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Photo collage of buildings being torn down in East Garfield Park.
Photo illustration: Lisa Larson-Walker/ProPublica, Source Images: Chicago Public Library, Special Collections, Department of Urban Renewal Records.

Disinvested: How Government and Private Industry Let the Main Street of a Black Neighborhood Crumble

A half-century after Chicago’s uprisings in 1968, a once-thriving retail strip in East Garfield Park still suffers from broken promises, bad policy and neglect.

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This story was co-published with Block Club Chicago.

Growing up in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood in the 1960s, Annette Britton spent a lot of time on Madison Street. She picked up produce for her mother at N&S Certified Food Mart, skated at the Albany roller rink and went to movies at the Imperial Theatre. A neighborhood pharmacy, Sacramento Drugs, not only filled prescriptions but served customers ice cream at a diner in back. Durham’s, an appliance store, sold washing machines and refrigerators.

Back then, stores, often with apartments above them, lined Madison Street from downtown west to the city limits. The east-west axis of Chicago’s grid system, the street once thrived as a commercial beltway known as the “Equator of Chicago” and the “Heart of the West Side.”

But when Britton drives along Madison Street now, she sees vacant lots. Britton moved back to her childhood home about 10 years ago, and the places she once visited, along with scores of others, are gone. These days, she has to leave the neighborhood to get groceries, buy tools at a hardware store or eat at a sit-down restaurant.

“This was a working-class community with businesses,” said Britton, 62 and the vice president of a community group called the Garfield Park Neighborhood Network. “All of that has been stripped away.”

A woman standing in the sunshine grasping a balustrade in East Garfield Park, Chicago.
Annette Britton, an East Garfield Park resident and community organizer, stands outside her childhood home, which is a short walk from the storefronts on Madison Street she used to visit. (Taylor Glascock for ProPublica)

Like many commercial corridors in Black neighborhoods around the country, Madison Street has suffered the devastating consequences of generations of government and private sector neglect.

For decades, many Chicagoans have attributed the community’s struggles to the riots of April 1968, when cities across the nation erupted in property destruction and violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In Chicago, the uprising started on Madison Street and spread, leaving nine people dead and 300 injured — reducing stretches of East Garfield Park to rubble.

In this narrative, the riots set the West Side on a path of decline.

A ProPublica investigation tells a different story. We examined a series of government programs touted as engines for redevelopment, explored the ownership histories of numerous commercial properties over a mile-long stretch of the street, and conducted dozens of interviews with current and former East Garfield Park residents, property owners, local government officials and others.

By almost every measure, government efforts have failed, leaving the area open to speculators who have yet to produce lasting development. Now East Garfield Park and the stretch of Madison Street that runs through it are in worse shape than they were following the rioting in 1968. East Garfield Park is one of the poorest communities in Chicago, with high unemployment and among the lowest life expectancy rates in the city. The neighborhood’s population, at about 20,000, is less than half what it was in 1970. Along Madison, a quarter of the land sits vacant.

Acres of Empty Land Face the Former “Heart of the West Side”

Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, land use inventory for 2015. (Haru Coryne/ProPublica)

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of this year led to another round of unrest that damaged parts of Madison Street, prompting comparisons to the earlier riots and drawing renewed attention to the persistence of racial and economic inequality in the city.

ProPublica uncovered three major explanations for the failure to revitalize Madison Street. First, no government agency led a comprehensive effort to rebuild Madison Street or the surrounding community. Instead, a succession of government programs attempted to lure private investors to this and other disinvested neighborhoods, but commercial development consistently bypassed Madison Street.

Then, the city’s main answer to the neighborhood’s decline was to demolish scores of blighted buildings in a bid to improve public safety. But those aggressive clearance efforts left Madison Street with fewer storefronts for potential entrepreneurs and a glut of empty lots. And in the resulting vacuum, vacant properties became commodities for speculators with little connection to the neighborhood and, in many cases, little interest in developing it.

