Celina Blake Homes, Lena Canada Homes, Cannon Lane Townhomes
I do not have a whole lot of good things to talk about this suburb. I am just going to be honest and not sugar coat anything, this is a rough suburb and perhaps one of the roughest and most distressed suburbs in the entire United States. It is a known fact that Ford Heights has been number 1 on the list of poorest suburbs list back in the late 1980s and is still high up on the list presently (Chicago Tribune John McCarron, June 5, 1989). Ford Heights is where people live if they are on the lower income scale as Ford Heights offers cheap living. Some people have lived in this community for many years and take pride in living here, but for many they want to get out, and over the years many African American families have fled this distressed suburb.
In the year 1848, this land was first settled by onion and fruit farmers, then a short time later the area was used as a stopping point for the Underground Railroad, this brought African American farmers to settle the land after they escaped slavery from the south. The area then developed into a farming community as Polish, Lithuanian and Italian immigrants came to settle the land at the turn of the century. During the World War I years, more African American families settled the area, as they migrated from the south.
In the early 1920s, there was interest in developing a part of this farmland into a subdivision and this is when the construction of the subdivision called “Park Addition” was built up that was built along present day U.S. Route 30, that road was paved and named in 1926. Residents in the new subdivision petitioned for electricity now that there was an established community but it would take until sometime in the 1930s for the petition to be granted. When electrical service was put in, the area was given the official name of East Chicago Heights.
East Chicago Heights was always a village that was a step behind most other suburbs in the Chicago land area and functioned as a rural town. Not only did it take the community until the 1930s to get electricity, it took them until 1948 to get a fire truck for the village and it took them until 1949 to become a fully incorporated community. The village did not have a developed local government and citizens usually ran things and figured out what was needed. The community also was not commercially profitable which inhibited further development which caused a lack of growth for the first half of the 20th century keeping the population around 1,500.
In the 1940s and 1950s decades many white families experienced upward mobility and packed up and left East Chicago Heights in search of better housing opportunities, and by the year 1950 the village was over 76% African American. East Chicago Heights became a village ideal for disadvantaged black families that had limited choices on where to live due to racist practices around the Chicago area that kept their housing choices limited.
By the 1950s this community was strictly for black families as the rest of the white population left the suburb. The Ford Motor Company stamping plant that was opened in the year 1956 in nearby unincorporated Chicago Heights which became the main employment source for black families because it was one of the few companies that offered equal salary opportunities for black workers, this bought about a middle class and working class element to East Chicago Heights.
The Ford plant caused the community to grow in population as the population more than doubled by 1960. East Chicago Heights was now experiencing a housing boom as plans were laid out for the Sunnyfield subdivision which was built up in 1964 and became the ideal place to live for East Chicago Heights residents.
Just as the village was making progress and building itself up, 63 acres of land and houses were deemed not livable and about 60 families were forced to leave their homes as the homes were torn down in the late 1960s, it was planned that public housing projects were going to be built for low income families. This project taxed the village; however, the village was not really in a position to pay these taxes because of a lack of commercial development, this caused the village to sink into debt and residents to become more financially strained.
In the year 1964, the Blackstone Rangers from Chicago became the first Chicago based street gang to infiltrate the south suburbs as they first began in Dixmoor and Harvey with a group known as the “Harvey Dixmoor Rangers.” Very shortly after the Rangers opened up in the nearby town of Phoenix then spread to the rest of the impoverished suburbs after that, that happened to have a growing black population, one of those suburbs was East Chicago Heights that first saw Blackstone Rangers in the year 1964 when 14 year old Monty Powell got the first Ford Heights Rangers going. Monty Powell originally arrived in the village as a worker for the Office of Economic Opportunity. Powell later began recruiting black youths in the suburb to join the gang (Chicago Tribune page 1, March 15, 1969).
On the date March 8, 1969 East Chicago Heights police confiscated Charles Smith’s gun who was a Black P Stone gang member. Afterward Smith complained to his fellow Stones that he needed that gun back and a plot began about how to get it back from the police station. East Chicago Heights had a very small police force and many times during each day there would only be one officer in the station. Monty Powell then rounded up four other gang members and they stormed the police station after midnight. Monty Powell attempted to rob the police station of their guns with fellow gang members but the robbery went wrong when Monty Powell shot Officer Oscar Brumfield, who was the dispatcher and only one on duty. Powell shot Brumfield in the chest and killed him (Illinois People Vs. Monty Powell, 1973). This daring murder committed by the Black P Stones in 1969 showed not only that Chicago based street gangs had entered the suburbs, it also showed how dangerous they could be. Breaking into the police station and shooting the officer on duty with the plot to rob the station of firearms was indeed a bold and daring act by the Black P Stones. Monty Powell had just declared war on the East Chicago Heights police department that would cause tensions between police and Stones in the area for many years to come.
