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The Trouble with Robbins

Inept police, backroom deals, rampant blight: how the Chicago area’s most historic black town was laid low—and why it’s so hard to fix

Robbins water tower
Photo: TJ Proechel

The Trouble with Robbins

Inept police, backroom deals, rampant blight: how the Chicago area’s most historic black town was laid low—and why it’s so hard to fix

Short and round and clad in his usual three-button tan suit, his hair and goatee dusted white, Tyrone Ward stepped before the raw flare of half a dozen camera lights. The mayor of Robbins, Illinois, composed himself briefly, then leaned into a thicket of microphone bulbs that bloomed like a bouquet of black flowers.

To his right, in a crisp blue police uniform, tie knotted tightly, hat trimmed with lustrous gold brocade, stood the real star of the show: Melvin Davis, the new chief of police and the mayor’s handpicked choice to restore dignity and trust to a department that had lost both in recent months.

The room was hot and thick, the result of a piece of bad luck. The air conditioner had chosen a particularly steamy day—August 20, 2013—to shut down. But there was no calling off the press conference. The past few months had been marked by too many scandals, blunders, and embarrassments.

That January, Cook County’s sheriff, Tom Dart, had sent one of his top aides to investigate why so little crime was being reported in this town of 5,400 just south of Chicago. The aide reeled at what she found in the police department evidence room. Untagged guns lay stacked in a Tupperware bin like forgotten tools at a garage sale. Vials of blood sat spoiling on a shelf. The real shock, though, was a neglected collection of about 200 rape kits—boxes containing DNA evidence from victims of sexual assault. Dating as far back as 1986, the vast majority of the cases had never been investigated, and more than a quarter of the kits had never even been submitted for testing.

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A month before that, Robbins’s police chief at the time made news for his own arrest in Midlothian: his second for driving under the influence. This time, Johnny Holmes was reportedly so drunk he didn’t know what town he was in. When informed he would have to take a sobriety test, he marveled, “Oh wow.” Within days, he announced his retirement.

Not long after, then-mayor Irene Brodie, a tart-tongued town hall fixture for 36 years, stepped down, too. But she left Robbins with a nasty surprise. In one of her final acts, she signed off on a proposal that would allow a developer to rip up a huge chunk of town to build a limestone quarry—displacing residents of about 150 homes, almost none of whom knew anything about the plan.

At the press conference, Ward, the new mayor, parried the blows, undaunted. Yes, there were mistakes. But he was there to proclaim a new day in Robbins. “It’s very relevant to separate the past from our future voyage,” he said.

With that, he introduced a sweeping overhaul of the police department, including the hiring of Davis and a hotshot captain, Douglas J. Smith. Both choices seemed impressive. Davis had previously helmed departments in nearby University Park and in suburban Phoenix, and Smith’s résumé included law enforcement jobs in Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Georgia.

Residents were less than convinced. “It’s just Robbins,” Robby Richardson told a Southtown Star reporter after the press conference. “It stays the same.”

Indeed, within three months, after numerous questions were raised about the legitimacy of the new captain’s résumé, both Smith and the man who had hired him, Davis, would be gone. Three months after that, the replacement for Davis would be pushed out, too.

So much for a new day.

 

In terms of sheer poverty, lawlessness, and corruption, there are worse towns in America. There are places that are poorer, though not in Cook County, where Robbins’s paltry $21,800 median household income—not even 40 percent of the countywide $54,600—ranks dead last among 134 municipalities, and its 30 percent unemployment rate between 2008 and 2012 dwarfs the county’s 12 percent.

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There are places with worse gang problems, though Robbins has in recent years become a beachhead for the Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones. It’s not a place where shots ring out every night, though some nights the snap-and-pop is unmistakable. At its worst, about a decade ago, the violent crime rate in Robbins was triple the national average.

There are towns that have endured more misconduct and incompetence, though Robbins has had its share of both—the most egregious examples being the police hirings and the questionable dealings surrounding the quarry. Not only were residents kept in the dark on the quarry, but the Cook County sheriff discovered that a village trustee involved in making the deal had accepted $5,300 in campaign contributions from the proposed developer.