Again and again, people and institutions with power, starting with the city government, never made it a priority to rebuild Madison Street. Today, even Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s signature plan to spur development in disadvantaged communities on the South and West sides doesn’t include East Garfield Park.

In an interview, Maurice Cox, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, acknowledged that for years government officials were more focused on clearing out troubled areas, including Madison Street, than rebuilding them, a more challenging task.

“This was a policy of urban removal without a companion strategy for the renewal of those neighborhoods,” said Cox, whom Lightfoot tapped to lead the planning department after her election last year. “They were kind of reacting to: ‘How do we clear the blight? How do we eliminate the problem?’ I would dare say they had no solution for how to repopulate the areas. And this has gone on for decades — not only in Chicago but across the country.”

Cox and other officials say Chicago, like many other cities, must now generate investment in neighborhoods where businesses have long been reluctant to set up shop — places further isolated by racial and economic segregation.

Now, the only reason Britton ventures to East Garfield Park’s stretch of Madison Street is to pick up clothes from a dry cleaners, one of the few remaining businesses in the community. As she drove down the street this summer, she stopped next to a vacant lot speckled with trash and abandoned vehicles. Her gaze fell on a group of children playfully chasing one another.

“Their little eyes are absorbing all of this and they think, ‘This is what’s normal,’” she said. “That’s so sad to me.”

Many Programs, Little Help

Within days of the riots in 1968, city officials promised to bring Madison Street back to life. And they stressed that the government wouldn’t do it alone: Officials would work with the private sector to reopen businesses and bring new investment.

“This will not be a helter-skelter program but one that will involve a number of city agencies and departments, as well as the cooperation of private industry,” announced Lewis Hill, the planning commissioner in the administration of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. Hill vowed to get federal help as well, according to news reports at the time.

But city leaders didn’t address what would happen if those private businesses simply left and never came back. In the following years, the question would be answered repeatedly: Madison Street would grow emptier. During that time, officials from every level of government launched programs to attract business to depressed areas like the West Side. But a ProPublica examination found the efforts turned out to be too scattered, too small and too susceptible to shifting politics to make a lasting impact. Over and over, the government programs failed to bring investment to Madison Street.

It’s important to note that the area began losing resources even before the 1968 rioting. Starting after World War II and accelerating in the 1950s and ’60s, the population of Chicago’s West Side turned from almost all white to nearly all Black. Thousands of Black Southerners and residents of the cramped South Side moved into communities like East Garfield Park, while white West Siders relocated to the suburbs and the city’s North Side.

Yet through the 1960s, the Garfield Park area, along with the rest of the West Side, was still dominated by white property owners and politicians. Daley allies ran the wards, though many of them lived elsewhere — an arrangement critics dubbed “plantation politics.” In 1965 and 1966, King and other activists challenged these inequities when his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago, its first outside the South. King moved into an apartment in the neighboring Lawndale neighborhood for several months. Organizers with King’s movement picketed white-owned businesses on Madison for not hiring enough Black workers or paying them a fair wage.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, riots broke out across the West Side of Chicago. More than 100 businesses on Madison Street were destroyed. City officials vowed to rebuild. (Chicago Tribune archival photo)

When King was assassinated, the tensions exploded. In the months and then years that followed, as the city’s rebuilding promises stalled, some business owners decided it was time to leave for good. New Black-owned businesses filled in only some of the gaps.

In 1970, Daley announced a $1.8 million initiative to help residents open businesses in struggling neighborhoods. It was part of more than $50 million in city redevelopment efforts funded through the federal Model Cities program, first launched four years earlier during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But as the administration of President Richard Nixon curtailed the program, city officials decided to concentrate on four neighborhoods chosen in part to ensure money was dispersed to different sides of the city. On the West Side, the Lawndale neighborhood was included while East Garfield Park was left out almost entirely.

