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Chicago neighborhood raises hopes for urban renewal

CHICAGO

What I saw here on a recent summer weekend was a sight I never imagined. I am not referring to two-year-old Millennium Park, the stunning mixture of greenery and architecture that has been built over the old railroad yards east of Michigan Avenue.

I am talking about another of Mayor Richard Daley's legacies, the mixed-income townhouse and apartment developments south and west of the Loop that have replaced those 16-story monuments to drugs, despair and degradation that were the landmarks of Chicago's public housing for 50 years.

Those projects - with notorious names like Cabrini-Green and Ida B. Wells - constituted a wall of separation in the city, a barrier that blocked the black ghetto from the Lake Michigan shoreline, where affluent whites lived. The windows of those gray concrete towers were often shattered by gunfire, and the elevators reeked of urine and drugs. Women with babies feared the gangs that "owned" the buildings.

Now, except for a handful of relics awaiting demolition, those emblems of the misguided urban planning of the 1950s are gone. In their place you have two-story apartment buildings, air-conditioned, brightly painted, with units fully carpeted, modern kitchens, washing machines and dryers.

More remarkable, any given building will likely contain identical units - some public housing, some subsidized, affordable rentals, and some market-rate rentals or owner-occupied. And you can't tell which is which.

On a recent weekend, I visited three of the new neighborhoods with Terry Peterson, the CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority. Peterson, a former alderman who is built like a linebacker and has a linebacker mentality when it comes to bulldozing the bureaucracy, had described the change to me when he was in Washington, testifying to Congress.

But I would not have believed it if I had not seen the new homes and neighborhoods myself - and talked with some of the people whose lives have been remade by the change in their living conditions.

At Oakwood Shores, one of the new developments, residents Sandra Young and Bernard Lloyd told me they and other longtime public housing residents had actually guided the developers on what they wanted in their new buildings - and helped recruit other families. In Oakwood and in several other developments, the residents themselves demanded drug tests for all families.

Clean buildings are one thing, but what makes a neighborhood are the amenities - parks, schools, recreation facilities, police and fire protection. All of them have been supplied by Daley as part of the 1999 agreement that gave him control of the housing agency, so troubled in the past it had been taken over by the feds. Daley cut the deal directly with Bill Clinton, who overrode the objections of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

Daley told me that his father, the old mayor, was opposed to the high-rise construction from the start, but the design was imposed on the city. Be that as it may, the son is justly proud of having created a much more humane design. He and Peterson are convinced - along with many scholars of the culture of poverty - that people learn by example. Living among people who go to work every day and seek to improve their families' lives rubs off on welfare mothers.

Already, 174 families that were living in subsidized or public housing units have saved enough to make down payments to purchase their own units. As of last month, the completed mixed-income projects included almost 2,000 units of public housing, almost 1,500 market-rate and 725 affordable housing units. Occupancy rates for all three are at a peak, and no wonder, when one sees the Montessori preschool the city has opened in one neighborhood, the University of Chicago-run charter school in another, and the brand-new recreation center, with an indoor pool and an outdoor water park, a huge gym and day-care center, in a third.

Daley and Peterson say that HUD has been cheering them on since George W. Bush became president. But Bush has let the HOPE VI housing program, which provided much of the outside capital for Daley's initiative, lapse, and he has been trying to get rid of the Community Development Block Grant program that also has been vital to Chicago's success.

One measure of that success is that the city's investment of $242 million in mixed-income housing has triggered more than $1 billion of private and outside public financing.

For me, a more important measure came when Bernard Lloyd said that people in the projects "used to feel completely cut off from the rest of Chicago. Now you have the freedom to go where you want to go. I go jogging on Promontory Point" - a landmark on the Lake Michigan waterfront. "I never even thought of doing that before."

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.