What makes Robbins’s vast range of seemingly intractable problems particularly heartbreaking is the town’s rich history. Unlike in, say, Ferguson, Missouri, where mostly white leaders run a majority black city—an incongruity that turned tragic this summer when a white cop fatally shot an unarmed black teenager—nearly every leadership position in Robbins, which is 95 percent black, has been filled by African Americans since its inception in 1917. It was one of the first communities in the North to be governed by people of color. (Only downstate Brooklyn, Illinois, incorporated in 1873, preceded Robbins.) Several of the Tuskegee Airmen grew up in Robbins, as did NBA star Dwyane Wade. Cosmetics millionaire S.B. Fuller lived there nearly all his adult life. (His mansion still stands.) Robbins also lays claim to the country’s first black-owned airport, which rumbled with planes for three gloriously improbable years, from 1931 to 1934.

Thus, while outsiders can and do dismiss Robbins as yet another poor south suburb beyond hope and unworthy of the effort to fix it, its residents feel a deep-rooted sense of pride. “I still love it,” Annette Craig, 68, says, standing outside the Robbins Church of Christ on a crisp fall Sunday. “You’ve got good people here. This is our home. This is our life. I know it may be wishful thinking, but I’m hoping Robbins will be restored.”

That resiliency is one reason the Cook County sheriff has made Robbins a cause, if not an obsession. “Right on the outskirts of the wealthy, affluent, cosmopolitan city of Chicago, you have a town with a wonderful history and also historic dysfunction,” Dart says. “How can we let this go?”

He hasn’t. He has spent the last two years working aggressively to restore order to a police department in disarray, flooding Robbins with deputies tasked with cleaning up long-neglected pockets of crime, and investigating the quarry project deal. His efforts have been cheered by residents longing for stability and a sense that someone, even if an outsider, is looking out for them.

But Dart’s presence has also been a provocation, particularly to the mayor. It is Tyrone Ward, after all, who was elected to run the town, and the mayor has said quite publicly that it’s time for Dart to leave. Humming like a current through this standoff is an undeniable reality, one that shouldn’t matter, perhaps, but does: that the knight riding to the rescue of this town built on black self-rule is white.

 
Robbins Airport
Robbins Airport, opened in 1931, was the nation’s first to be owned and operated by blacks. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 99-15422)

On a lonely corner lot of cracked concrete, where a billboard touting the reality show Hollywood Divas serves as the only landmark, squats a white, windowless cigar box of a building. Once a food and liquor store with a clientele that included the gang members and prostitutes who wander the surrounding blocks, it now houses the Robbins History Museum.

When I stop by one Saturday, the museum’s curator and director—a white-haired 67-year-old former CTA clerk named Tyrone Haymore—meets me at the steel-mesh door with a smile and a handshake. Yes, he says, he’d be delighted to give me a tour.

A lifelong Robbins resident, Haymore spent $15,000 of his own money on the museum, which opened in 2010. It consists of one 40-by-40-foot room, but Haymore has packed it with artifacts, curios, and plaques. On one wall hang photos of Robbins’s famous sports sons: Wade and former NFL receiver Antwaan Randle El. Another bears pictures of doctors who grew up in town. In the center of the room, preserved in a Plexiglas case, is the Star Trek uniform worn by Robbins native Nichelle Nichols, a.k.a. Lieutenant Uhura.

“Robbins is by far the most historic of the all-black communities in the country,” Haymore says. “You hear so many bad things about it. I wanted this to be a place that told about all the good things. One of the only things we have left is our history.”

From the start, Robbins—unlike virtually anywhere else in the country at the time and in the shadow of its racially intolerant neighbor Chicago—was run by blacks for blacks. Houses had no electricity or plumbing for many years. But they were also cheap, which meant that blacks fleeing Southern oppression during the Great Migration of the first half of the last century could afford their own places. The village prospered, growing from 431 people in 1920 to 1,300 by 1940.