Tommie Durham, who owned Durham’s Appliances at 3009 W. Madison St. and headed a local business group, found the federal government’s approach worrisome. Durham wrote an open letter in the Chicago Defender to George Romney, then the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We Black businessmen and community residents in this area have suffered frustration resulting from unfilled promises,” Durham wrote. It’s unclear if Romney responded.

By the early 1970s, city and community leaders had concluded the neighborhood needed more residents to support businesses, so many of their redevelopment plans focused on building additional housing.

Still, the population continued to drop. By 1980, it was down to about 32,000, less than half what it had been 20 years earlier. Elected officials did little in response.

“When the population base moved away, there was nothing to support a commercial strip on Madison Street,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who in 1979 became the first independent West Sider to beat the Democratic machine and win a seat on the City Council. Davis was elected to Congress in 1996.

“As individuals moved away, much of the economy of these areas went with them, and government really didn’t do much to stop it — no unit of government,” Davis said. “It just never happened.”

With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president, big-government programs fell out of favor from the federal level on down. Two years later, Illinois joined a wave of states creating economic enterprise zones where businesses received incentives to invest in depressed areas.

By 1988, the city had six zones; three of them together covered much of the West Side. Although the program’s effectiveness was unclear, officials expanded it rapidly. As of 2018, more than 100 enterprise zones had been established across Illinois, including the six in Chicago.

Madison Street falls within two of those zones, but if the program has had any impact there, it’s not readily measurable or evident. By law, the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is required to produce annual reports on the results of the tax breaks in each zone. Between 2014 and 2019, according to the department, firms produced nearly 1,600 jobs and made more than $200 million in investments in the three zones that include Chicago’s West Side. Those businesses claimed more than $64 million in tax breaks during that time.

But much of the information is provided by the companies themselves, and the state’s summary reports provide no analysis of the program’s impact on specific areas within the large, irregularly shaped zones. The reports don’t disclose which firms got tax breaks, where they were located, what kind of jobs they produced or what exactly they invested in.

Even though the Enterprise Zone program uses public funds to attract business, state officials say such records detailing tax breaks and job creation have to be kept secret to protect the private tax information of participating companies. The state says it’s up to the city to monitor projects in the zones there.

City officials said they had no records of businesses from Madison Street in East Garfield Park participating in the program “recently.”

Trying to Find the Right Incentives

In February 1994, Vice President Al Gore visited the West Side to tout the federal government’s newest development program. It had a name similar to the state’s initiative: Empowerment Zones. At a school just blocks from the Madison Street business district, Gore stressed “how urgent the challenge is to rebuild our communities, to rebuild the strength of families in our country, to focus on neighborhoods.”

After haggling among Chicago political and community leaders, the city submitted a proposal to the federal government for a zone that included three separate areas on the South, Southwest and West sides. The zone included parts of East Garfield Park, but the stretch of Madison Street that ran through the neighborhood was left out, which meant the city was unlikely to spend program money there.

The federal government soon announced that Chicago would get $100 million for projects and grants in the zone that were intended to generate additional private development. But the news came with a warning from Valerie Jarrett, then Chicago’s planning commissioner. As aldermen and neighborhood groups jockeyed for funds, she said: “A hundred million [dollars] is not a lot of money and it’s not going to cure all the problems we have in these areas.”

A decade after the funding dried up, evidence of lasting impact from the program is hard to find in East Garfield Park. Through 2009, records show, the city spent a total of more than $134 million in Empowerment Zone money it received from the federal and state governments. But rather than pursue a focused strategy to jump-start investment in struggling neighborhoods, the city ended up giving money to a grab bag of entities and projects. Government agencies, including the Chicago Park District and Chicago Housing Authority, received funds, as did private social service providers, neighborhood arts groups and at least one charter school. But the funds did not spark an economic revival on Madison Street or elsewhere in East Garfield Park.

Wallace Goode Jr., who was executive director of the city’s Empowerment Zone program from 1999 to 2004, said he worked to get funds “to the people it was meant for.”

