Ida B. Wells Homes was a public housing project of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) located in the Bronzeville neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. They were constructed between 1939–41 as part of the Public Works Administration and demolished from 2002–2011. The homes were named after anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, who lived in a Bronzeville greystone from 1912–1921.
In Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing, Hal Baron describes how Ida B. Wells Homes was constructed after three years of campaigns and protests for low-cost public housing for Black residents in the South Side of Chicago, who were “hemmed in by restrictive covenants, violence and social ostracism” and experienced the “doubling up of families, converted kitchenette apartments, and high rents.” Black activists for public housing experienced confrontations with police and opposition from white property owners, real estate interests, and nearby Black middle class residents. Chicago mayor at the time, Edward Kelly, tried to persuade the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to construct a park belt on the eastern border of Ida B. Wells Homes to separate them from angry white residents. In spite of these obstacles, the site for Ida B. Wells Homes was finalized in 1938 and construction was completed in 1941. Nineteen thousand residents applied for 1,662 units, and those ultimately selected had an average income of $60 a month, and many were blue-collar workers.
Oscar C. Brown, who was a Black lawyer, real estate broker, and activist, became the first manager of Ida B. Wells Homes, also known as “Wellstown.” Baron shares a story about how Brown fostered a sense of community at Wellstown: at the opening of Cabrini Homes, “the Wells tenants sent a truck load of flowers that they had raised in their own gardens to the opening ceremonies.” In Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton write of Ida B. Wells Homes: “‘The Project’ was the unrealized dream of respectable lowers who wanted to make the mobility step to lower middle class. Its 2,000 families are the envy of the whole South Side."
By the 1980s and 90s, Ida B. Wells Homes had fallen into disrepair due to CHA’s neglect of maintenance, policies designed to create vacant properties, and the “web of urban racism” that Black residents continued to face. Documentaries such as Public Housing, Ghetto Life 101, and The 14 Stories of Eric Morse portray the conditions of Ida B. Wells Homes and other public housing projects in the South of Chicago in the 1980s and 90s.
In the 1990s, Chicago began demolition of public housing projects via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) HOPE VI plan to replace public housing with “mixed-income communities.” In 1995, HUD took control of Chicago Public Housing and agreed to return control to CHA only if they agreed to meet certain public housing goals. This resulted in the Plan for Transformation, which aimed to demolish 18,000 public housing units and construct or renovate 25,000 units in Chicago. As many of the units were demolished in the early 2000s, housing costs rapidly increased in Bronzeville, paving the way for gentrification. Redevelopment stalled due the housing market crash, however, and as of 2015, only 348 of the promised 3,000 units had been built to replace the 3,500 units that constituted the former Ida B. Wells Homes. In 2014, some of the land that had housed Ida B. Wells Homes was sold and, along with tax increment financing (TIF) funds, financed the construction of a Mariano’s grocery store.
Construction for Oakwood Shores Apartments, which are located on the site of the former Ida B. Wells Homes, began in 2003 and include 277 CHA units, 165 affordable units, and 145 market rate units. The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee, a subcommittee of the Oakwood Shores Working Group, has commissioned a monument commemorating Ida B. Wells to be created by artist Richard Hunt. The sculpture will be located on the Langley Boulevard median, in what is now Oakwood Shores.
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- “Ida B. Wells Homes,” in Wikipedia, September 17, 2020. Available Online. ↵
- “Jim Daley, “The Overlooked Legacy of Ida B. Wells,” South Side Weekly, November 6, 2018. Available Online. ↵
- Harold M. Baron, Building Babylon; a Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University, Center for Urban Affairs, 1971), Available Online. ↵
- “Baron, Building Babylon, 1971. ↵
- St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), p. 660. ↵
- Harold M. Baron, “The Web of Urban Racism” (Chicago Urban League Reports, March 1968), CULR-Series3, Sub-series 8.E, Box 233, Folder 2485, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections. ↵
- Frederick Wiseman, Public Housing (Cambridge, MA: Zipporah Films, 1997); LeAlan Jones, Ghetto Life 101 and Remorse, the 14 Stories of Eric Morse, The Ghetto Life Series Compilation (New York, N.Y: Sound Portraits Productions, 1996). ↵
- Jake Bittle, Srishti Kapur, and Jasmine Mithani, “Chicago’s Unfulfilled Promise to Rebuild Its Public Housing,” South Side Weekly, January 31, 2017, Available Online. ↵
- “Oakwood Shores,” The Chicago Housing Authority, accessed November 9, 2020, Available Online. ↵
- “The Monument,” Ida B Wells Monument (blog), accessed November 9, 2020, Available Online. ↵