It was during that period, in 1931, that a pair of aviators, John C. Robinson and Cornelius R. Coffey, opened in Robbins the first U.S. airport to be owned and operated by blacks. The one-runway Robbins Airport also housed the nation’s only flight school for blacks, providing the model for the Tuskegee Airmen program. But even then, it seemed fortune was against the town. Three years after the airport’s opening, a violent windstorm leveled it. It was never rebuilt.

In the decades that followed, Robbins slid into a slow, agonizing decline. Massive layoffs at nearby factories in the 1970s led to local businesses drying up, which led to near bankruptcy for Robbins in the late ’80s. Hope returned in 1997, when the cash-strapped town successfully lobbied an engineering firm to locate its mammoth, smoke-spewing trash incinerator there. (At a public hearing, residents showed up in caps that read “Yes. In My Back Yard.”) The property tax windfall from the Robbins Resource Recovery Facility allowed the town to buy a new fire engine, a sewer cleaner, a street sweeper, and two squad cars, as well as to add nearly a dozen municipal workers.

But the plant—whose smokestack towered over the area “like the Washington Monument of Chicago’s south suburbs,” as one politician put it—outraged environmental groups and the residents of nearby towns. Illinois lawmakers—of which Dart was one at the time—effectively killed the project by repealing a generous tax subsidy. The incinerator closed in 2000.

Enter the quarry deal. Since 2011, Robbins has been in talks with the Riverside-based developer ALM Resources about building a massive limestone quarry and mining operation as a public-private partnership. The project has the potential to radically alter the face of Robbins. It calls for a 61-acre quarry on the east side and a 169-acre mine under homes on the north side. Combined, that constitutes a third of the town’s tiny footprint. The plan involves using eminent domain laws to seize about 150 homes, 52 of which are occupied.

The project is fraught with potential environmental concerns. But as with the incinerator, the lure of desperately needed jobs and millions of dollars in revenue proved too tempting for the former mayor, Irene Brodie.

Problem was, almost no one in town had the faintest idea about any of it. Word began to leak in the fall of 2013, and an anonymous call came into the sheriff’s public-corruption hotline. After launching an investigation, Dart sent a letter to the mayor expressing concerns over both the speed and the quietness with which the project was moving. Dart’s 18-page report, released in January, found, among other things, that the terms of the contract unfairly favored the developer and that ALM’s managing partner, James Louthen, had contributed money to the campaign of Shantiel Simon, a village trustee seeking to replace Brodie. Louthen denied wanting any quid pro quo for his donations, and Simon has since stepped down. (Dart’s report also found that Simon no longer lived in Robbins, a violation of state statute.)

Under increasing pressure, village trustees voted to nullify the existing deal. Most residents cheered. But not all. The director of the Robbins History Museum shakes his head when I ask him about it. “It’s like people here don’t want to see progress,” Haymore says. “Every time we find something that will give us some money, we shut it down.”

 
A shelf full of rape kits
The sheriff’s office discovered 201 rape kits stored, but largely ignored, by Robbins police. The related crimes date as far back as 28 years. Photo: Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff’s Office

It was partly a quirk of geography that landed Robbins on Dart’s radar. A longtime resident of nearby Mount Greenwood, the sheriff would often pile the family in the car and drive down Kedzie Avenue, up and over the Cal-Sag Channel, along the spine of Robbins, to the movies in Crestwood. He would wonder how a place so close to Chicago could seem like such a backwater.

A former Cook County prosecutor who took over as sheriff in 2006, Dart has confounded law enforcement stereotypes. He favors khakis and hiking shoes over a uniform and a badge, and during the mortgage and foreclosure crisis of 2008, he stunned area lawmakers by declaring a moratorium on evictions. The move thrust him into the national spotlight and won him considerable (if grudging, in certain circles) local political capital.