“It’s hard to give money away correctly,” he said.

Goode stressed that the Empowerment Zone money helped thousands of people on the West and South sides with child care, affordable housing and job training, while also providing assistance to businesses and community organizations.

He acknowledged that the program alone was never capable of saving East Garfield Park or any other area; it did not have the resources or reach to become a Marshall Plan-style rebuilding effort. Revitalizing neighborhoods requires a coordinated strategy of training the workforce, improving housing, recruiting businesses and fighting crime.

“The truth is that it’s fingers in a dike,” said Goode, now the executive director of the Hyde Park chamber of commerce on the South Side. “There are multiple holes leaking water and you need to plug them all at the same time.”

By 2000, East Garfield Park and other parts of the West Side had “experienced significant physical and economic decline for more than 30 years,” a city analysis concluded. Previous plans had yielded almost no private investment: “They usually focus on specific sites or blocks, and lacked the critical mass needed to effect large-scale physical and economic change in the area.”

That assessment was part of yet another plan for the heart of the West Side. It was centered on a tool called tax increment financing. If property values increase in areas designated as TIF districts, the additional tax revenues are directed into TIF accounts. Officials can then dip into the funds for projects they deem helpful for economic development, including agreements with private sector firms.

By law, TIFs are only supposed to be used in areas that are “blighted” or in need of “conservation.” But under Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago officials created so many TIF districts that they eventually covered more than a quarter of the properties within the city limits. The Midwest TIF district was drawn to include much of the Lawndale and East and West Garfield Park neighborhoods, including Madison Street. The projects there appear to have been funded on a case-by-case basis, with no consistent, public strategies for using taxpayer money. And none of the redevelopment projects centered on Madison Street.

Tax increment financing is “not the greatest incentive program to lift struggling neighborhoods because they’ve already got to be interesting to developers,” said Rachel Weber, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The tools the city has at its disposal are not necessarily oriented to the needs of a neighborhood like East Garfield Park.”

By comparison, the section of Madison Street that runs through the West Loop, just a couple miles east of the Garfield Park area, is now thriving. For years, it was known as the city’s skid row. After decades of city and private investment, boosted by its proximity to downtown and accelerated by TIF spending on nearby blocks, the area is lined with trendy restaurants, boutique gyms and upscale apartment buildings. Officials keep hoping the development will spread.

“There are smatterings that come further westward, so we’ve kind of got our fingers crossed,” said Davis, the congressman. “But that’s a very slow process.”

Lightfoot was elected mayor last year after she promised to bring new development to neighborhoods that had been starved of it. Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. hoped that meant East Garfield Park would get a boost. Burnett’s ward, the 27th, has included that stretch of Madison Street since 2012, and he noted that it’s just blocks from major employers like the United Center stadium and the Illinois Medical District.

Still, Burnett acknowledged that he’s received few serious proposals from private developers. “It’s not going to work right now until the city gives them a shot in the arm,” he said.

Cox said the city is focused on neighborhoods with access to public transit, viable business districts and a stable population base.

“I feel there are some prerequisites to private investment being able to flourish and there are prerequisites to public dollars being used to leverage private investments,” Cox said. “If you look at those traits, you will find East Garfield doesn’t share a lot of those traits.”

Last October, Lightfoot unveiled more details of her plan, which she dubbed Invest South/West for the sides of town where the efforts would be concentrated. The initiative would start by concentrating on 10 “underinvested” neighborhoods.

East Garfield Park was not one of them.

“Once a Building’s Gone, It’s Gone”

Siri Hibbler founded the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce in 2017 in hopes of stemming disinvestment and boosting business opportunities in her native East Garfield Park. (Taylor Glascock for ProPublica)

As head of the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, Siri Hibbler tries to lure businesses to Madison Street. But her job is difficult; she isn’t sure where to direct them.