In the early 1970s, the public housing projects were built in town. The Vera L. Yates projects were built near the intersection of 10th Place and Lexington. The Lena Canada projects were located around 16th and Drexel. The Celina Blake projects were built approximately at 11th and Berkley. There was also a fourth project that was only partially constructed at approximately Woodlawn Avenue and Cannon Lane, these apartments were all down Cannon Lane. The village of East Chicago Heights was financially disadvantaged by these public housing projects and the community became more impoverished as a result. The residents of the projects felt these public housing projects were a great place to live and even the gangs in the neighborhood like Black P Stones were not a big problem in these developments. The public housing developments in the community caught national news when a grisly murder occurred in the incomplete development on Cannon Lane.
On the night of May 11, 1978, Lawrence Lionberg and his fiancé Carol Schmal were kidnapped and taken to East Chicago Heights over to Cannon Lane. Lawrence Lionberg was brought to a field nearby on Cannon Lane and shot in the back of the head. Carol Schmal was taken into one of the abandoned townhouses at 1528 Cannon Lane and repeatedly raped before she was shot twice in the back of the head inside the abandoned project building. Four black males were convicted of the rape/murder: Dennis Williams, Willie Rainge, Kenneth Adams and Paula Gray were all charged with the murder, Paula Gray was charged with watching the crime while the three men attacked and killed the two (Illinois People vs. Williams, 1982). The crime shocked the nation because two white people were dragged to an all-black neighborhood raped and killed. The four involved were found not guilty and fully pardoned in 1996 after evidence surfaced that they did not do it, the case was known as the Ford Heights Four (pictured) after it was revisited years later, regardless, of the later overturning, the case left East Chicago Heights to have a bad reputation for many years to come, and white people were really scared to pass through the neighborhood. The projects where the murders happened closed down sometime between 1978 and the mid-1980s and all buildings were torn down and the road was removed, the Village of East Chicago Heights completely covered up that area.
Poverty, high crime, gang violence continued to plague the streets of East Chicago Heights in the 1980s as other gangs arrived to join the Black P Stones and Black Gangster Disciples, like Four Corner Hustlers and Conservative Vice Lords.
In either 1986 or 1987 the gangs of East Chicago became more aggressive and began selling crack cocaine in the suburb especially in the three public housing project sites and soon violent gang wars erupted in which vicious gun battles could be heard echoing around the projects. The Lena Canada projects took on the nickname “Vietnam” because the violence was so bad near them. The Celina Blake projects were nicknamed “The Bronx” because they were full of violent gang wars. Gangs in the Bronx and Vietnam were bitter rivals as they would violently battle each other over the drug trade at 16th and Berkeley which was mainly ran by the Lena Canada gang members that operated a drive thru drug business, as cars would line up to buy crack cocaine. The Vera Yates projects were a little milder and not as full of gang activity as the other two public housing sites.
East Chicago Heights attempted to fix the crumbling image of the community in 1987 when the village wanted to annex the part of unincorporated Chicago Heights that had the Ford stamping plant. The village changed the name from East Chicago Heights to Ford Heights in an attempt to make the deal more attractive; however, the deal was denied but the name Ford Heights would stick.
In the early 1990s, crime and drug related gang activity had become completely out of control as gang members openly fired weapons at rivals and sold drugs in an open air drug market. The Bronx and Vietnam were constructed with maze like passages where gang members could easily slip away from police, many Ford Heights police were too afraid to pursue gang members and drug dealers through these projects because they were so dangerous and criminals could probably kill an officer and get away with it. The open air drug market was attracting people all the way from Indiana as many Indiana license plates on the many cars lined up to buy crack could be seen at 16th and Berkeley, with lines so bad that not even buses could get down the heavily congested street full of heroin and crack buyers. Gangs in the projects operated lawlessly and many corrupt police officers that were involved in drug conspiracies allowed them to operate lawlessly since the police delved into the corruption in 1988 after the village could not afford to pay officers and started issuing IOUs which caused officers to temporarily walk out (Reader, Stanley Holt, June 14, 1990). Organized pit bull fights in the projects could be frequently seen in the projects, it was the site of complete anarchy. Law abiding residents of Ford Heights began fleeing the neighborhood in flocks because of the heavier crime. Ford Heights was always known to have higher than average crime before the crack epidemic but now the crime and gangs were completely ruling the village by the early 1990s.
Many people moved into the village in the 1960s, then a few hundred more came in the 1970s but in the 1980s people started leaving town and in the 1990s people were rushing to leave which would continue on in the 2000s decade until the village only had a population of just over 2,700 which was a massive drop from the over 5,300 that were in the village in the 1980 census. The sudden bailouts of Ford Heights’ residents caused several abandoned homes and buildings to appear all over town, and the houses that were taken were occupied by impoverished families that often ended up not being able to stay at the property causing the houses to become abandoned again. Many buildings and homes would not be occupied for many years as they deteriorated and became the home to crack addicts and gang activity. The many eye sores dropped property values and took away from the value of the village, and tearing the vacant properties down barely helped the community as now the village was full of empty lots where weeds and garbage was able to accumulate. Ford Heights had become depressing and dangerous, and the village did not have the financial backing to fix the problems, and to make it worse police corruption was secretly making it much worse but that issue would be discovered in 1995.
