“A hundred and thirty blocks south of the Chicago Loop, there’s a stretch of brick wall, painted yellow, covered in hundreds and hundreds of hand-lettered names. Some of the bricks are chipped, some of the paint is faded. But to people who live — or once lived —in this public housing community of Altgeld Gardens, this is their Memorial Wall, a place of family record for lost loved ones and a place of history.
“A young man stops to scan the names. ‘This is my grandmama name right here, Leola Lockett,’ he says. ‘She was a beautiful lady.’ The man doesn’t want to share his name, but he’s glad the wall is here.
“Still, parts of the wall’s history is uncertain, and its future is even more unclear. The Memorial Wall sits in the breezeway of a dilapidated — and privately owned — commercial building at the center of the community. That building has been in demolition court for the last few years, and the wall’s future is tied up with it.
“Altgeld Gardens is the most isolated of Chicago’s public housing communities. Completed in the mid-1940s, the complex was a racially segregated development for African-Americans — both war workers in the nearby armaments industry and returning veterans.
“At the heart of the Altgeld development was a privately owned commercial building that for decades housed a collection of Black-owned businesses: a drug store, a shoe repair shop, a lounge called the Funky London, a barber shop, the Garden of Eden beauty shop — and most important: a grocery store.
“This unusual building was designed by brothers George and William Keck, the architects who dreamed up the ‘House of Tomorrow’ for Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair. Built in the modernist style, this block-long building had a swooping, cantilevered canopy and a gracefully curving, glassy front wall. It served as a kind of town center for the community, where people both shopped and spent social time together.
“Residents called the building Up-Top and because it served as a gathering place it’s no surprise that the Memorial Wall took root here in a covered breezeway that runs north to south through the building. But if the Altgeld community wants to keep the Memorial Wall intact and in its current location, that means saving the building it sits in.
“‘The only way to protect a building in the City of Chicago,’ says Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, ‘is by having it made a designated Chicago landmark — which is protecting the building by ordinance.’
“Typically, Miller says, the City doesn’t like to landmark buildings that are in demolition court, so it could be a tough road ahead for the Memorial Wall at Altgeld Gardens.
“‘At the end of the day,’ Miller says, ‘we rely on the Altgeld community to tell us if this is important to them.'” (Paul, WBEZ Chicago, 1/27/23)