Public housing resident finds community in new home

July 26, 2011 2:03:45 PM PDT
Mary Dison was born and raised in public housing. So when an opportunity arose to move to a unique community, she took it.

"I had to fall out the bed, and roll up under the bed so I wouldn't get shot. So when that kept happening, I said, it's time for me to go," said Mary Dison, a Chicago Housing Authority resident.

Dison now lives in the mixed income community of Hansberry Square in Bronzeville, which is made up of public housing and subsidized housing residents and market value renters.

She said she's never felt more at home.

"I come from the projects, but the projects are not in me. It's what's in you," said Dison.

Dison said she is not defined by the rent that she pays at Hansberry Square.

"We blend in together as individuals. We all live in the same community, but you're no better than I am," said Dison.

The goal of these mixed-income apartments is to better integrate public housing residents into a diverse community.

"The goal is for these residents to become a community, work together, live together and be self sufficient," said Angela Reese, the social service coordinator at Hansberry Square community.

But it has not been without challenges. Jacqueline Owens and her two children moved in four years ago.

"I've had all four of my tires slashed. I've had gang signs on top of my hood at the present time. I've went through a lot," said Jacqueline Owens, a market value renter.

Owens responded to the problems by fighting crime and working with local officials.

"I became involved with my community. I've become involved with the aldermen to make sure the community became a development that we wanted it to be, where other people could bring their children and live. So when I first moved down here, it was rough with the gang members and barbequing in the park, loud music all night long, every night. So I took actions against that," Owens said.

That sense of community bridges any economic divide between neighbors.

"We are like a family, whether they're CHA or not. I don't look at people from where they came from. I don't judge people for what they have and what they don't have," said Owens.

"I just thank the lord for these places and I pray every day that Hansberry Square and all the new developments, that there will be peace there and the people will come together and realize that we are the community, not the building," said Dison.

Reese said that to build the community, the residents must invest in the community. She encourages residents to work with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program and local alderman to clean up and build the neighborhood.

"It's getting residents to take a minute out of their personal lives and come together. People typically drive out to find what they want. That was one of the initial challenges," Reese said.

Reese said that she provides services to everyone in the Hansberry Square units. She plans programs and social events to bring people together from different economic backgrounds.

The mixed-income units in Bronzeville are part of former Mayor Richard M. Daley's Plan for Transformation, which replaces all public housing with mixed-income housing. The plan, which began in 2000, will renovate or rebuild 25,000 units of public housing in Chicago. As of 2010, 20,288 units have been completed.

Hansberry Square sits at the site of the former Robert Taylor Homes, which was once the largest public housing development in the United States and infamous for crime, poverty and drug abuse. The CHA demolished the last of the Robert Taylor Homes in 2007.

Hansberry Square is part of Legends South, a residential development that also includes Coleman Place, Mahalia Place and Savoy Square. There are currently 545 units built in that development. When completed, the two-mile complex will have 2,400 units.

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