Image: Arlene Bensen
Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
Arlene Bensen stands outside her home in Bensenville, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008. Bensen has lived in the the neighborhood for 52 years and is one of the holdouts at the center of what this village of 20,000 calls a David-and-Goliath battle after Chicago invoked eminent domain to seize 15 percent of Bensenville for upgrades at O'Hare International Airport.
updated 8/14/2008 9:24:39 PM ET 2008-08-15T01:24:39

White-picket fences, neatly cut lawns and backyard swing sets belie the eerie reality about Arlene Bensen's neighborhood: Nearly everyone is gone.

The reason is easily found on official notices affixed to block after block of front doors in this otherwise picture-perfect Chicago suburb. "NO TRESPASSING," they read. "This property has been acquired for the O'Hare Modernization Program."

Bensen, who has lived here for 52 years, is one of around 20 homeowners who refuse to move so crews can start demolishing more than 600 houses to make way for a $15 billion expansion of one of the world's busiest airports.

"If they start bulldozing homes, I won't leave," said Bensen, who is 74. "I'll put on my respirator and close my doors."

The holdouts in this village of 20,000 are at the center of a David-and-Goliath battle against Chicago, which invoked eminent domain and other laws to seize 15 percent of Bensenville for improvements at O'Hare International Airport.

Community has spent $10 million
The community has spent nearly $10 million fighting the O'Hare expansion since the 1990s, but its options are running out. A judge gave Chicago the green light last week to begin demolitions, rejecting claims that the work could scatter deadly toxins. But that decision has now been put on hold for 30 days to given Bensenville time to appeal.

The exasperated Bensenville mayor said his village simply can't match the might of the nation's third-largest city.

"Is it frustrating that the clock now appears to be in the 11th hour? Absolutely," Mayor John Geils said. "They're literally ripping the social fabric out of this community."

But Geils and the homeowners say they won't surrender.

"We're walking on eggshells," said another holdout, Gail Flores. "But someone can't tell you to leave ... This is America."

Opponents of the project have posted roadside signs in Bensenville showing a sour-faced Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and a bulldozer with a red line slashed through it.

Chicago officials say the expansion project — including new runways and a new terminal — is necessary to reduce delays at O'Hare, which handles more than 900,000 flights a year. The improvements should also help ease air traffic delays nationwide.

The city insists it will not scale back the project to save homes in Bensenville.

"Not a chance," said Rosemarie Andolino, head of the O'Hare Modernization Program. "This is about a national aviation process — a bigger picture ... and the only way to solve the problem of delays and congestion is to build the full project."

Officials say they're minimizing hardships
She insists officials have tried to minimize the hardship for those in the demolition zones by offering market price for the homes and paying moving expenses. The city of Chicago has even complied with Bensenville ordinances that the lawns of already abandoned homes be regularly mowed.

"We've been very sensitive of the fact we're displacing people," Andolino said. "We've gone above and beyond to be customer-friendly when we've impacted people's lives."

Still, some residents accuse Chicago of heavy-handedness. Bensen said relocation agents and assessors came to her door so often to press her to sell that she had her doorbell removed.

The O'Hare expansion is scheduled to be complete in 2014 — two years before Chicago hopes to host the Summer Olympics.

Proponents of the project insist such land acquisitions are commonplace in airport and highway developments. But transportation analyst Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University says the sheer number of homes involved in this case is exceptional.

But he expects Chicago to prevail.

"I think there's a sense of inevitability favoring the city," Schwieterman said. "It seems more of a question of when the project will be finished rather than if."

Nieghborhood to become part of new runway
The tree-lined neighborhoods slated for demolition, about 300 acres in all, are slated to become part of a new runway, which will come close to the center of the 125-year-old village, just blocks from Bensenville's business district.

More than 1,000 graves in a Bensenville cemetery are also being relocated. And the village says it stands to lose millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Bensen, who is not related to village founders, can't imagine living anywhere else. She points to a 30-foot ashleaf maple in her yard, explaining how her mother planted it as an inches-high seedling in 1956. She gushes about the $1-a-ticket night for seniors at the local movie theater.

Chicago is expected to file lawsuits soon to force the holdouts to accept payments and leave. But Bensen, for one, will only heed word from the village mayor.

"If he says it's over and I have to go, I'll go," she said. "Otherwise, I'm staying here until the very end."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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