Furor hurts, mystifies family

An emergency order to vacate was issued.

And just like that, out of the blue of a summer morning, the Harrises lost their home.

"I never seen so much hate build up in one minute," Mr. Harris says. "For what?"

Now as they pack to leave this week, not sure where to go, that's the question that burns in them and some of their neighbors: For what?

What did they do that merited this kind of force and such harsh, swift punishment?

When R.J. Harris bought two houses on Chicago's North Side in 1970 -- $65,000 for the pair -- the neighborhood was not yet one of Chicago's most coveted.

The shopping empire that would eventually rise on nearby Clybourn Avenue -- Whole Foods, Patagonia, Bed Bath & Beyond -- was years away. The residents were Puerto Ricans, Italians and Germans, but most, like the Harrises, were black.

The neighborhood had its troubles, but it was better than the Wentworth Gardens public housing project, where Mr. and Mrs. Harris started out raising their seven children.

"We had a dear friend said, 'You don't need to be in the projects with these children,' " Mrs. Harris says. " 'I have a house I'm going to sell you.' "

R.J. and Josephine, who married in 1954, met in St. Louis after Mr. Harris, who grew up picking cotton on an Alabama farm, had come north at 14 to look for work that paid.

Through the years, he found it: dumping rocks, loading ice, piling huge water jugs on skids. For 25 years he worked as a custodian for the Chicago Housing Authority and left on disability only after he blew a disk in his back carrying a 55-gallon garbage container. Mrs. Harris worked as a file clerk.

From the beginning, friends and relations were in and out of the Harris house on Sheffield. Mr. Harris masterminded the community garden. Friends sat out front talking, drinking and playing checkers, customs the family maintained through the decades, sometimes to the consternation of new neighbors who conducted their social lives in the privacy of back patios and decks.

As new, mostly white people moved in, and almost all the other black families moved out, the Harrises sometimes felt marginalized. Still, when developers knocked, they said: Not for sale.

Houses weren't just real estate. They were homes.

Besides, it was safe here, and the men of the family could find odd jobs with the new neighbors, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, fixing cars.

Some of the Harrises' offspring got in trouble, from the minor to the major. More than once, Mr. Harris ejected his son Michael -- who has been in and out of prison for such crimes as burglary and shoplifting -- but he always let him come back because that's what families do.

He fretted over his kids who didn't work, but felt good that most did and that as his grandkids grew up, most made it to college. He and his wife were proud that in a time of fractured families and hard finances, they kept their family together.

And then came that August dawn.

Here's how the police see it.

In July, Ald. Scott Waguespack's aides contacted the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy office for the 18th District. The alderman's email noted that some neighbors had complained about unleashed dogs and drugs in tiny Privet Playlot Park. The playground is separated from the Harris home only by a vacant lot.

CHICAGO

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