After the Projects

Michael Whitehead lived in Chicago's Ida B. Wells housing project for nearly 50 years. In 2008, the Chicago Housing Authority closed down Wells, as part of its "Plan for Transformation," a city-wide public housing rehabilitation effort. Whitehead moved to a new building in July 2008. Before he left, he photographed life around Wells. Slideshow by Suzanne Pekow

Michael Whitehead recently moved into a clean one-bedroom apartment on a wide tree-lined street in Chicago. It's in a small apartment building with a tidy lawn in a fenced backyard. Whitehead had been living for 48 years in the Wells-Madden public housing complex. Until recently, Wells-Madden occupied 94 acres on Chicago's south side. It was infested with drug dealers, but until now, it was the only place Whitehead could afford to live. Whitehead is 57 years old and a diabetic. He lives on about $300 a month in government assistance plus any money from odd jobs for friends and family.

Elena Lawson lives in Dearborn Homes, a 16-building public housing complex on Chicago's south side. Lawson's mother moved into Dearborn in 1976. When Lawson grew up, she got her own apartment in the same building. She has two teenage sons. Lawson recently got a job, and the city is fixing up the building she used to live in at Dearborn. The family is temporarily living in a rundown apartment building nearby.

"I look out my window and I can see my old building they're remodeling now," she says. "And just to see that, I'm like, 'Man, I can't wait 'til I move there."

Michael Whitehead and Elena Lawson are part of an ambitious, sprawling "residential mobility" experiment aimed at attacking the roots of poverty in urban America. The idea is that if poor people are helped to move out of areas of concentrated poverty, they'll have more opportunities, and they'll benefit by seeing the example of working people.

There is much promise to residential mobility. Many poor families have benefitted from moving into better neighborhoods away from the projects, as well as into newly developed mixed-income communities rising on the former sites of old public housing buildings. Yet the experience of Chicago shows that in many respects the experiment's execution has been difficult and disappointing, dampening the dreams that inflamed the imagination of reformers, and leaving far too many public housing residents at risk of remaining in persistent poverty.

Next: There Goes the Neighborhood

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Learn more about Section 8 Vouchers and Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation.

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This program is part of The Real Face of Poverty, American RadioWorks' series on poverty and opportunity in the United States. Support for this series comes from Northwest Area Foundation. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.