29 May 2012

Scattering Ground

Photos: David Schalliol

Ben Austen, in "The Last Tower: The Decline and Fall of Public Housing," printed in the latest issue of Harper's:

"Unlike the low-rises, Chicago’s tower-and-garden projects were built primarily for the rush of black migrants from the South. There were 278,000 African Americans in Chicago in 1940; by 1960, there were 813,000. White aldermen refused to allow public-housing construction in their wards, so the new projects were set within the city's existing 'black belt.' Elizabeth Wood, the progressive head of the [Chicago Housing Authority], saw an opportunity to replace the area’s dangerous tenements. The projects, she said, would be 'bold and comprehensive,' forming more than mere 'islands in a wilderness of slums.' Even the austerity of their modernist designs—now an emblem of the impersonal warehousing of the poor—then heralded all the promise of a refreshingly new age.

But Chicago's projects were underfunded and poorly maintained almost from the start. The ratio of children to adults in these developments was ruinously high, and well-intentioned laws regarding maximal allowable income for public-housing residents ultimately forced out the most stable rent payers in the population. The projects were further undone by gangs, crack, and a federal drug policy that turned many residents into felons. By 1995, Chicago housing projects made up eleven of the country’s fifteen poorest Census tracts."

Austen details the demolition of the last of the remaining high-rise towers from Chicago's infamous near west-side project, the dispersal of its residents, and the various failings of the city's Plan for Transformation. I got to see the city carry out said transformative plan over the course of the seventeen years that I lived in Chicago, starting with the dynamiting or dismantling of various complexes that stood in various neighborhoods along the south side. And the location of my last on-site freelance gig in the city fell just a few blocks south of Cabrini (which was visible from the fourth-floor window) as the last of the towers were being taken apart. One thing that became very clear early in this years-long project was something that Austen details in his article -- that the City largely failed to deliver on the second phase of its Plan, that being to relocate residents of the communities, to help them find alternate housing and transition into life outside the projects. The result being that a majority of these former residents were effectively dumped on the streets, and you saw the effects of this spilling over into many neighborhoods throughout the city. The why and how of the City's having failed to see this part of the Plan through seemed a glaringly obvious question; but it was a question that I don't recall being asked publicly throughout those years.

All of this, of course, coinciding with a huge amount of real estate development and speculation, to the run-up to the housing bubble and its inevitable bursting, in a city whose definition of what constituted "affordable housing" climbed to well outside the financial reach of most lower middle-class residents.

The article also gets at the heart of something some friends and I were discussing over drinks a few weeks ago. With one in the group posing the question: How long does it take for a public institution (i.e.: housing, education, assistance, etc.) to be continually hamstrung and handicapped, underfunded and undermined, effectively sabotaged by the tug-of-war ideological wranglings of policy makers before the public as a whole loses all faith in said public institution, writing it off as a "failure?" Fifteen years, twenty years...a full generation?

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