A new $7.5 million family center at the Altgeld Gardens public housing development contains a Chicago Public Library branch.
A new $7.5 million family center at the Altgeld Gardens public housing development includes a Chicago Public Library branch. | Lee Bey Photography

We’re hoping the scales are about to finally balance in favor of Altgeld, a community that has been denied so much for long.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it best during an announcement Wednesday at the Altgeld Gardens/Murray Homes public housing development on the city’s Far South Side.

“This community unfortunately — way too many times — gets forgotten,” she said. “It’s physically isolated from other parts of Chicago. So it’s important to us to be very intentional about making sure Altgeld is not lost in the shuffle.”

Lightfoot visited the neighborhood to herald the opening of the $7.5 million Altgeld Family Resource Center, a new 14,000-square-foot multi-use building at 955 E. 131st St. The snazzy, new complex includes a Chicago Public Library branch, a community center and a daycare center.

With this new building, maybe the scales are about to finally balance in favor of Altgeld, a predominantly Black community that has been denied so much for so long.

Built in 1945 by the Chicago Housing Authority, which also built the neighboring Murray Homes in 1954, Altgeld’s brick rowhomes were intended to be affordable housing for Black veterans. But many of the nearby industrial jobs, the foundation of the neighborhood’s local economy, began drying up in the 1970s.

And the big factories — the ones that left and those that remained — were among the country’s worst polluters, notoriously fouling the ground, air and drinking water in and around the housing complex with assorted pathogens. The impact on the health of residents was ruinous for decades.

Hazel Johnson, an Altgeld resident who became a major voice in the environmental justice movement, surveyed her neighbors in the early 1980s and found that virtually everyone knew of someone between the ages of 35 and 55 who had been stricken with cancer.

The homes themselves had been built on the site of an asbestos dump.

As a 2017 National Resources Defense Council report put it, the homes “sit right in the middle of a ring of brownfields, Superfund sites and landfills . . . largest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the country.”

Johnson died in 2011, but her efforts forced factories to improve their anti-pollution practices and shut down incinerators and some landfills.

Altgeld area residents deserve so much more, even still. But the family center helps. And so do plans to extend the CTA Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street, linking the neighborhood to jobs downtown.

Lightfoot is right. Chicago should no longer allow Altgeld to be lost in the shuffle.

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