Once A Blue-Collar Powerhouse, A Chicago Suburb Now Faces A Dim Future

Sep 6, 2017

NPR reporters are returning home this summer to see how the places they grew up have changed — from the economy to schools to how people see their community and country.

Once proudly called the "Gateway to the South Suburbs" of Chicago, Harvey, Illinois used to be a blue-collar powerhouse. Dozens of manufacturers used to employ thousands of workers. But ever since the factories closed and other businesses left town, it's been a long fall for Harvey. Today, the village is struggling to survive.

I spent most of my adolescence in Harvey. I really had not visited since graduating from high school in the 1970s, and my return was bitter sweet.

By 1960 nearly 30,000 people lived in Harvey — a number that remained firm throughout the 2000 census. Today's population is about 25,000 and more than a third of the village's residents live below the poverty line. The median income is under $14,000. The village's challenges also include a dwindling tax base and high levels of unemployment and crime.

A drive through Harvey's downtown today is in stark contrast to the bustle of years ago. There are a few banks, a thriving hospital and a YMCA but they are vastly outnumbered by vacant and boarded up businesses.

On the street where I lived, about a mile from Thornton High School, the home with the big yard that my parents were so proud of is abandoned and a tattered wreck. The sky is visible through the roof. The awnings my mother added to the structure are faded and frail. The tree I planted in the back yard is towering and strong but the fence that surrounded the property is gone and boards cover some of the windows.

There are more than 1,000 vacant and abandoned properties in Harvey. Anne Davis, a retired teacher and union official who lived in Harvey for nearly four decades before leaving, says it's so disappointing. She and her husband bought a home in Harvey in 1963. Davis says real estate agents steered black homebuyers to the West side of town and whites started moving out. "We woke up one morning and said,' Wow, what happened to our neighbor?' The racial makeup of the town changed dramatically from the 1960s to the 1980s with the African-American population increasing from about 7 to 66 percent.

Despite the racial tension that came with that turnover, Davis says Harvey was a good place to live for years. It boomed with factories like Allis-Chalmers and other industrial giants. There were car dealerships, jewelry stores, and all kinds of restaurants, a movie theater and a vibrant downtown. "The question becomes, what happened?" Davis says.

There's a ghostly reminder of what happened at the northern edge of town. That's where the Wyman-Gordon factory sits empty like a huge, hulk of a shell. The company employed nearly 3,000 people at its forging plant before it shut down in the mid-1980s. Plenty of other manufacturers that called Harvey home dried up or left. Other businesses followed and so did many residents.

One of the strongest examples of Harvey's struggle is over on Dixie Highway, a main thoroughfare. Fifty-seven acres alongside the street used to be home to the Dixie Square Mall. Before its demise, Dixie Mall lured thousands of shoppers to Harvey. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in the area and home to more than 60 stores. It was only open, though, for 13 years, from 1966 to 1979, as the suburbs' once flourishing economy began to flail.

Its claim to fame came once it was defunct — when Hollywood came knocking. The mall was trashed during a legendary chase scene in the 1980 Blues Brothers film. Efforts to revitalize the mall fell flat and for years it was a huge crumbling eyesore until it was finally demolished in 2012. Today, there are some signs of life on the Dixie Mall site. It's home to the Harvey Police Station, a state office building, a Senior Housing Center and at one corner a new bar and grill that is also a venue for concerts and other events. Co-owner Joseph Brooks says he was able to get a good deal on the property and it's an opportunity for him as well as the city. "It will allow me to bring employment to the black community," says Brooks.

Bringing jobs and business back to Harvey is the first item on the agenda for many in Harvey but financial scandals and political infighting at city hall — including battles over tax levies — hasn't helped matters much. Last year, Harvey residents voted in term limits for city officials. Mayor Eric Kellogg, serving his fourth term, says the turmoil has not only damaged his reputation but efforts to boost economic development. He promises that he'll be able to take steps to improve Harvey's image before he leaves office in 2019.

It's not all bad news in Harvey. The Chicago suburb still has some beautiful homes and a few factories remain.

My alma mater, Thornton Township High School, and its sprawling campus is the home of the Wildcats and the place where I made life-long friends and joined a speech team that helped spark a career. In the main hallway, there's a big welcome sign in English and Spanish. The school's colors, purple and white, are on display all throughout the school. Seventeen-year-old senior, Asya Bost, says she's definitely "Thornton proud." Bost likes Thornton's racial diversity and the opportunities it provides in addition to academics. She's the captain of Thornton's spoken-word team and also on the speech team. "I'm involved in a lot of extra-curriculars and that's what I like best about the school," she says.

When I attended Thornton, two-thirds of the nearly 4,500 students were white. The rest were mostly African-American. Four decades later, overall enrollment in the school is down and it's now more than 90 percent African American. Latinos make up 7 percent of the population and the number of white students and those other ethnicities is miniscule.

Principal Tony Ratliff, a Thornton graduate, says the economy has a lot to do with the shift in enrollment. "Because of the economy, we've lost homesteadness," he says, adding that the school district has a high rate of mobility.

Even so, Ratliff points to the school's state-of- the art science and computer labs, and its rehabbed stadium and track as examples of how well Thornton Township High School is doing compared to the challenges surrounding areas face.

