home or to not feel comfortable where you live,” said Sharon Bryant, who was born and raised in the Henry Horner Homes and left the complex in the early 1990s. “When I was able, I got out. I had to get out.”

Since the demolition of the last Henry Horner high-rise in 2008, West Garfield Park has experienced a wave of new development. The Chicago Housing Authority has replaced the public housing units with low-rise mixed-income housing and retail space.

Father Matt Eyerman, of St. Malachy + Precious Blood Church, says that even though crime rates have remained higher than other parts of the city, the neighborhood has still changed for the better.

“When the housing was torn down and mixed income came in, the neighborhood changed dramatically for the better,” Eyerman said. “It’s more diverse and definitely safer. It’s been an ever-evolving part of the world.”

But Hamilton fears the neighborhood will once again return to its old ways. “I just hope it doesn’t go back to the way it was,” Hamilton said. “I think the police have a better chance with the troublemakers now, because you can’t run up 15 stories into anyone’s house. It makes a difference.”