For decades it sat in the 9th Ward, clusters of housing projects in Riverdale on the Far South Side, where thousands of poor residents once lived amid the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the country.
Today, residents of Altgeld Gardens have moved on after winning a class action lawsuit that forced the Chicago Housing Authority to clean up heavily polluted sites that gave Altgeld Gardens the nickname “the toxic doughnut.”
But a new era of uncertainty will soon come to residents of Altgeld Gardens and the Phillip Murray homes. The complex has been in the 9th ward for as long as anyone can remember. Alderman Anthony Beale has been around for over 20 years as Altgeld Gardens weathered some difficult times.
But the 77-year-old sprawling complex, next year will be in the predominately Latino 10th Ward, under Alderman Susan Sadowski Garza. Today, most residents still don’t know about the change.
The move is part of the new map of Chicago’s 50 wards.
As politicos at City Hall shuffled Alderman Brookins’ 21st Ward to absorb what’s left of outgoing Alderman Carrie Austin’s 34th Ward, the 9th Ward underwent that change many did not know about.
Amid the bitter, high-profile feud between Chicago’s Black and Latino Caucuses, the eastern boundaries of the 9th Ward shrank while its western boundaries expanded. As a result, Beale’s ward picked up Roseland’s Princeton Park neighborhood near the Dan Ryan but lost Altgeld Gardens to Garza’s 10th Ward.
While Beale remains silent on the change, Garza told the Crusader that she and Beale discovered the changes on the Black Caucus map last December, when Beale accused Alderman Jason Ervin, chairman of the Black Caucus, of shutting him out of the room where the map was on display (Ervin denied this claim). That’s when Beale spoke out about possibly losing the historic Pullman neighborhood. But he never spoke out against losing Altgeld Gardens.
The City Council approved the Chicago United Map days before a May 19 deadline to avoid a referendum for the June 28 Primary. Beale voted against the map, but Garza voted to approve it. The map passed the City Council by a 43-7 vote.
Many of Chicago’s 50 wards will remain the same under the new map.
Chicago will have 17 Black wards, which is one less than the 18 the city had in the past 10 years.
Alderman Austin’s 34th Ward will move to the North Side. Her ward, which included parts of West Pullman, Morgan Park, Washington Heights and Roseland, was mostly absorbed by the 21st Ward. That ward’s alderman, Howard Brookins, Jr., is running for circuit court judge in the June 28 Primary.
Altgeld Gardens is bounded by 130th street on the north, 134th street on the south, S. Doty Avenue on the east and St. Lawrence Avenue on the West.
With 1,971 brick rowhomes in Riverdale, Altgeld Gardens was built in 1945 for Black soldiers returning from World War II. The complex includes the Philip Murray Homes, built in 1954 and named after Philip Murray, a prominent leader of the labor movement.
About 7,000 residents live in the Altgeld Gardens/Phillip Murray homes and the complex is 94 percent Black. Last year, a $7.1 million community center and Chicago Public Library branch opened in the center of the complex.
In 2003, residents of Altgeld Gardens received a $10.5 million settlement after they filed a class action lawsuit against CHA, accusing the agency of exposing them to medical risks linked to PCBs, which were released after employees dumped oil as they took copper from electric transformers. The settlement money went toward CHA tenants’ monthly rent.
The complex is surrounded by industrial land, roads and the Calumet River. In 2017, the National Resources Defense Council reported that for most of the century, the area became a dumping ground for hazardous waste that had the highest concentration of toxic waste in the country.
The report also said the community had the highest rates of cancer in the city. One Altgeld resident, the late Hazel Johnson, gave birth to the environmental justice movement in the 1980s when she learned that many residents between the ages of 35 and 55 had been stricken with cancer.
Now, Altgeld residents have an alderman that many do not know. Next year, they will become part of Garza’s 10th Ward, which is predominately Latino.
That ward includes South Chicago, East Side, South Deering, and Calumet Heights. But under the Chicago United Map, the 10th Ward was extended to include the 9th Ward’s Riverdale neighborhood all the way west to South Indiana Avenue. That extension brings the Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray Homes into the 10th Ward.
Meanwhile, the top northwestern boundary of Beale’s 9th Ward was extended from State Street to Lowe Avenue to the west. That change brings Princeton Park from Brookins’ 21st Ward to Beale’s ward.
Beale did not respond to a Crusader email that asked how the change came about. Throughout the remap process, he was vocal about being a victim of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whom he has publicly criticized on past policies and issues.