In recent years, a developer built a subdivision of housing and the library where I used to study looks brand new. There are separate spaces for teenagers and preschoolers, plenty of computers and charging stations, even a café and fireplace. The library underwent a complete renovation. "I'm really working with a shoe-string budget but when people come in I want them to have a 'Wow, this is a nice library' effect," says Library Director Sandra Flowers. The library also offers a variety of services for its patrons including an adult line-dancing class on Tuesday nights. Antonia McBride, head of Circulation and Adult Services, grew up in Harvey. After graduating from college, in 1991, she returned home to work in the Chicago-land area. Although, McBride later moved and lived in other suburban areas for a number of years, she returned to her family home in Harvey in 2009. McBride knows that lots of young professionals won't follow her lead but she hopes that will change. "I hope it will get to the point where people see the value in Harvey and see it as a location that could be prosperous again," says McBride. But, she adds, she doesn't think that will happen anytime soon.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This summer, some of our reporters went back to the communities where they grew up to see how their hometowns have changed. NPR's Cheryl Corley spent most of her adolescence in Harvey, Ill., about 20 miles south of Chicago's downtown. She left Harvey for college in the 1970s. It was once considered a 20th-century boomtown. Now Harvey is a struggling suburb devastated by a loss of factories, the country's housing crisis, crime and political infighting.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's been decades since I really visited Harvey, so first stop on this reunion tour - my alma mater, Thornton Township High school, home of the Wildcats. In the main hallway, a welcome sign in English and Spanish greets visitors. And there's lots of purple and white, the school colors, all over the place.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, look at the camera for me.

CORLEY: As photographers give quick instructions, a long line of students inches forward, getting ready for new school IDs. Asya Bost, a senior now, says there's a reason she's so Thornton proud.

ASYA BOST: I like the diversity of this school. It's a lot of different ethnicities, different type of people, different personalities. I'm the captain of the spoken word team. I'm a part of the speech team.

CORLEY: Out in one of the courtyards, there's principal Tony Ratliffe. This day, he's a chef wearing a purple Wildcat apron, tossing some hot dogs on a grill for students and staff.

TONY RATLIFF: Always a honor to have our Wildcats return.

CORLEY: Ratliff is a Thornton graduate himself. He became the principal six years ago. When I attended Thornton, there were about 4,500 students, the majority white. It's now less than half that and mostly African-American.

RATLIFF: Because the economy just - over the years in our area, we've lost that homesteadness. One of the disadvantages of our school in particular is it has a high mobility rate - a lot of people in, a lot of people out, you know?

CORLEY: In its heyday, more than 30,000 people lived in the village. Today it's closer to 25,000, and more than a third live below the poverty line.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CORLEY: A drive through Harvey's downtown today is a stark contrast to the bustle of years ago. There's a few banks, a thriving hospital, the YMCA. But they are vastly outnumbered by vacant and boarded-up businesses.

On the street where I lived about a mile from Thornton, the home with the big yard my parents were so proud of is abandoned, a tattered wreck, the sky visible through the roof. The tree I planted in the backyard is towering and strong, but the awnings on the house are faded and frail.

ANNE DAVIS: My heart aches. You will see as many boarded-up homes as there are homes that are occupied.

CORLEY: Anne Davis lived in Harvey for nearly four decades. A retired teacher and union official, Davis and her husband bought their home in 1963.

DAVIS: And guess what? It was employment. We had all kinds of restaurants, and downtown Harvey was vibrant. And so the question becomes, what happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CORLEY: There's a ghostly reminder of what happened at the northern edge of town. The vacant Wyman-Gordon factory sits like a hulking shell. It's one of many manufacturers that employed thousands in Harvey but dried up or left town for areas with lower labor costs. Ever since, Harvey has struggled with declining tax revenues, high levels of crime and poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CORLEY: Along Dixie Highway, there's a new business called Entrance entertainment venue. It sits on the corner of a site once dominated by a defunct mall.

JOSEPH BROOKS: In the front, we have a bar-grill, which we have a full-size menu.

CORLEY: Co-owner Joseph Brooks says there's space for concerts and other events in the back. He says it's a good opportunity for him and for Harvey.

BROOKS: Oh, most definitely. That allows me to bring employment in the black community.

CORLEY: That's the first item on the agenda for many in Harvey. But a plague of crime, charges of financial mismanagement and political infighting at City Hall hasn't helped matters much. Still, there are some bright spots, including some beautiful homes that remain, plus a few factories. And the library where I used to study looks brand new. There's books, computers and, on Tuesday nights...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Take it back.

CORLEY: ...Adult line dancing classes. The dance class is just one of many services the library offers, says Antonia McBride, the head of circulation. McBride grew up in Harvey, left for college and returned. McBride knows lots of young professionals won't stick around the Chicago suburb, but she hopes for a turnaround.

ANTONIA MCBRIDE: And have people see the location as being someplace where it could become prosperous again. But I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.

CORLEY: And as I remember what Harvey used to be and visit it now as an adult, it seems as if it would almost take a miracle for the suburb where I grew up to see a glimmer of its former days. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.