“There’s no place for them to start a business,” Hibbler, 57, said. “All our buildings have been torn down, and we have totally vacant lots.”

Well after the 1968 riots, abandoned buildings fell into disrepair and became magnets for crime. The city demolished those structures in an attempt to improve public safety but gave little thought to filling the spaces. Rather than shoring up communities and making them more inviting places to do business, the demolitions left streets like Madison more barren. What’s more, the demolitions gave developers scant reason to put money in East Garfield Park and other neighborhoods.

In 1980, the Chicago Tribune reported that the city had torn down more than 1,600 buildings a year across the city from 1972 to 1979, including a record high 2,675 in 1975. By comparison, roughly 200 buildings were destroyed citywide in the 1968 riots.

Demolitions picked up again in the 1990s, as the city undertook more renewal and anti-crime campaigns. In 1992, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that the city aimed to raze 1,200 abandoned buildings that year; Daley called vacant properties “a breeding ground for gangs, a sanctuary for dope dealers and a dark haven for rapists.”

Under Daley, Chicago steadily increased spending on demolitions, from $2.5 million in his first full year in office in 1990 to almost $10 million in 1993. He proposed spending $15 million in 1994.

David Doig said he remembers many homeowners at community meetings calling for derelict buildings to be demolished because of safety concerns. A former West Side resident, Doig has held a number of high-ranking positions in city government, including deputy commissioner of the city’s abandoned property program in the 1990s.

“At that time, the policy was a vacant lot is less dangerous than a vacant building,” said Doig, who now serves as the president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, a development firm aiming to revitalize South and West side neighborhoods. “So there was wholesale demolition. This was more benign neglect than good planning.”

It was common practice then for wrecking crews to plow demolition debris into a building’s foundation instead of hauling it away, adding an expense for potential developers.

Brent Ryan, who as an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago led a 2007 study into commercial redevelopment in East Garfield Park, said many city leaders come to see building demolitions as a quick and simple solution to social problems and other urban woes. In doing so, they squander the chance to renovate structures that could house new businesses, he said.

“Once a building’s gone, it’s gone,” said Ryan, whose study was commissioned by Garfield Park business and community groups. “That was our concern with Madison Street. We said, ‘Let’s not demolish anymore.’ … With so much of the building stock removed instead of mothballed, where it’s closed but remained intact, there was no place for entrepreneurs to open up new stores.”

As the lots languished, sometimes for decades, the city collected no property taxes and spent public money for upkeep.

One result of the demolitions was that the city became the largest landowner on the West and South sides, acquiring so much property that it hasn’t always been able to keep track of what it owns, according to a 2020 report by the city’s inspector general. Today, the city says it owns close to 11,000 lots across Chicago, including 530 in East Garfield Park. Forty front Madison Street, making up at least a quarter of the vacant lots along the corridor.

Because the city lacks a comprehensive list of its vacant lots, potential investors face hurdles trying to buy or redevelop this land. That information gap also hinders city efforts to carry out basic services, such as cutting grass at properties — the kind of maintenance the city cites landowners for failing to perform.

As trash accumulates and weeds grow on these properties, urban planning experts including Ryan, who now is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say a “contagion effect” takes hold, scaring off potential developers. This, in turn, can lead to more walk-away property owners and, ultimately, more vacant land.

The city has tried to deal with vacant residential land by selling it cheaply. In the 1980s, the city’s Adjacent Neighbors Land Acquisition Program, or ANLAP, allowed property owners to buy a vacant lot next to their property for below-market rates. In 2014, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Large Lots program was launched as an ANLAP replacement of sorts with looser restrictions on buyers. Lots sold for $1.

Chosen as pilot communities for the Large Lots program were two neighborhoods where, over the decades, the city had demolished hundreds of properties: Englewood, on the South Side, and East Garfield Park. The city hoped that improving residential areas would, in time, boost population and fuel business development.

