Silent Voices Among Us: A Montage of Chicago’s West Side is a photojournalistic series taken by Dr. Cranston Knight, a former public housing resident from the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago’s West Side between June and July, 2020, in the Austin and Garfield Park communities. The photo series documents decades of systemic inequities put into place by unfair housing practices, school closures, healthcare access, and more. These issues have been magnified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March of 2020, where these neighborhoods, along with other predominantly Black and Brown communities across the country, have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Knight has been taking photos for years, with his earliest memories harkening back to his early years in public housing: “I took my first photography course at the Henry Horner Boy’s Club when I was ten years old and became intrigued by the camera and darkroom,” says Knight. “I remember a red light that was looped around a beam above my classmates and me. The smell of the chemicals, suspended negatives by clothespins, and the enlarger was surreal. I was most intrigued at watching photo paper come to life with images. The studio lab was a safe place to develop creativity, camaraderie, and worldview. As a result, I never lost my interest in the art; it only intensified over the years.”
In addition to Knight’s photo series, we have assembled a collection of stories from former residents of the Henry Horner Homes as a part of our ongoing Out of the Archives oral history audio listening series. The episode aims to further the conversation surrounding the importance of public housing, as well as the gentrification of the Near West Side and displacement of longtime members of the community. You can listen to that episode below.
The narrators include Sharon Janette Leggitt, Maria Moon, Crystal Palmer, John Pettiford Marina Pullom and Patricia Boyd Smith, whose stories are also featured throughout the exhibit to help to amplify the voices of people who share the long history of the Henry Horner Homes.
The Long Wait
Distant World City Line
Long View West
The Mapping COVID-19 Recovery Project standardizes data through a series of maps illustrating where public, private and philanthropic sector investments are going in communities of color devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of strategic reinvestment and recovery to close historic funding gaps and rebuild stronger communities.
Three of these maps are available now in this exhibition and help to visualize the impacts of systemic racism and the devastating impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities. You will also find a map which highlights where all of Chicago’s public housing complexes have been and still are.
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Virtual Exhibit Designed by:
a montage of Chicago's west side
Dr. Cranston Sedrick Knight is a historian, photographer, writer, and former resident of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes. He received his doctorate in history from Loyola University, Chicago. His areas of interest are decolonization studies, modernity, and international affairs. Dr. Knight has taught at several colleges and Universities in the Chicago area during his career. He is the former Vice President of the United Nations Association, Chicago, the founder and previous Executive Director of Global Voices International: A Foreign Policy and Human Rights Organization. Dr. Knight is a member of The Carnegie Council on Ethics and Int'l Affairs, Phi Beta Delta-Honor Society for International Scholars, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and the Foreign Policy Association. He lectures on many topics including contemporary history, education, and foreign affairs. His writings have appeared in both journals and anthologies.
“This collection of work was taken over a two month period in the Austin and Garfield Park communities. Although I had presented some of the work at other galleries, the one’s which would be included in this collection have never been viewed by the public. My work takes on an even more important role of documenting life within this community because it has been hit especially hard by the Coronavirus pandemic,” says Knight. “In essence before it became fashionable to discuss underserved communities, I had recorded the conditions under which people lived who were most vulnerable to any epidemic. My work defines “systemic marginality,” a lack of goods and services, unemployment, and means to acquire medical services.”
As the Museum continues to develop our Oral History Archive, you can listen to Cranston’s full oral history below.
Between 1957 and 1968, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) embarked on an ambitious expansion of public housing units, adding an additional 16,000 units of public housing, more than doubling the stock that existed between 1935 and 1956. Completed in the first year of the expansion, the Henry Horner Homes was located in Chicago’s Near West Side neighborhood and contained 920 units. In 1961, the Henry Horner Extensions were constructed just east of the original Horner apartments, and by 1969, the one city block Henry Horner Annex was completed, both adding 736 and 109 units, respectively.
John Pettiford reflects on the early years at the Henry Horner Homes:
“In around 1968, we moved into Henry Horner Homes, which is located on the Near West Side in the city of Chicago. I was around 8 years old, 7, 8 years old, when we moved into them projects and it was a low-income housing and at that time, a lot of people was moving into the projects because they were very new at that time and it was pretty much the only area in which the low-income people could actually move to and try to make a life for themselves. So, as time progressed, like any poverty-stricken area, the projects along with any other area which was low income, started going down, well, not at that particular time because we was more of a family in those years, but as time progressed, as you know, it started going down.
"We had a lot of activities going on at the time, I mean, we had the Boys Club was there, was a lot of different other activities that were going on in other areas of Henry Horner Homes. One in particular was the building, every building had their own specific activity that really kept the kids, you know, out of trouble, off the streets, if you will. But at those times, it really wasn’t any gangbanging, and I’m talking about the early to mid 70s, and there wasn’t really no gangbanging cause in those days you could stay outside until the streetlights came on and you didn’t really have to worry about anything...but, you know, let’s not get ahead of myself, but when I think about those particular times...it was really really beautiful.”
