Rebuilding a Chicago Neighborhood

By Julie Flynn Badal

Building on West Washington Street in East Garfield Park, Chicago, in the early 1900s. This is just one of the of once elegant townhouses that Jovita Baber is restoring and returning to the rental market at an affordable price.

History professor turned small-scale affordable housing developer, Jovita Baber, believes everyone deserves to live in a beautiful environment.  She’s found a way to turn her ideals into action, through her company, Historic Homes, reviving some of Chicago’s great buildings in neglected neighborhoods.  She’s making them into affordable rentals, employing local workers and helping to rebuild a whole community.

About ten years ago, Baber retired from teaching with her wife and two young daughters, and relocated from Champaign, Illinois to the Logan Square in Chicago. While updating  her new home she learned the nuts and bolts of building and construction. She got up to speed on plumbing and heating and fixtures, managed a crew of laborers, and figured out how to restore crown moldings. In the process, she discovered that as much as 40 percent of the waste in landfills comes from construction materials. It was time, she thought, to reconsider policies and practices of building.

Baber was tired of modern cookie-cutter apartments that have all the amenities but lack soul and character.  She also didn’t like the fact the decent hardworking people were being priced out or pushed out.  Her goal was to revitalize neighborhoods, not gentrify them. Her passion for history and commitment to community development drove her to explore properties in East Garfield Park.

Once part of Chicago’s grand boulevard system, Garfield Park has a rich architectural history, but its buildings had fallen into disrepair.  The  race riots of the late 1960s triggered  white flight to the suburbs and many historic buildings then landed in the hands of slumlords who did nothing for their upkeep and slowly let them crumble.  Over the last decade, Baber has been purchasing and restoring dilapidated buildings in East Garfield Park and restoring them to the neighborhood, while preserving their original design and craftsmanship.  

West Washington Street building under construction now. Photo by Claudia Rankin.

She currently owns 10 buildings and leases 27 apartments, contributing greatly to the city’s share of affordable rental units.  Restoration has an aura of history and magic and this project is drawing together people, from the workers to the residents, whose lives are ready to be transformed.

One of the buildings in East Garfield Park that Baber has fully restored. Photo courtesy of Jovita Baber.

Investing in the Community

Restoration is a slow, reflective process, and Baber is still figuring out how to scale the business without losing its heart. She’s starting from a different place from most landlords.  For one thing, she’s not interested in quick profits and fast results.  She views the business as  an engine for social and economic change and her goal is to “do well by doing good.”   

“Flips push you to do the cheapest thing possible,” she said, “And brand new, pop-up buildings take more energy to build, filling the landfills with paint, dust and rubble. They also  destroy the history of a community.”

In all her projects, Baber emphasizes sustainability. She reuses, recycles, refurbishes, and repurposes as many building materials as possible.  Historic Homes is also focused on the long-term value of the building.  “I’m investing in the community,” Baber explains, “and focusing on growth ten to fifteen years from now.”

Over the years, Baber has developed her own crew. The workers she hired at first just wanted to go in and just tear everything apart. “I needed a de-construction crew, not a demolition crew,” she says, noting that how you clear a building affects what you can save and restore.

She now hires people from the neighborhood and trains them to carefully dismantle houses, rescuing antique trim and moulding and repairing historic fixtures. She also makes a point of hiring men who’ve been incarcerated and have trouble finding other jobs.

 “I always emphasize taking pride in the work,” Baber said. “I want our crew to master a skill, and internalize this standard.”  

Here are just some of the details on radiators, doorknobs, mouldings and light fixtures, that Baber and her crew have lovingly preserved.  She works on each building herself.  (Click on one image for gallery of full-sized photos.)

The other day, Baber was approached by a burly member of her crew. “Miss B, you believed in me when nobody did,” he said. “My parole officer wants to meet you because she says you’re the only person I will listen to.”

East Garfield Park still grapples with gang violence and opiate addiction, though only a small percentage of the locals are involved with drugs or gangs. “Most people work as teacher’s aides, or cooks, or they are the people that clean your hotel room,” Baber said. “But they’ve lost that sense of connection with the community because they don’t feel safe.”

Baber hopes her investment will help reestablish civic trust. “We started having these community potlucks a couple years ago.” she said. “And now the neighbors are on a phone chain and they continue the tradition.”

At one of the neighborhood gatherings, a fellow homeowner explained that he was ready to give up on the neighborhood, ready to sell his place and leave, but now he had new hope.  “You’re the opposite of a slumlord,” he said.  

Restoring Ecosystems

Baber often saw fireflies, rabbits, bees, and butterflies in her own backyard in nearby Logan Square. But East Garfield Park was nature deprived.  “The back lots were mostly paved over with concrete,” she said. “There were no grass or gardens.” So she set out to transform the landscape as well.

Believing in the natural world’s capacity to calm and ground people and communities, she looked into native plants that require little maintenance. Last year,  she purchased an empty lot where people sometimes gathered to use drugs and turned it into a community garden. Her crew removed three or four inches of topsoil from the lot because the ground was covered with used needles. Then Baber started planting.  As she was unloading some butterfly bushes from her truck,  a gang member approached her.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m planting bushes that will attract more butterflies to the neighborhood,” she said.

He looked at her sideways.

“Do you like butterflies?” she asked.

A huge smile spread across his face. “Yeah, I really like butterflies!”

“Here was this big dude,” Baber said, laughing, “all excited about the butterflies.”

Next, Baber fenced in the lot and with the help of a beekeeper, set up three cedar honeybee hives, each one about the size of a filing cabinet. The community has  been raising bees and making honey ever since.

Photo by Kai Wenzel on Unsplash

 “I see it as raw honey with a social mission,” she said. “It’s another potential engine for employment.”

I asked Baber if her work in East Garfield Park helps her stay optimistic about the future. There are days where she feels deeply depressed about what’s happening to the environment and to people of color in American society, she says. “But then I ask myself, what impact can I have?  What can I do in the space that I control?”   

Her efforts are a model for ways that we can restore our own neighborhoods and communities — showing how to make abandoned lots and buildings into a place that feels like home.

Julie Flynn Badal is a Brooklyn-based writer and wellness educator. Her company, Working Well, offers workshops in embodied mindfulness to both individuals and organizations. She has contributed to WNYC Radio, Salon, The Huffington Post, Shambhala, Origins, Bustle, and The Utne Reader and is finishing a book about cultivating health and wellbeing in troubled times.

Recommended Reading

Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners by Scott T. Hanson and David Clough

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

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