‘Chicago Tonight’ In Your Neighborhood: Rebuilding in Austin Following Building Explosion

A building explosion on Sept. 20 left one person dead and several injured in the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side. 

According to officials from the Chicago Fire Department, the cause of the blast had to do with the “ignition of natural gas,” but what ignited it is still under investigation. 

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Most of the windows are currently boarded up on the four-story building, and the majority of the roof is gone. 

A resident who lives in the apartment complex next door said the explosion felt like an earthquake. 

“It was scary,” said Lemorse Wright, as he pointed to the building behind him. “All that [roof] was gone. Some woman had no clothes on. I looked out the window and they were trying to throw a mattress down. A guy blew all the way from the front to the back. His face was burnt all the way down. All his skin was out of his face. Can you imagine seeing something like that? I be in the house sometimes at night and it seems like I can still hear that sometimes.”

Wright also shared that his building currently has no gas.

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A 29-year-old man suffered extensive burns and was pronounced dead days later. He was one of several that were injured in the blast. 

Down the block, the Red Cross set up a temporary shelter inside Circle Urban Ministries for the first two days to assist families. 

James Borishade, CEO and executive director of Circle Urban Ministries, said his team has been working with families to get them what they need. 

“There were 31 families in the building and 30 of them made it out safely,” Borishade said. “The tough thing was that our shelter was open for three days. Many people had not found apartments by then, so on the second and third day that was our only focus.”

The building is owned by West End LLC and managed by Urban Alternatives

A West End spokesperson told WTTW News the building owner was on scene making sure tenants were OK and waived past due balances as well as refunded last month’s rent.

Leodus Thomas, vice president of The Greater Austin Development Association, manages buildings in the neighborhood. 

He said the owner is known in the community and runs multiple affordable housing apartments. 

“He even did an inspection the week before to make sure everything was looking right,” Thomas said in reference to the building owner. “From what he saw and what the city saw, everything was in order. On top of that, he also refunded all of the rent checks. He didn’t have to do that. As an operator, he is a part of the community so he’s doing all he can to make sure everyone’s stable.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) said families are still working to rebuild weeks later.

“Many families are still in need of financial resources, and even down to the basics of clothing and furniture,” Taliaferro said. “There’s still a major need … community organizations, our elected leaders have taken on a very big lead … it gave me a very good sense of community that we can all come together to help residents. This was something that you can’t plan for. You can’t plan to be displaced from your home. Many left their homes going to work hoping to come back to their homes and unfortunately they were not able to do this.”

Video: Watch the full interview with Ald. Chris Taliaferro.

The U.S Small Business Administration recently opened a Disaster Loan Outreach Center after approving a disaster declaration last week. 

The center is currently operating out of Austin Town Hall weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Displaced residents can go in to learn more about filling for low interest loans to help replace damaged or destroyed property. 

A representative from the Small Business Administration said the loans offer families longer terms to pay it back with a five month deferment period.  

“We offer up to $40,000 for the personal property and for up to $200,000 for a repair replacement of the real estate,” Tanoah Beavers of SBA said. “About 10 to 12 families have come in and applied, but right now they'’e not interested in taking in any additional debt with the loans. We did have families apply that were interested in the low-interest loans.”

The center will be open until Thursday, Oct. 20.

Many pointed to how the community has come together to help people with housing and other essentials as they move forward. 

“Our neighbors are experiencing trauma,” Borishade said. “And now they’re in a new place, but they don’t have anything in that new place. We’re trying to help supply furnites, toiletries, our pots and pans … our board of directors, our donors have been phenomenal in sending in things that they feel they would need in this kind of situation.”

Meanwhile, the Austin African American Business Networking Association has been on the ground working to help meet businesses’ needs in the area as many look to bounce back from COVID.

“We’re starting to turn the corner,” said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the association. “There has been quite a bit of federal, state and city help coming in which is rare. Usually it was more toward social issues … but now looking at business as part of the answer was part of the pivot and so that has been really helpful in bringing business back to the community.”

There’s also been a major push to transform a strip of Chicago Avenue between Cicero and Austin avenues into Chicago's “Soul City.”

“It’s going phenomenal. The city of Chicago is known for its cultural enclaves and economic drivers like Greek Town, Boys Town, Little Italy … the list goes on. But now having Soul City that functions as an economic driver for African-Americans, and just to be an inclusive place has been great,” Crawford said. “Taking a place like Chicago Avenue — what better place to do business in the city of Chicago, than a street called Chicago Avenue. It’s really starting to gain traction.”

Video: Watch the full interview with Malcolm Crawford. 

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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