In recent years, Dart has spent much of it on the decidedly unglamorous undertaking of cleaning up a cluster of poverty-stricken suburbs just south of Chicago, including Harvey, Ford Heights, and now Robbins. Though his actions have been largely praised, he has developed a reputation for steamrolling. Harvey mayor Eric Kellogg, whose office has been mired in scandal, including a rape kit fiasco similar to Robbins’s, has called Dart’s efforts “political posturing.”

When I ask Dart to explain why he’s made fixing Robbins his latest mission, he says he would rather show me instead. We meet in the shadow of the Robbins water tower, in the parking lot of the town’s sole gas station—a Citgo—and head down 135th Street in Dart’s black SUV. For Dart, it started here with a pair of houses he would pass on his drives through town. “Right there,” he says, pointing to one of them. The white siding of the two-story house gleams in the sunlight. Autumn has robbed the rows of flowerpots of their colorful blooms, but they neatly line a driveway that cuts into the well-trimmed postage-stamp yard. The other house, so close it almost elbows the first, rears out of a litter-cluttered dump—a charred husk, black as rotted teeth, with windows either shuttered with plywood or gaping open.

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“In the one house, you have people who are obviously very proud of what they have,” Dart says. “But they’ve been condemned to live next to that burned-out wreck.”

It is an arrangement repeated across Robbins. For every nicely tended dwelling, there slumps a corresponding uninhabited hovel, often boarded up, sometimes seared black from fires intentionally or unintentionally set, usually engulfed by weeds or a fetid, fly-infested mound of garbage.

The juxtaposition gnawed at Dart. Soon he was taking detours and driving through Robbins several times a week. With each trip, his disgust grew. Cara Smith, one of his aides, remembers the daily litany of complaints from her boss. “He would say, ‘We’ve got to find a way to get more involved there. The roads aren’t paved. The houses are falling down. There is no downtown. There is no retail.’ ”

There was also something amiss with the police department, a red flag raised by Cook County prosecutors, who wondered why they weren’t getting cases out of the town. “They’d say things like, ‘What, did they stop committing crimes there?’ ” Dart recalls.

He tapped Smith to investigate, and with good reason. In 2010, while working for the Illinois attorney general’s office, she had helped push through a law mandating that all rape kits be forwarded to the state crime lab. After doing some digging, she found that Robbins had reported 44 kits but none had been submitted for processing.

When Dart’s office informed Mayor Brodie of the findings, she agreed to let Dart’s investigators take a look. Thus did Smith find herself in the evidence room, staring aghast at a cluttered pile of 201 rape kits dating back three decades—176 of which represented cases that had never been investigated, according to the sheriff’s office. The statute of limitations rendered most of them useless. “It was just shocking,” Smith recalls. “The evidence room itself was in mass disarray. What went through my mind was, What has been going on here?”

During my ride-along with Dart, he nods at a trash-strewn stream with overgrown banks. “This is where a girl was raped,” he says. “They tried to kill her, right down in there.”

The attack, I later learned, occurred in 1991 when a 14-year-old girl was walking home from basketball practice. A man grabbed her as she passed over the bridge and dragged her into the creek. After he raped her, he tried to drown her. She survived by playing dead. The victim’s rape kit was processed by the Illinois State Police crime lab, but the Robbins detective assigned to the case never followed up. (Unrelated to the case, that same detective and another from Robbins were convicted in 2000 of taking extortion money from a drug dealer.)

The rape case might have simply faded away—did fade away for decades, in fact. But after hearing reports of the scandal in Robbins, the victim, now 37, came forward. Within a day, a DNA match was made to a suspect who had served 14 years for armed robbery. The discovery provided cold comfort. The statute of limitations on the rape had expired in 1996.

The swift fall of the men hired to put an end to such unconscionable blunders added a new layer of farce. Douglas Smith had been presented as a prize catch at the August 2013 press conference. A résumé submitted to state regulators claimed he had served as a deputy for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia, had risen to commander of operations for the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, and had worked as an undercover officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

An investigator with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, however, could find no record of Smith having worked at any of those organizations. In an even weirder twist, the LAPD badge—No. 714—in a photograph that had been submitted as part of Smith’s credentials turned out to be not his or any other real officer’s but, rather, a copy of the one used by Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet.