In a telephone interview Garza said she and Beale noticed the Altgeld Gardens change last December when they saw the Black Caucus map during contentious negotiations. She said the Black Caucus map showed Altgeld Gardens in her ward. She told the Crusader that Beale wanted to keep Altgeld Gardens in the 9th ward, and the two wanted to negotiate but couldn’t because the Black Caucus map had already been established.
“I was at a point where I thought the map was a done deal and [the process] is over, “Garza said.
Beale in the Crusader, and in other news reports, voiced concerns about losing the historic Pullman neighborhood in the 9th Ward after Garza informed him of the Black Caucus map last December. In response, Beale broke with the Black Caucus and joined the Latino Caucus, whose original map kept Altgeld Gardens in the 9th Ward.
In an interview with the Crusader Alderman Ervin explained why Altgeld Gardens was moved out of the 9th Ward.
He said the 10th Ward was 6,000 short of the necessary 55,000 residents it must have as part of the remap process. Ervin said the 10th Ward’s north boundary was unable to expand further north because the population wasn’t large enough to make up the difference. There was also concern that it would affect Alderman Michelle Harris’ 8th Ward or Alderman Greg Mitchell’s 7th Ward.
“Pushing the 10th Ward north would have caused all kind of ripple effects,” Ervin told the Crusader.
Ervin said the only option was to expand the 10th Ward to the west into the 9th Ward. He said Altgeld Gardens gave the 10th Ward the 6,000 residents it needed during the remap process.
Ervin added that to make up for the loss of residents in the 9th Ward, that ward’s western boundaries were extended to include the Princeton Park neighborhood.
Further, Ervin said, the Black Caucus original map that was released last November showed Altgeld Gardens in the 10th Ward.
“Of course it was not her preference,” Ervin told the Crusader.
Ervin said Garza was a part of the remap process but not at the beginning. He said that’s when she and Beale were with the Latino Caucus, which supported a different map. But, Ervin said Beale was “well aware” of Altgeld moving to the 10th Ward on the Black Caucus map.
Ervin said there were 13 public hearings during the remap process. Those hearings were in-person or on Zoom, but transportation and internet service is a challenge to Altgeld Garden’s low-income residents.
“At the end of the day we had to solve the population problem for the 10th Ward in a way that was the least impactful for the Black community overall,” Ervin said. “As these changes occurred there were more people available to the west than the north.”
During a Crusader visit to Altgeld Gardens, some residents told the Crusader they were unaware that they were moving to the 10th Ward.
The Crusader spoke to several people at the Altgeld Gardens branch of the Chicago Public Library, located in the new community center. None of them knew Altgeld Gardens was moving to the 10th Ward under the new Chicago United Map.
Another resident, who didn’t want to give her name, was shocked when a Crusader journalist informed her of the change, but she said the ward may suit the growing number of Latino residents she has seen at Altgeld Gardens.
Altgeld Gardens library security guard William Roberison said he found out several weeks ago when a reporter from the online publication Patch informed him of the change.
“We didn’t know that, and that’s the truth,” Roberison said. “Nobody here even knew it.”
Longtime Altgeld Gardens resident and activist Cheryl Johnson is the daughter of environmental pioneer Hazel Johnson and founder of the nonprofit People for Community Recovery. Cheryl said she didn’t know anything about the move to the 10th Ward and nobody from the City Council ever told her.
“No one came to our community to tell us anything,” she told the Crusader. “Our residential leadership didn’t tell us anything.”
Cheryl said she found out about the change from a community organizer. Cheryl also said she had not spoken to Beale or Garza before the City Council approved the Chicago United Map.
“I’m still trying to understand the process,” she said. “We need to become more involved in the political process. Politics is a business, and we need to understand that.”
Beale in an email acknowledged that Altgeld Gardens is no longer in his ward, but he didn’t answer a follow up email asking how the change came about.
Karen Vaughan, a spokesperson for the Chicago Housing Authority, said the agency had nothing to do with the change or the remapping process.
Garza said she has not held meetings about the change with Altgeld Garden residents. She told the Crusader that she plans to hold one to introduce herself and her ward team to get Altgeld Gardens residents acclimated to their new ward.
“I’m not privileged to the conversations Alderman Beale had [with the Black Caucus.] I don’t know. I’m going to do my best in welcoming the people at Altgeld Gardens to the 10th Ward. I plan to deliver services equally to Altgeld Gardens regardless of skin color.”