Battling blight

Francis Parkman Elementary School is one of 50 schools closing this fall. Parkman sits in the South Side’s Fuller Park neighborhood, which is home to a glut of vacant properties. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Francis Parkman Elementary School is one of 50 schools closing this fall. Parkman sits in the South Side’s Fuller Park neighborhood, which is home to a glut of vacant properties. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Michael Tidmore and I recently met in front of Daniel S. Wentworth Elementary School, a hulking brick building that sits on a residential block in Englewood. He wondered what’s going to happen to school buildings like this when they’re closed this fall under Chicago Public Schools’ plan to shutter 50 schools and six related buildings while consolidating students and staff.

Tidmore is a 50-year-old youth outreach worker who coordinates after-school programs at the local nonprofit Teamwork Englewood. He grew up in the neighborhood, which has been reeling from a housing market collapse that began with the predatory mortgage lending first exposed in 2007 by The Chicago Reporter.

Vacant, boarded-up homes and apartment buildings have since piled up by the thousands, depressing property values. Tidmore said he’s seeing people he’s known his whole life walk away from homes that have been in their families for generations. “People are just letting them go,” he said.

That’s taken a toll on schools like Wentworth, where “we don’t have the numbers we had before,” he said. Like the other schools on the closing list, low enrollment has made Wentworth the target of the consolidation plan, which CPS officials estimate will save the district $43 million in operating costs each year during the next decade. When Wentworth closes, it will become yet another vacant building in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, students will move into the building of John P. Altgeld Elementary School, less than a mile away. In many ways, Altgeld is facing the same predicament as Wentworth. It’s located in an African-American neighborhood where thousands of Chicago homeowners and renters lost their homes when a wave of borrowers defaulted on their high-cost loans.

What sets Altgeld apart is that, in sheer numbers, there are more vacant properties within the census tracts where its students live than any other school impacted by this fall’s closings, shows an analysis of the Chicago Department of Buildings’ vacant property registry by the Reporter. Add up the vacant properties within the census tracts where Altgeld and Wentworth students live, and they account for more than 13 percent of properties logged by the city since 2010.

Tidmore and I met on the 6900 block of South Sangamon Street and walked west through a residential stretch of dozens of vacant multiunit apartment buildings and single-family houses. Public officials have struggled to hold property owners—including the banks that they do business with—accountable for not securing problem buildings. They’ve spent nearly $1 million demolishing and boarding up properties like these in the area since 2011, the Reporter analysis shows. Still, behind sagging boards, the windows and doors on many of the homes we saw were exposed. And they are just a small fraction of the 3,014 vacant properties within the schools’ attendance boundaries that have been on the city’s registry since 2010.

Tidmore sees vacant properties as crime magnets. He worries about children having to navigate through even more of the properties next school year.

CPS spokesman Dave Miranda said that school officials recognize the potential dangers vacant properties pose and are paying close attention to them as they create “customized safety plans” for each school affected by the closings.

Despite the precautions, Tidmore bristles at the thought of children walking alone by vacant properties.

“I just put myself in the shoes of a child,” he said. “Anything could happen. Someone could be lurking, and a child can be snatched up in a second.”

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