Mayor Tyrone Ward and Melvin Davis
Mayor Tyrone Ward (center) introduces the new police chief, Melvin Davis (left), in August 2013. Davis was fired three months later. Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

Smith was fired in November 2013; amid the scandal, Melvin Davis, the police chief, was also canned. (In August of this year, Smith filed a slander and libel suit against Davis, Ward, and the Village of Robbins, claiming that it was Davis who had included the Dragnet photo in the package sent to the state board. Davis did not reply to requests from Chicago for a response.)

An interim chief, Hashi Jaco, took over in November 2013. Two months later, he, too, was fired. Earlier that year, his wife had been hired as a part-time officer, but he came under heat when it was discovered that she had never completed weapons training.

Overshadowed by these scandals was the sorry state of the police department as a whole. According to Dart’s office, the staff at that time consisted of only one full-time officer—the chief—and a collection of poorly trained part-timers. Their reports, Cara Smith says, were so lacking in basic information that they were essentially useless to a prosecutor.

Dart offers an almost comical example, involving a ring of teenage burglars who had been breaking into the houses of the elderly while they were at church. The identity of the perpetrators wasn’t a mystery, Dart says. One victim told police that she knew exactly who had robbed her: her grandson. So why no arrests? Dart says police told the victims that their hands were tied until the teenagers had accumulated enough arrest “points.” The explanation, Dart says, sprang from a misreading of a law that uses a point system to determine the length of sentences for juvenile offenders. “We had to explain to [the officers] that that’s not the law,” Dart says, “that you have to actually arrest people when they commit offenses. We had to, in short order, try to bring it under control. And we did. Within a month, we had arrested them all.”

Not long after, the town suffered perhaps the most horrifying crime in its history. In February, Michael Worsham, a 43-year-old Robbins resident with no criminal record who worked as a high school security guard in Thornton, walked into his house just after 10:30 on a Sunday night and started murdering his family, one by one. In the space of a few moments, he gunned down his wife, his 17-year-old son, and his 15-year-old daughter. His 14-year-old stepson and 5-year-old nephew escaped. Police found Worsham dead of an apparent heart attack in the back of the house. Dart has not been able to uncover an explanation for the murders. An incident a month later added a pitiable coda: Two teenagers broke into the bloodstained house, police say, and swiped two televisions. They were arrested after pawning the TVs.

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Anomalies aside, Dart says he is encouraged by the strides Robbins has made since he has gotten involved. The town has increased its number of squad cars from 4 to 15. Its police officers have undergone training on everything from report writing to evidence room maintenance. In January, the town hired a new police chief, Mitchell R. Davis III, who has 24 years of law enforcement experience, including a stint as the top cop in nearby Dixmoor.

As for the quarry project, that deal is not dead, but sheriff’s officials say they’re satisfied that the issues raised in their investigation are now being addressed. Rib Mountain Aggregate, the company selected by the developer to operate the project, is taking steps to ensure that residents will be included in the process. On this issue, at least, the sheriff’s office is backing off, having made it clear to all those involved, says Cara Smith, that “we’re going to sit on the sidelines until you need us in there.”

Dart would like to do even more to help Robbins. In other southern suburbs, for example, the sheriff has used Cook County Jail inmates from his boot camp program to tear down a total of a dozen abandoned homes. He wants to do the same in Robbins, he says, but then adds: “We’re having a little bit of a pushback from the mayor.”

Ward has told Dart, in so many words, that his services are no longer needed, which has left Dart bewildered—and deeply exasperated. “What mayor wouldn’t want to have some other entity come in to help them?” he asks. “I mean, honest to God, if someone said to me, ‘Hey, Tom, I’ve got 25 guys who will help you with the jail,’ I’d say, ‘Come right now.’ Only in this dysfunctional, screwed-up place is helping out ‘something we don’t want.’ Which obviously leads people to wonder, Why is that?”