“Around the late 70s, early 80s, that’s when the gangbanging started, you know? And it seemed like the times had changed over night. And that was the end of that era, and the beginning of a new era, and you know, those for a long period of time,
you know, it was really really down, or bad, if you will.”
John Pettiford lived in the Henry Horner Homes from 1968 to 1996
The Early Years
By May 1991, vacancy in the Henry Horner Homes hit its peak, with 896 of its units unoccupied. During this time, many of the structural issues in the complexes became exacerbated to a breaking point, with elevators breaking down during the coldest months of the winter, narrow trash chutes clogging and causing dangerous pile-ups and occasional fires, and with easy access to the building, visitors with ill-intentions were able to bring drugs, guns, and gang-related violence into the Henry Horner Homes.
In the midst of this decline, an organization based out of the Henry Horner Annex, called the Henry Horner Mothers Guild protested against the conditions of the buildings and asserted in court that the both the CHA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had violated federal law by not maintaining a safe and reliable apartment infrastructure or renting out vacant units.
By 1995, a consent decree was agreed upon in court, which allowed for the Henry Horner Homes to be redeveloped in phases, which helped to minimize displacement and included a one-for-one replacement law. Phase I of demolition and renovation began in 1996.
This period of the complexes is recalled by Marina Pullom, who moved out of the Henry Horner Homes during this phase:
“So it was a lot of people had moved out, so a lot of the squatters and drug addicts was coming in, getting into the units, tearing the pipes out, tearing all the different stuff up. And so, it literally was like a big hole right here, ice coming off of the building, cause this was in the wintertime. They was tearing stuff up and the water was overflowing, so they had to move us from up out of that building, that’s how I ended up going to 1920 West Washington, that’s how I ended up down there while they fixed these units up down here. So I had to move, move down there, stay down there some years, and that’s how I ended up down here on Maypole[...]
I hate moving, and I got a lot of stuff! So this ain’t nobody who you just finna come and get a bag and let’s walk down the street. When I moved, we had the big truck, me and my sister’s stuff was on the whole, filled the whole truck up, that’s how much stuff we had, and we had to throw a whole lotta stuff away.”
Decline and Demolition
By 1998, Congress had repealed the one-for-one apartment replacement statute, which would have required the CHA to replace each unit of torn down public housing. At the same time, the original plans for rehabbing the mid-rise buildings changed to a proposal for mixed-income townhomes, which would become the Westhaven Park community, which remains to this day.1 The replacement of the Horners garners a mixed reaction from public housing residents to this day.
To the right, you can read the accounts of Marina Pullom, John Pettiford, and Sharon Janette Leggitt on how the changed community has impacted their lives.
“Oh...I miss it. A lot of people be saying “I’m glad the projects down,” I don’t. I had so many friends, I got so many friends because of living in Horner. When my sons see me talking to, speaking to so many people he be like “how you know this person, how you know that person?” I knew somebody from the 15th floor, the 13th floor, maybe 2 buildings over on the 3rd floor, the 2nd floor. It was like a big community, everybody knew everybody. It’s not like how it is now. You go outside and you don’t know nobody, you don’t know nobody’s mama or cousin or nothing. Back then, it was really like, it was a knit. Even though later on the buildings ended up being...they turned into something else when drugs came on the scene, but other than that, before any of that happened, everybody was real, real close. You could go somewhere and your neighbors would watch your kids, the lady downstairs would watch your kids, it’s...nothing like how it is now.”
“I thought that was good. You know, I wholeheartedly thought that was that was that was a good move, you know? It slowed up a lot of gang activity, it's not, well... from the area in which I came from, it slowed it up tremendously. And it's just... not the way it used to be back in the day, and I'm all for it, and take Cabrini Green, let's just do that area are real quick. The way they tore down all of those buildings and revamped it, it looks really, really nice up there. Really, really good.
And the West Side, the Henry Horner, which where I came from, they got the low income housing over there as well. But they do have other housing that you can purchase if you want and it just looks really, really nice, and from what I can see, the people that's there are trying to keep it up, if you will, now. They get these other units that they remodeling. Just west of Western. Well, close to Western and on the west side and Washington up in the area. I was over there a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of the units that they had over there, they remodeling it. And it looks to me that once they get done, it's going to be really, really nice over there.
“So, yeah, I think that was a good thing to tear down the projects, but. You know, some they did leave and they working with them and it's starting to really, really look good for them as well, like over behind the United Center. They got the Valley, which what we call the Valley, another part of public housing. They did not tear those down that we modeled. And it looked really, really nice over there. I mean, wow, it looks really, really nice over there and it seems that those people that are living over there are trying to keep it up. So they were so it'd look real, real nice over there. And I'm all for it. That is good. It's nice. I like it.”
“I wouldn’t want them to do the high rise, but I would want them to give them the same rights they’ve given other communities. If you’re gonna build the sites, give our people the same opportunities you give the whites, for real. Don’t just give it to the whites. Don’t make it just whites only. Don’t move our people out of they community and not, make them a promise that you’re gonna put them back in their community and don’t do it. Put them back in their community like you promised them! You know, don’t take them out of their community and then say you’re gonna put them back and then don’t...cause that’s what’s making them angry.”