A Publication of WTVP

A tale of three South Peoria families

by Denise Jackson | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Angie Henry
Angie Henry

The Allens, Nickels and Rayfords love their homes and are doing their part to rescue the neighborhood’s reality from its reputation.

South Peoria resident Angie (Allen) Henry cannot imagine living anywhere else in the city. Henry is a second-generation family member living in the home her parents purchased when she was 2 years old.

“I don’t think we’d be able to find another home like this anywhere in the city,” she said.

The large house sits atop the hill where Martin Luther King Drive and John Gwynn Avenue intersect. It has a wraparound porch, six bedrooms, two fireplaces, French doors, two staircases and a basement. Henry speaks fondly about growing up as one of 10 children in the house, which was built in 1914.

As one might imagine, holidays in the Henry family were a very big deal. “We all lined up at the top of the steps and ran down on Christmas morning to open up our presents,” recalled Angie.

If many central Illinoisans derive their impressions of Peoria’s South Side from headlines that are not always flattering, the Allens testify to a reality that is a bit more nuanced. There is no denying that ZIP code 61605 has its challenges, but it is home for bedrock families such as the Allens and many others who have choices but wouldn’t live anywhere else.

‘I don‘t think we’d be able to find another home like this anywhere in the city.’— Angie Henry

Indeed, the Allen family roots run deep in South Peoria. Henry’s parents, Elise Ford and James Allen, lived at two other locations on the South Side prior to buying their home on MLK. In addition to raising a large clan, the couple operated a printing business and published The Traveler newspaper from their home.

“My brothers and sisters, we all got a kick out of watching our parents read the newspaper during breakfast,” she said. “Those conversations at the table were a highlight for us.”

Henry’s parents were very active in the community. Her mother ran for Peoria mayor in 1973. Last spring, the former Roosevelt Magnet School was renamed Elise Ford Allen Academy, in her honor. The Allen house has become something of a landmark throughout the years. Its character, spacious size and location make it hard to miss for drivers who travel that route. Henry remembers strangers who sometimes knocked on her family’s front door, asking “if they could come in and take a closer look at our house,” said Henry.

With her family’s history and legacy in South Peoria, Henry said she and her husband are excited to witness the changes finally taking place in their community.

It was just cheaper to buy a home in South Peoria, said Almelia Nickels. The Caterpillar retiree and mother of three adult sons has lived on the South Side since 1968.

“My husband brought this one from my brother. He didn’t pay a lot for it. He gutted it and did a lot of work in here. I didn’t want those high mortgage payments like in the other areas. All you have to do is fix up where you are,” Nickels said.

A widow, Nickels said she does not plan on moving out of her neighborhood. She has been an active member of the Goose Lake Neighborhood Association for more than 20 years and wants to see more focus on beautification and anti-litter programs. The 79-year-old picks up trash year-round in the neighborhood.

Almelia Nickels
Almelia Nickels

‘I didn’t want those high mortgage payments like in the other areas.’— Almelia Nickels

“It’s a joy to pick up to make your area look nice,” she said. “You get so many people who stop and say thank you. There’s a lot of nice people down in this area. One man always rides by. I don’t know who he is but he says ‘there’s my queen’ when he sees me picking up litter.”

Meanwhile, Nickels said getting more people involved in neighborhood associations would help prevent crime. She supports programs like the annual National Night Out Against Crime.

“We’d have cookouts and neighbors down here would come and we gave out school supplies to children. We tried to help kids in this neighborhood and if other kids needed some, we gave it to them. Some kids needed uniforms and we went into our pockets and bought them,” said Nickels. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. If there’s a need, you meet that need.”

Nickels says her faith in God motivates her to action. In addition to more community involvement, she said there needs to be more money available to help residents rehab their homes.

“This is a nice area to live in,” she said. “I pray that one day we can get this area restored and looking like it’s supposed to be. This is God’s land and we are supposed to take care of it.”

Gene and Mable Rayford
Gene and Mable Rayford

Gene and Mable Rayford lived in an apartment in the north part of the city after they got married 47 years ago. When the Rayfords decided to buy a home, the couple returned to the South Side, where they both had grown up.

Rayford bought his first home on Ann Street in 1979 while working at Caterpillar. After he was laid off in the late ‘80s, he took jobs with a friend who worked as a carpenter. He learned as much as he could about fixing up homes. In 2003 when another property in foreclosure became available, Rayford couldn’t pass it up.

“I saw the real estate lady outside and I offered her $5,000 for the house and she told me to come back with my best offer. I bought it for $8,500. I was elated,” he said. “I could already begin to see in my head how I was going to fix it up. I was anxious to go in there and start work.”

Initially, the plan was to restore the house for his parents. Things changed when his father died unexpectedly. Rayford moved forward with gutting the house but soon realized that the job would take longer, as he’d resumed full-time employment. His wife Mable said she was not sure what they had gotten themselves into.

“In my head, I kept wondering if this was really going to work,” she said.

It took seven years and a budget of about $70,000 before Rayford could get the house ready for his family to move into, in 2010. “I enjoyed the work … It was a great experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it … I am tickled every day about our house.”

The 68-year-old Rayford said he is content with living in the area even though it’s not like it used to be.

‘I wouldn’t trade it … I am tickled every day about our house.’— Gene Rayford

“I would like to see it prosper again. There used to be businesses all up and down Western Avenue. We don’t have as many businesses, not even a grocery store. The closest Kroger is on Sterling,” he said. Nonetheless, the Bradley University retiree is committed to the neighborhood and active in it.

“I am happy that I am still here and I believe there’s always room for improvement.”

Denise Jackson

is a native South Sider and former television journalist who now represents District 1 on the Peoria City Council