 

The answer is more complicated than Dart’s question suggests. Sitting in his municipal office—a modest green-carpeted and drop-ceilinged room dominated by a wooden desk cluttered with files and tottering stacks of documents—Mayor Ward rejects the notion that he’s being belligerent at the expense of his town. Quite the opposite. “I’ve lived here all my life. All my life,” he says, his voice rising on the repetition. “That is why I’m so passionate about Robbins and doing right by Robbins.”

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He’s well aware of the drubbing the town’s reputation has taken of late. “It does hurt,” he says. “I would be lying if I said it didn’t.” It eats at Ward, who also works as a language arts instructor at the local middle school, that the news media have depicted the town in tragicomic ways that seem to feed on its misery. “But Robbins has survived, as this town is known to do.”

Polite but wary—pausing a half beat on some questions as if to scan for hidden barbs—he’s particularly cautious when it comes to discussing Dart. The tension between the men is palpable.

In November 2013, as the sweeping changes that Ward announced at his press conference were unraveling, Dart insisted that Robbins officials meet with him. The sit-down took place, with Dart making clear that he would be upping his office’s presence in town, but Ward did not attend. Instead, he issued a press release declaring, in capital letters, that “there is no takeover” of the police force by the sheriff. He also called Dart’s intentions an “obvious reach.”

Ward insists that his reaction was not part of some petty power struggle. He acknowledges that, for a while, Robbins needed the beefed-up law enforcement presence, and he has expressed his gratitude for Dart’s involvement in cleaning up the evidence room, investigating the burglary ring, and forcing the quarry issue into the open. But at this point, Ward says, “to have four or five or six sheriff’s deputies for a town of this size, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

He cites as an example of the sheriff’s overbearing ways his push to raze abandoned houses. Just because a structure is rundown doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an owner, Ward points out. And what Dart seems to ignore, the mayor says, is that the town itself is making progress on the problem. Robbins has applied for a $75,000 grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority to fund the demolition of 8 to 10 homes. “We’re working on it,” the mayor says. “It’s just a very slow, very tedious process.”

More troubling to him are the complaints he has heard from residents about the way they are treated by some of Dart’s deputies. On one occasion, Ward says, he observed a cruiser sitting in the middle of a busy street, making it difficult for drivers to pass. Ward waited several minutes before approaching the deputy to ask him to move. He did, but only after Ward identified himself as the mayor.

“There have been several instances where some residents have felt harassed,” he says. “[Dart’s deputies] will sort of treat you like you’re not here. Maybe it’s because they don’t really know us, haven’t taken the time to really get to know us.”

Though it goes unspoken, the racial dynamic is unmistakable. As mayor, Ward is the guardian of Robbins’s most precious legacy: that it has, from the outset, been run by blacks. No matter how well intentioned Dart is, no matter how much good he’s done, ceding control to a white outsider is no small matter.

 

It is dusk when Dart finishes taking me around. The last orange light reflects off the Cal-Sag Channel, picking out steel girders on the bridge out of Robbins, casting a warm glow over the town. Even the rust-colored smokestack of the long-defunct trash incinerator, a soaring monument to failure, takes on a softer hue.

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Dart vehemently disagrees with the mayor’s assessment of residents’ reaction to his involvement. “When I go through the town, people are always coming up to my car to thank us.”

Despite the resistance from Ward, Dart vows to press on. To do otherwise, he says, would be wrong. “I mean, can you imagine any place—not just in the city of Chicago, but virtually any suburb of the county—where 200 women were sexually assaulted but no one investigated those cases?”

As we pull back into the parking lot, the irritation in his voice rises. “You’re trying to tell me that this is unfortunately some people’s station in life just because they happen to be born here? They’re stuck with this, and we are always going to sit around, rolling our shoulders, saying, ‘Not my problem’? Well, clearly, for me it’s a different story. Because my jurisdiction is the whole county. For me, I can’t look away.”

For the moment, however, he is headed home, just a quick trip down the road—a few miles and another world away.

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