In 2012, when Evergreen Terrace residents in Joliet, IL, learned that the city wanted to demolish their Section 8 housing complex to make room for “development,” they fought back.
Employing eminent domain, the city hoped to seize their homes by forcing Evergreen Terrace owners to sell due to blight. As the city and the housing authority played hardball, city officials, according to the Chicago Sun- Times, described the more than 300 mostly African American families they sought to push out as “rats and whores from Chicago…who needed to be removed.”
In addition to the tenants winning the support of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD, their plight made the news. In a country where “downtown” is being reclaimed at alarming rates, casting out lower income and largely black residents who were once forced there by city governments that didn’t want them in the predominantly white suburbs (only to suddenly find, decades later, that they’re living on prime real estate), the stories of mothers and children resonated beyond Joliet.
Sympathy, however, wasn’t the main difference maker for the Evergreen Terrace residents. Instead, the significant legal help they received from the Shriver Center was. Formally known as the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law—named for Maria Shriver’s father, Sargent Shriver, who was the driving force behind the Peace Corps under the administration of his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and the man President Lyndon Johnson tasked with implementing the war on poverty, through programs like Head Start—they assembled a team of high-powered legal eagles, who took up the tenants’ cause pro bono.
Nearby Chicago, which the Shriver Center calls home, is a city defined by the mass migration of black Americans from the South during much of the 20th century. It also experienced the boom of the steel mills that dotted the city’s far South Side, and bust, as the industry vanished in the 1980s, leaving a graveyard of empty, hulking buildings and shattered lives, some of which were scuttled off to Joliet. Known for its larger-than-life mayors: the Daleys, Harold Washington and now Rahm Emanuel, not to mention for being the political birthplace of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, the Windy City is no stranger to this fight. Chicago’s battles over affordable housing are as legendary as its political lions. Hoping to expand the civil rights movement, by highlighting the ways in which the plight of Northern black citizens in employment and housing were as dire as those in the South, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved his family to the city in 1966. To fight what he called the “further colonization” of African Americans “within a slum environment,” King, who lived parttime in an apartment in North Lawndale, on Chicago’s West Side, launched the Chicago Freedom Movement.