Vacant lots pose challenge to redevelopment in Bronzeville

Dead grass, dirt, shrubs and weeds cover the vacant lot at 4845 S. Calumet Ave., in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. 


According to Housing Bronzeville, it is one of nearly 2,000 city-owned lots sitting vacant and unavailable to local residents. 


Just ask Valencia Hardy, whose family has lived next door to the South Calumet lot for more than 25 years. She says she has been trying to purchase the lot for the past 10 years.


“I don’t think that it’s fair that people who have lived here for years can’t get these vacant lots,” Hardy says.


Hardy's experience inspired her to join Housing Bronzeville, a nonprofit that organizes community residents around land use issues. The organization is trying to make sure that developers don't take control of vacant lots and further gentrify the historically-black community.


Hardy's saga begins in 1995, when she tired to buy the vacant lot abutting the 120-year-old row home in Bronzeville she inherited from her late father. She wanted the land to expand the size of her yard.

 According to records obtained from the Recorder of Deeds, the title of the lot was taken by the city in 1991. It is unclear why.

Chicago aldermen have the power to hold city-owned land in their wards. Parcels have been sold for about $300 each.

 In 1997, Dorothy Tillman was the Third Ward alderman, and Hardy says she asked her if she could hold the lot so she could purchase it.

 “She said that she would help me get the lot,” Hardy says.

In return, Hardy volunteered at Tillman’s office, reporting abandoned cars, broken lights and cracked sidewalks for a few months.

Five years passed and Hardy was unable to get Tillman to release the property. Hardy says she tried a different approach: She wrote letters to other community leaders and aldermen asking for help. They all pointed her back to Tillman.

Then, in 2002, Hardy confronted Tillman at a public meeting. She claims Tillman berated her.

Tillman did not return numerous telephone calls seeking comment. 

“It was just a mess,” Hardy says. “No one did anything but criticize and throw up more obstacles.”

The city’s Department of Planning and Development has no record of Hardy ever applying to purchase the lot. Records show that the lot was put on a hold for a short time by Tillman in 2001, but was later released.

In 2002, Hardy joined Housing Bronzeville, a subsidiary of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, 3424 S. State St., a nonprofit that offers leadership training for community residents.

While Hardy never got control of her abutting lot, she now concerns herself with the fate of 1,914 vacant lots owned by the city, according to property records Housing Bronzeville obtained through a Freedom of Information request made from the Planning and Development Department.

Housing Bronzeville activists say the city and local aldermen held back the lots so they could later sell them to developers for a larger profit. Aldermen deny the charge.

Bob Gannett, a community organizer director for the Institute of Community Empowerment and Bronzeville Housing advisor, says he is concerned that lower- and middle-class residents might be forced out of the community if the city sells the Bronzeville lots to certain developers.

If that happens, taxes would increase and property values would soar, making it nearly impossible for current residents to afford to stay in their homes, he says.

In 2007, Pat Dowell, then the executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corp., defeated Tillman in a run-off election.

During the campaign, Dowell signed an agreement with Housing Bronzeville. It reads, “I pledge, if elected, to make transparent to the public information regarding the sales of the 1,885 vacant lots that the City currently owns in Bronzeville. In order to remove the veil of secrecy which shrouds such sales and allows Bronzeville to be sold out from under its current residents.”

Hardy claims Dowell hasn’t kept her promise to help with the lots and says the alderwoman is in on the city plan to redefine Bronzeville, which in turn would push people out of the community.

“They are pricing us out and scaring us out,” Hardy says. “They are just trying to run us out of here.”

Dowell denies there is any plan to uproot Bronzeville residents. Olympics organizers have argued that the games would benefit the neighborhood, which would host the Olympic Village if Chicago were selected.

"I have met with [Housing Bronzeville] three or four times," Dowell says. The alderman adds that she shares the group's concerns about bringing more transparency to decision about how land in the neighborhood is used.

Affordable housing would be left in the wake of that project, they say.

Hardy says neighborhood residents need to be more involved to make sure Bronzeville continues to be affordable.

“These people are going to do what they want to do if we lay down and let them,” Hardy says. “That’s why we have to fight, why we have to show some sort of resistance.”

This past election, Bronzeville residents approved a referendum was requesting that the city set aside 26 percent of the vacant lots in Bronzeville for middle-income housing. 

Jeff Fuldauer contributed to this report.