October 16, 2011
The building inspectors came to the home of R.J. and Josephine Harris on Friday morning. One of them jumped up and down on the new kitchen floor.
His verdict: It's better.
The Harrises felt a rush of hope.
Maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't have to abandon this old house. Maybe they could even take down that hand-scrawled "For Sale by Owner" sign they just propped in the front window.
"We're hoping for the sky," said their daughter, Yvonne, when I went to visit shortly after the inspectors left.
"I hope I get the moon," said Mrs. Harris, who is 80.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Harris family's expulsion from the two adjacent homes that have lodged their extended family for 41 years. At that point, they had been ordered to leave within the week.
They were still stunned then by what happened on a morning at the end of August, when 40 police officers raided their Sheffield Avenue home. One of Mr. And Mrs. Harrises' sons and a grandson were arrested on animal-related misdemeanors, but police found no evidence of the major crimes some neighbors had suspected, and still do.
No guns, no drugs, no dogfighting.
But the raid was barely over when the building inspectors arrived. The list of code violations was long. The family was told to vacate.
Last week, later than originally scheduled, most of the Harris family did leave the houses that had been their shelter, their bond and R.J. Harris' pride. Through terrible times, in the economy and for some of the family, the homes had provided stability and unity.
"Whatever hang-ups his children might have," Yvonne said, "he'd say, 'Well, we'll make some room.'"
After the raid the family's life abruptly changed. They boarded up the house on Maud Street. They locked the upstairs of the adjacent house on Sheffield. Sympathetic neighbors, which was not all the neighbors, stopped by to offer good wishes, pillows, a little money.
By Monday, the clan — four of the elder Harrises' grown children, seven grandchildren, a grandson's girlfriend, a cousin and two great-grandchildren — had scattered. They went to rooms and basements of friends and relatives, in neighborhoods where they don't feel safe. Mrs. Harris misses sleeping with her small granddaughter.
"They done tore up the nest," Mr. Harris, 77, said Friday.
But in the loss has come one victory: Mr. and Mrs. Harris have been allowed to stay in their home while they ponder the future — as long as they make some fast repairs.
Nat Lawrence met R.J. Harris in the mid-1980s, when it was hard to imagine that the derelict North Side neighborhood near Clybourn and Sheffield avenues would one day be home to Whole Foods, Best Buy and million-dollar mansions.
Lawrence was a white Chicago-bred lawyer. Harris, who is black, was a CHA maintenance man who left an Alabama farm at the age of 14 to find work up North. They liked each other, and as the neighborhood gentrified, Lawrence occasionally did legal work for Mr. Harris.
On the Sunday that Lawrence read about the family's troubles in the Tribune, he went by the house and said: What can I do?
The first thing he did, pro bono, was help Mr. and Mrs. Harris win a little time. Under a court agreement, they were given the past week to make basic repairs in the Sheffield house and to stay while they did it. If they fixed enough things, they could stay longer with the idea they would sell within six months. The agreement is open to modification.
"R.J. takes an enormous amount of pride in owning these two properties," Lawrence says. "They're not the best buildings on the block. But he paid them off and paid the taxes for 40 years. It's an accomplishment. He's a survivor. He should have the opportunity to live there until he is in a position to sell it."
While the repairs are made, only two adult visitors are allowed in the home at a time, a restriction that Judy Frydland, a city attorney, says was based on hazards in the house, especially the sagging kitchen floor.
"We've tried to be fair with the Harrises," said Frydland. "I know they've been in that house a long time and it means a lot to them."
On Tuesday, the building inspectors will report in court on the repairs so far. The judge will hear the city's opinion, and if he thinks the repairs are going well, Mr. and Mrs. Harris can continue to live in the home as they consider their next step.
"The city has loosened the reins since they ordered him out," Lawrence says. "But R.J.'s got to continue to show progress."
On Friday, I asked several of the Harrises if they'd learned anything from the past few weeks. They said yes.
They see more clearly how they appear to newcomers and have thought about how they might adjust. They've acknowledged that owning a house involves more than keeping your taxes paid, even if paying the taxes is why you can't afford to fix your house.
And despite everything, even knowing some neighbors want them gone, they still love their neighborhood.
"I really don't know nowhere else I could fit in," Mr. Harris said. Then he waved a hand up Sheffield. "Though if I could find me something pretty nice up that way, I would be all right."
At least he has gained a little time to figure that out from the tattered comfort of home.
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