Altgeld Gardens

Altgeld Gardens, a 1,498 units consisting of low-income two-story row houses on 190 acres of land was built adjacent to the Calumet River water system by the Federal government between 1943-45 purposely for black war industry workers, southern migrants and returning servicemen and their families, who were denied mortgage benefits of the 1944 servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GIs Bill) for daring to protest racist mistreatment. Thus limiting suburbanization of the Black GIs at the time suburban form of regional development was in full swing for white servicemen.

The self-contained garden city model complex includes a public library, schools, clubhouse, an auditorium and shopping center and is encompassed by 130th street, St Lawrence Avenues and South Doty. Named after progressive Era Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, an Illinois politician responsible for appointing more women to government positions and implementing state child labor and workforce safety laws, was also a real estate developer responsible for building the Unity Building on Dearborn street. Altgeld Gardens was a project of Elizabeth Wood, who at that time was the Executive director of Chicago Housing Authority and received backlash from the white community in surrounding neighborhood for proposing the construction of the project in uninhabited lands of Riverdale and close to these white communities.

In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux, a civil rights activist and Altgeld Gardens resident filed lawsuits against the Chicago Housing Authority for violating the U.S Constitution by discriminatorily locating public housing units in secluded black neighborhoods and segregation. The lawsuit not only led to a reform in the housing policies within the Chicago and National Housing Authority, but set the agenda for innovative housing initiatives. It also resulted in the renovations of several public housing units in the country and in Altgeld Gardens.

Altgeld Gardens hosted notable African American figures such as Joe Lewis, Paul Robeson and Jesse Owen. It also housed the Development Community Project (DCP), a community outreach and organizing initiative set up by Barack Obama, and featured some key residents like environmental activist Hazel Johnson at the time the environmental Justice movement was emerging. The history of the urban design of Altgeld Gardens, makes the complex an exemplary candidate for transit-oriented development offered by the construction of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line Extension project.

However, the housing complex planned on a “Garden City” model to take advantage of the green spaces around the Calumet waterway system, has been exposed to toxic chemicals. It exists in the middle of the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the U.S, and surrounded by 50 landfills and 382 industrial facilities, as well as 250 leaking underground storage tanks, that could lead to the development of the most toxic environmental conditions on a black community in the U.S.

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  1. Lou Turner, “Racial Space-Making in Post-War Metropolitan Chicago: History of Black GIs & War Industry Worker at Altgeld Gardens” (ASAALH Conference, Indianapolis, IN, October 2018).
  2. “Altgeld Gardens, Block 11, 12 and 13” in Preservation Chicago: Strengthening Chicago by Protecting Historic Architecture, accessed November 10, 2020. Avaliale Online.
  3. “Altgeld Gardens and Philip Murray Homes” in Chicago Gang History, accessed November 11 2020 Available Online.
  4. “Altgeld Gardens, Block 11, 12 and 13” in Preservation Chicago: Strengthening Chicago by Protecting Historic Architecture, accessed November 10, 2020. Avaliale Online.
  5. “The Gautreaux Lawsuit,” BPI, accessed November 11 2020. Avaliale Online. See also " “CYC-Dorothy Gautreaux Child Development Center |Riverdale,” Chicago Youth Centers, accessed November 12 2020." Available Online.
  6. “Race, poverty and fair housing: Chicago’s landmark Gautreaux case winds down” Chicago Tribune, accessed November 12 2020. Avaliale Online.
  7. Turner, "Racial Space-Making," 2018.