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Bus tour spotlights Chicago's public housing

Ex-resident tells of tenants' plight

Beauty Turner, a former resident of the Robert Taylor Homes, directed riders' attention to the neighborhood as she led her 'Ghetto Bus Tour' group through Chicago's South Side. Beauty Turner, a former resident of the Robert Taylor Homes, directed riders' attention to the neighborhood as she led her "Ghetto Bus Tour" group through Chicago's South Side. (Stacie Freudenberg/Associated Press)

CHICAGO -- The yellow school bus rumbles through vacant lots and past demolished buildings, full of people who have paid $20 for a tour of what was once among the most dangerous areas of this or any other city in the United States.

But for the woman with the microphone, this "Ghetto Bus Tour" isn't just another way to make a buck from tourists. It's the last gasp in her crusade to tell a different story about Chicago's notorious housing projects, something other than well-known tales about gang violence so fierce that residents slept in their bathtubs to avoid bullets.

"I want you to see what I see," says Beauty Turner, after leading the group off the bus to a weedy lot where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. "To hear the voices of the voiceless."

Turner, a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion "Plan for Transformation," which since the late 1990s has demolished 50 of the 53 public housing high-rises and replaced them with mixed-income housing.

City officials have heralded the plan. But Turner believes the city that once left residents to be victimized by violent drug-dealing gangs is now pushing those same people from their homes without giving them all a place to go.

"I have people becoming homeless behind this plan, people that's living on top of each other with relatives," said Turner, who has given informal tours for years before the community newspaper she works for began renting the bus in January. "For some it has improved their conditions, but for the multitude of many it has not."

Chicago Housing Authority officials say Turner glosses over the failures of public housing. They say the 25,000 units being built or rehabbed are enough for the number of people whose buildings were demolished.

"She is running out of bad things to show people," housing authority spokesman Bryan Zises said. "She is taking a circuitous route so she doesn't have to drive by the new stuff," including, he adds, Turner's own home in one of the new mixed-income communities. On the tours, Turner highlights strong, black women like herself who raised their children in the projects. Turner takes the group by the home of one such woman, 63-year-old Carol Wallace. When the group makes its way into the dreary building that has not been rehabbed, Wallace tells of her suspicions that she and a lot of people like her are going to be left out of the "Plan for Transformation." "Overall, I think it's just a way of getting us out of here," said Wallace.

Her home stands in stark contrast with the nostalgic picture Turner paints of the old projects. She recalls when parents like her kept an eye on the neighbor's kids, a time when the projects shined every bit as much as the buildings now going up in their place . She downplays the years of violence, saying that news reports distorted what day-to-day life was like. "All the horror stories that you heard about in the newspapers, it was not like that at all," she said.

But the stories loom over the tour, impossible to forget. By the time the city started pulling down or rehabilitating the projects in the late 1990s, each one had its own headlines . At Cabrini-Green a boy was struck by a bullet and killed as he walked hand in hand with his mother. A t Robert Taylor, where the illegal drug trade thrived, a rookie police officer was shot to death on a stakeout outside a gang drug base.

Her approach had some on the tour shaking their heads. "Are they romanticizing these communities?" asked Mark Weinberg, 44, a Chicago lawyer. They were violent neighborhoods where people wanted to live a good life but couldn't, he said.

D. Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University professor writing a book about Chicago's public housing, said he appreciated that Turner told the story from the perspective of tenants but wasn't sure what to think .

"People got killed," he said. "You don't make that story up."

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