For 11 years the city of Joliet, Illinois, has waged a legal battle to condemn and seize control of a large, low income housing complex called Evergreen Terrace.
The buildings house about 750 people: almost all of them African-American and very poor. The complex sits on a block-long stretch of land just off the Des Plaines River, across from Joliet’s downtown, and adjacent to the Cathedral area--one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
In Joliet, many people say Evergreen is a problem. In an online survey distributed by a Joliet city council member last year that asked for opinions on what should be done with Evergreen Terrace, “tear it down” was by far the most popular option, with hundreds of votes.
“I think if you can still drive down Broadway [a street near Evergreen], and if you go slow enough you’ll get approached by some guys trying to sell you drugs,” Joliet councilman Mike Turk told said in a recent interview.
Bob Nachtrieb with the Cathedral Area Preservation Association, a neighborhood group that has been a big advocate of the city’s acquisition effort, agrees that it is a problem area.
“The crime rate around the area is high. There are drug dealers who loiter out in front. It’s just not a healthy, happy place.”
Nachtrieb has never been inside Evergreen Terrace.
In court, Joliet has faced off against the buildings’ residents, building management, and even the federal government to argue that Evergreen is run-down and dangerous.
And now it looks like that argument may finally be coming to an end. The city recently won a major court case against Evergreen Terrace’s owner, Burnham Management. Burnham could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a spokesperson said the company is “considering its legal options,” but Joliet plans to take control of Evergreen Terrace in October.
It’s unclear exactly what will happen to the complex. If the low-income housing is torn down, a federal settlement requires the location be used for something that will benefit the community, like a park or community center. Joliet would also have to rebuild a third of the housing units, and provide the rest of the residents with housing vouchers.
But there’s one group of people in town that hasn’t bought the argument that Evergreen is unlivable: the people who live there.
On most summer afternoons Rodger Humphery can be found working in Evergreen’s tidy vegetable garden.
A grassy lawn stretches out by the garden, shaded by big leafy trees. Downtown Joliet sits just across the river. On a sunny day, the view is not without its charms.
On a recent afternoon, Humphery was harvesting pumpkins, corn and collard greens.
“I like living around here,” Humphery said. “We have nice things to do. Everything is great.”
Nateba Yates, who was helping Rodger with the harvest, seconded that.
“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s home.”
Yates moved here from Chicago Heights in 2009, and she says Evergreen Terrace is a much better place to raise her four children. Her apartment may not be luxurious, but there is a playground on the property, and the city of Joliet is quiet and calm.
And Yates added there is real sense of community here--in addition to being her gardening partner, Humphery also watches her children at the complex’s free child care center.
“Outsiders think this is just a bad neighborhood, I guess,” Yates said. “But if you have never been over here--how can you judge?
Marquisha Judkins asked the same question in her Evergreen Terrace apartment. The apartment is immaculate--her little kitchen table overflowing with cleaning sprays and paper towels.
Judkins moved here from the Chicago Suburb of Harvey about two years ago, and she says the difference in her kids has been huge.
“Where I am from we would literally have to watch our back going to the corner store,” she said. “Here--my daughters [are] walking right to the corner store. Where I am from, they didn’t want to go to school. Here my daughter is a...honor roll student.”
Why then is there such a difference between the way Evergreen is seen by its residents and Joliet at large? One reason may be outdated perceptions.
In the 1990s and early 2000s Evergreen was a rough place, according to Joliet Police Department Deputy Chief of Operations Edgar Gregory.
In the last decade or so crime has dropped off dramatically there, Gregory said. And conditions in the actual apartment buildings have greatly improved.
But despite the declining crime rate at the apartment complex, Nachtrieb insists that Evergreen is a problem and the city needs to take it over.
Evergreen’s advocates say there’s another, more insidious reason that Joliet has so insistently pursued taking over the apartment complex.
“That this is critical affordable housing. And that the city’s actions appear to be motivated by racial animus,” said Kate Walz, a lawyer with Chicago’s Shriver Center on Poverty Law who has represented tenants of Evergreen since 2005.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice took Joliet to court for what it saw as a racist attempt by the city to reduce its black population.
They settled in 2013, but documents that came out in that case and a related one show a long history of charged rhetoric around Evergreen Terrace.
“There were numerous documents identified in the litigation where they are saying, ‘We need to take back our riverfront. We need to get rid of this cancer. We need to get these rats from public housing out of the city of Joliet,” Walz said. “And so I think that continues to be the driving force here.”
All of this weighs heavily on Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk.
Before he took office last year he was a city councilman, and before that he was a Joliet police officer who walked the halls of Evergreen Terrace.
“[Evergreen]is not the worst place in the city,” O’Dekirk said, “It never was. And I was a patrolmen for 10 years, I know what the worst neighborhoods were.”
O’Dekirk denies that racism has motivated the city’s push to take over the apartment buildings. But he is the first to admit that the conversations around Evergreen have gotten so politicized and that it’s become almost impossible to talk about the complex honestly.
When he was on the city council, O’Dekirk opposed the city’s plan to seize control of Evergreen.
“As a councilman I had conversations in private with some of the big proponents of this, who were admitting in private that this was a mistake, this was going to bankrupt the city,” O’DeKirk said. “And then these same people publically would take the complete opposite posture and argue against me, tell me I am wrong.”
Shortly after taking office, O’Dekirk ordered an audit of Joliet’s efforts to take over Evergreen. It found that the city had spent about $6 million on legal fees alone so far.
Another finding of the audit ordered by O’Dekirk: the city has never had a clear plan for what to do with the Evergreen site if it is able to take it over.
And even if Joliet takes control of the apartments it would probably take the city a lot of time and money to significantly transform the place.
O’Dekirk knows all this.
But he’s decided to now support the city's effort to take over the complex anyway.
“I think the consensus going forward is it’s been a 10, well, 11 year effort,” O’Dekirk said. “We have spent millions of dollars. And to walk away at this point and come away with nothing would be a mistake also.”
For Marquisha Judkins, Nateba Yates, Rodger Humphrey, and hundreds of other residents of Evergreen Terrace, the city walking away from its takeover effort would stop their community from being broken up. It would prevent them from being displaced.
But the city looks unlikely to walk away from its takeover plan now.