On the night of October 18, 1995 a heinous event that occurred in Ford Heights would prompt immediate action upon this highly distressed and dangerous neighborhood where honest citizens were living in terror. On the night of October 18, 1995 Richard Will, a drug addict from Chicago Heights got into a car with his friend who drove with him to buy drugs at the notorious strip at 16th and Berkeley in Ford Heights. When the two men had made it within a very short distance to the drug dealing spot they were pulled over by Ford Heights police. The two officers discovered that the driver was drunk and arrested him and were arranging to have his car towed. Richard Will was then left without a ride and he asked the police officers for a ride out of there but Lieutenant E.K. Haynie told him he could not have a ride out of there, later allegations said it was because Richard Will was white and the officers were black, whatever the case is Haynie left Richard Will in an area that was not friendly to white visitors and Richard Will knew it. Haynie only pointed Will toward a pay phone that was up the road to call someone for a ride. After the police left, Richard Will began walking but did not get too far until he was approached by a group of seven youths that shouted “freeze we the police!” as they emerged from the bushes. The teens grabbed Richard Will and proceeded to beat him as they punched and kicked him in the face and body, they also slammed his head against a dumpster and tried to throw him in the trash, when they failed to throw him away in the trash they lit his hair on fire then stomped the flame out as a way of torturing him as they laughed. The teens then poured lighter fluid all over him and set him on fire then fled the scene. A few hours later Lieutenant Haynie got the call that the fire had happened, Haynie and other officers returned to the scene where they found Richard Will severely beaten in the fetal position with his hair and groin smoking, the boys were later arrested and charged with murder. (People Illinois vs. Armstrong, 2000). There was no reason for the crime they committed other than the fact that Richard Will was a white man in a black neighborhood; however, the teens were not charged with a hate crime.
The Richard Will case spread across the news and brought major attention to Ford Heights and a lot of attention to Ford Heights police. A massive investigation was launched into this police department and that is when drug conspiracy charges were brought upon most of the Ford Heights police department. The Ford Heights police department had a total of 9 police officers and it was discovered that 6 of those officers were taking bribes from drug dealers and gang members and looking the other way. One of the officers indicated was the Chief of police Jack Davis. These officers were taking bribes from gang members and whenever a raid was coming, the corrupt officer alerted gang members. Corrupt officers also broke up drug dealing activity of rival gang members that were not already paying the police. When gang members were arrested by good cops the corrupt ones altered the cases so the gang members would get away with it. One of the issues with the Ford Heights police department was the pay, officers started at a salary of $6 per hour and the highest paid officer made just under $10 an hour; however, there was not much sympathy from the community about the pay, as Reverend Cliff Franklin put it when talking to the press “I Don’t care if they are making $5 an hour, that doesn’t give you the right to break the law…….” Citizens in Ford Heights knew something was wrong because the blatant way drug dealers sold drugs out in the open and in broad day light made law abiding residents suspicious, now one of the reasons was bad police (New York Times, Dirk Johnson, October 13, 1996).
In the wake of the major corrupt police takedowns of the mid-1990s, state police and Cook County police heavily patrolled the suburb. Cook County police made over 150 drug and weapons related arrests as massive sweeps cut through gang related drug operations. The drug trade in the community was greatly reduced after county intervention; however, Ford Heights would never again build up their own police force, instead Cook county police would patrol the suburb. The village admitted it was too broke to pay any local police officers; therefore, the village has been policed just like an unincorporated town. Ford Heights’ officers stayed until 2008 only making $12 an hour then the officers all quit and no police force has been put back together since then.
Cook county sheriffs continued their raids and tight patrols of the suburb in the later 1990s and by the year 2001 the suburb quitted down significantly. Four of the six corrupt officers had now been charged with federal crimes and were given prison sentences while the other two were discharged from the force. The remaining officers worked the day shift only while sheriffs worked the second and third shifts until the last Ford Heights officers walked out in 2008 (New York Times, Dirk Johnson, October 13, 1996).
In 2001 the Celina Blake and Lena Canada projects were slated for demolition and families were told to leave, the legacy of Vietnam and The Bronx was now coming to an end, after the last families left, the buildings were torn down in 2003. The Vera Yates projects were the last to remain but were renovated; these projects remained because they were the least troubled of the three.
Ford Heights still remains a high crime suburb and is one of the poorest suburbs in the nation. Gang wars, murders and the drug trade are still a major part of this community. The community has scores of shuttered businesses and abandoned homes and is a highly blighted community with abandoned structures that have been shuttered for several years. There are very few opportunities for employment in this area as Ford Heights is pretty much cut off from the rest of the world without shopping (not even a Walmart), without even a police force due to major financial restraints. Like I said above I am not going to sugar coat anything, Ford Heights does not have anything good about it besides low rent rates, this is one tough neighborhood and one of the first Chicago area suburbs to experience Chicago based street gangs.
All images below are of vacant properties. All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.