In 2016, Shacarra Westbrooks purchased a lot through the program. As a West Side native, she recalled hearing stories from her grandparents about the bustling businesses on Madison Street. Her grandparents had moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the late 1950s and bought a three-story graystone in East Garfield Park in the 1980s.

Westbrooks, now 35, only saw remnants of the old Madison Street as a child. She remembers visiting a local corner store, sidewalk vendors and a neighborhood woman who sold candy from her garage. Inspired by her grandmother’s memories, she wrote her dissertation for a master’s degree in international business on why her community was never made whole after the 1968 riots. Her research found real estate values on the West Side were influenced by political clout, gentrification, neighborhood income and lending practices.

“I still don’t have a conclusion,” Westbrooks said in an interview. “My dissertation feels unfinished. Until the area is thriving again, I don’t think I’ll have an answer.”

Westbrooks, who works in corporate marketing and has a real estate license, bought the lot at 3009 W. Madison St., where the old Durham’s Appliances store used to stand. The building was demolished in 1995.

Westbrooks erected a fence around the property and hired neighbors to keep the lawn manicured. She said she hopes to turn the lot into a garden and events space for community gatherings.

“I have always been on the West Side. It’s home for me,” Westbrooks said. “I wanted to invest back into the community, because there’s so much history, so much culture and so much love. I drive around sometimes and it’s so desolate — even from when I was growing up — it’s sad. But I said, ‘I’m not going to give up on the West Side of Chicago.’”

Profits but No Development

Individual investors also own vacant land along Madison Street. And privately owned lots can go undeveloped for just as long as those in the city’s possession.

A representative example is a half-block stretch of Madison Street between California and Francisco avenues. Real estate investors from outside the neighborhood have let the land sit empty for decades, lacking the ability, desire or incentive to build anything on it. Often, they flipped lots for profit and treated them like financial instruments.

In 1970, the strip of land from 2810 to 2824 W. Madison St. was still dense with commercial buildings and apartments that had survived the riots, according to property records, newspaper clippings and archival photographs. But over the years, the storefronts were shuttered. Landlords demolished the buildings, or else failed to maintain them, leading the city to tear them down. Gradually, the land became vacant.

By the mid-1990s, the lots — seven in all — were in private hands. Since then, they have cycled through multiple owners and have never been developed.

The first investor to speculate on that stretch was Louis Wolf. Wolf, who died in 2018, was a longtime real estate investor on the South and West sides; he once landed on a Tribune list of the city’s “top slumlords.” He was convicted of arson in 1974 and went to prison after setting a fire in another West Side building he owned as part of an insurance fraud.

Beginning in 1991, Wolf bought the four adjacent lots at 2814-2820 W. Madison St. at public tax sales. The city had previously taken control of the properties after demolishing the original structures in the 1970s; now the county was auctioning them off. Like many investors, Wolf did not buy the land himself, but rather he acted through a shell corporation controlled by two of his associates, according to deeds, company filings and court records.

Property records don’t show what use Wolf got out of the land, or what price he paid, but he did not build on it. Shortly after he acquired the lots, federal prosecutors charged him with racketeering and mail fraud related to a scheme to skip out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes. In 1993, Wolf pleaded guilty and went to prison again; some of his land ended up back at public auction, property records show.

By 1999, Wolf’s land still sat vacant, but a new group of investors had taken over. Like Wolf, they bought some of it at public tax sales. A lawyer for the group, George Marinakis, said his clients were betting on West Side property values rising after the construction of the United Center, about a mile east, in 1994. He declined to name the investors or the price, and records are unclear.

For more than four years, Marinakis’ clients sat on the land. “My group was buying properties that were down,” Marinakis said, “and if they made a profit, they sold them to anyone who would come around.” He said that investors who buy land at public auction are “doing a service to the county” by putting unproductive property back into circulation, even if they don’t develop it themselves.

In 2004, Marinakis’ clients cashed out. Bill Kokalias and his father paid them $250,000 for the land, which now included a fifth lot next door to the four that Wolf had originally owned.

