Inside the saga of Kanye West’s childhood home in Chicago

The home at 7815 S. South Shore Drive in Chicago is under renovation, as seen on May 11, 2020. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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By Tracy Swartz Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — Kanye West has run into trouble with the city of Chicago as he renovates the South Side home he grew up in nearly four decades ago.

The tan house at 7815 S. South Shore Dr. landed in demolition court last year after the city claimed it had “dangerous and unsafe conditions.” The city issued a stop-work order in February after it said it found plaster had been removed without a building permit. Work has resumed, though plans for the house are unclear.

Since West’s mother owned it more than 17 years ago, the 1600-square-foot home changed hands several times, went into foreclosure and languished, even as it was featured on an episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” West’s company — Donda Services LLC — purchased it in late 2018, records show.

The Grammy-winning rapper lived in the house for about eight of his childhood years, according to his mother’s 2007 memoir, “Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar.” West’s parents, Donda and Ray, divorced in 1980. Donda and Kanye West moved from Atlanta to Chicago shortly thereafter, when he was 3 years old.

Donda West landed a job teaching English at Chicago State University. She said she and her son lived in a Roseland-area apartment before eyeing the home on South Shore Drive. At the time, she was dating Ulysses B. Blakeley, or “Bucky,” as she called him in her book.

“I was torn,” West wrote. “I really wanted that house and I couldn’t afford it by myself. But there was no way I could see myself staying with a man because I thought I needed him or putting Bucky into a situation that I knew he didn’t want.”

Blakeley told the Tribune they ended up buying the home together for about $40,000 in late 1981. The house purchase occurred, he said, because he stayed at the Wests’ apartment while Donda participated in a nine-week research project in India. The landlord found out and terminated the West lease, Blakeley said.

“When she came back, she and Kanye came to live with me in my apartment in Evanston,” said Blakeley, now 69. “My apartment in Evanston was a nice two-bedroom apartment, but not for two adults and a child and all the crap that we had combined together. That’s how the house (purchase) actually came about. We had not actually planned to live together so soon after meeting, but it wasn’t a problem at all.”

Blakeley recalled the house had a bedroom off the kitchen, a child’s bedroom, an upstairs crawl space that needed work, a living room, a dining room and an unfinished basement. He said Donda West added insulation, replaced windows, installed a new set of stairs and made other fixes.

“I didn’t know it, but South Shore, and especially South Shore Drive, where we lived, was considered ‘the sh —,’ a prestigious area in a coveted part of town,” West wrote. “We were within walking distance of Lake Michigan and our backyard backed up to Rainbow Park. It’s in the kitchen of that house that Kanye talks about kneeling on the kitchen floor and saying, ‘Mama, I’m gonna love you ‘til you don’t hurt no more.’”

Blakeley only lived in the home for a few years. He said he and West split, and he signed the house over to her, though they remained friends. Cook County Recorder of Deeds records show Blakeley signed the quit claim deed in 1985.

A camera crew followed Kanye West as he visited the home with Jay-Z in 2011. He showed off the vast yard, where he said his family kept a pen for their dog, Genius. The house — which was built around 1905, according to the Cook County assessor’s office — sits on a 7,000-square-foot lot. West praised the easy access to Rainbow Beach Park.

He attended Chicago State’s preschool and Vanderpoel Elementary Magnet School in the Beverly neighborhood. When he was 10 years old, in 1987, he and his mother lived in China for a year so she could teach English as part of an exchange program between Chicago State and Nanjing University. They returned to the South Shore home — but not for long.

Donda West said her son had a run-in with some boys at Rainbow Beach Park. She said they demanded his bike, he refused, and one kid slashed the bike tire with a knife.

“Call it black flight or whatever, I was ready to go. What if the next step was to recruit him for some gang or something? I wasn’t having it. It didn’t take long to find the house in Blue Island,” West wrote.

She said her boyfriend — Willie Scott, whom she refers to as “Scotty” — purchased a Blue Island home for the three of them to live. Records show Scott bought the house on Longwood Drive in 1990. After Scott and West separated, she and her son moved to Tinley Park.

Donda West sold the South Shore home for $121,000 in 2003, less than a year before Kanye released his debut studio album, “The College Dropout.” It’s unclear why she held onto that home, when she lived elsewhere, but she wrote in her book that she was “taught that owning your own home is something that you simply must do.”

Donda West died in 2007 after undergoing cosmetic surgery. Rapper/activist Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who grew up with West and was close with his mom; Rhymefest’s then-wife, Donnie; and West launched Donda’s House, a nonprofit youth arts organization, in 2013. That same year, West registered Donda Services LLC in New York, records show.

Donda’s House purchased the South Shore home in 2016 to turn it into a community arts incubator, but the organization said in 2017 the house had to be demolished because it suffered from “significant structural damage.” It had already gone through foreclosure years before.

The drama continued. In May 2018, Rhymefest got into a Twitter spat with West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, after he claimed West neglected Donda’s House. The organization announced it was changing its name from Donda’s House to Art of Culture.

West, Kardashian and their eldest daughter, North, visited the South Shore home in September 2018 as they filmed “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” The episode, which aired in March 2019, also showed West and Kardashian smoothing things over with Rhymefest.

The city, meanwhile, took notice of the South Shore house. It said it found roof damage, missing siding and issues with the stairs, among other alleged problems, in July 2018. Donda’s House sold the house to Donda Services for $225,000 in December 2018, records show.

The city filed the demolition court complaint in January 2019, with Donda’s House and Donda Services listed as defendants over the past year. Neither organization’s representatives returned Tribune requests for comment.

A hearing on the case was scheduled for May 6, but it was pushed to July 15 because of the coronavirus. A spokeswoman for the city law department said there will be inspections until the alleged violations are fixed.

Work continues on the home. The city approved a permit in October 2019 to replace the roof; a permit in November 2019 to fix electrical wiring and a renovation permit in April 2020, nearly two months after the stop-work order was issued.

An administrative hearing on the stop-work order is scheduled for May 22. A $750 fine was paid May 8, records show.

What’s next for the home is unclear, as is whether West and Rhymefest are working together on the renovation. A project manager listed on a recent building permit application referred questions to Rhymefest. He did not return messages, nor did Donnie Belcher, who served as executive director of Donda’s House. Rhymefest and Belcher divorced last year, Cook County records show. She lives in Minnesota and has charted a new career path.

Blakeley said he doesn’t keep in touch with Kanye, but he recently heard about his purchase of the home.

“I know he has fond memories of the time that we were there,” Blakeley said. “He can indulge himself, and that’s why he’s doing it.”

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