Unlike Wolf and Marinakis and his investors, Kokalias wasn’t a speculator. A developer who lives in Streeterville and owns real estate throughout the West Side, he said in an interview that he wanted to erect either a mixed-use project or a housing development. He differentiated developers like himself from investors who acquire land at public auctions and then flip them.

“They only build things on paper,” Kokalias said. “We build things in real life.”

But Kokalias didn’t end up building anything, either. He said the 2008 collapse of the housing market dashed his plans. In 2016, he sold the lots for $400,000. It was substantially more than he had paid 12 years earlier, although he said that taxes, maintenance and fines from the city ate into his profits.

The buyer was Roberto Casimiro, and his use of the land on Madison Street offers a striking example of how an investor can get value out of a property without developing it.

The owner of a meatpacking company who lives in west suburban Burr Ridge, Casimiro made his first foray on the block in 2001, when he paid $72,500 for the vacant lot at 2810 W. Madison St. The property once housed Parkside Motors, an auto dealership owned by Joseph Colucci; the business left the neighborhood after the riots in 1968, although the building stood until Colucci died in 2000.

Casimiro has never built on the Parkside land; instead, he has used it repeatedly as collateral, borrowing against it at least five times since 2002. The largest of these loans was in 2016, when Casimiro used the lot — along with his Burr Ridge home and a handful of other properties in Cook County — to secure a $6.5 million mortgage. Property records show that the purpose of the loan was for construction.

But no work was done on the Parkside lot. Instead, the loan financed the rehabilitation of a warehouse 8 miles away in Archer Heights, on the city’s Southwest Side. The warehouse became the new home of Casimiro’s company, El Cubano Wholesale Meats, which was moving out of its longtime location in Fulton Market, a rapidly gentrifying industrial area just west of downtown. Shortly after the loan closed, Casimiro bought Kokalias’ land.

Casimiro’s son Rolando said that the family initially bought the Madison Street land intending to build a strip mall on it. At one point, he said, they were in negotiations with a dollar-store chain. But the Archer Heights project was more important.

“That’s something we put on the back burner,” he said, referring to the Madison Street properties.

In 2018, Casimiro bought one more vacant lot on the block for $70,000.

Like the other six parcels, it’s still vacant.

A Plan

Siri Hibbler holding a plan for East Garfield Park.
Hibbler spearheaded an ambitious effort to redevelop long-idle land along Madison Street. Hibbler holds an architectural rendering depicting an arts center at Madison and California Avenue. (Taylor Glascock for ProPublica)

In 2018, Hibbler, the chamber of commerce head, drafted a plan to reimagine Madison Street. She charted its history, detailing how the 1968 riots had destroyed more than 100 businesses and buildings along a roughly 2-mile stretch from Damen Avenue to Pulaski Boulevard. The plan was bold. It was filled with architectural renderings of shops — a coffeehouse, a grocery store, a hardware shop — with residences above them. She said she lined up a Black-owned development firm for construction and approached city officials about purchasing city-owned land.

The city told her it wouldn’t sell any land in the area until the completion of an ongoing analysis of housing trends and opportunities on the Near West Side and East Garfield Park.

“You don’t sell land while you’re actively doing a study, so I informally put a pause on that so that we could complete this analysis,” said Cox, the Department of Planning and Development commissioner.

Cox said the analysis, which has concluded, will inform the department’s strategy in East Garfield Park. He said the city aims to solicit proposals and bids in the area in 2021 to help grow the population and, in turn, attract commercial development.

“It still begs the question, what do you do with all of this vacant land?” Cox said. “And if it takes decades to get housing on all that land, what do you do in the interim?”

Hibbler remains frustrated.

“I just have to take a couple deep breaths and say it is what it is,” she said. “On one hand, you say you want to make change in our communities. On the other hand you say, ‘No thank you, we don’t want that.’ It’s terrible.”

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