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There Goes the Neighborhood

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4


Much of the Cochran Gardens in St. Louis (top) and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago (bottom) were torn down from 2007 to 2008.
Top photo by Michael R. Allen. Bottom photo by Liza Pavelich.

No one really questions the idea that most of the major projects that housed the poorest inner city residents had to go. By the 1990s, far too many had become gang-infested centers of drug trafficking. In Chicago, the public housing projects were block upon block of racially segregated and physically isolated public housing on the edge of the city's south and west sides. Author Alex Kotlowitz wrote about the degree of decay he found at Chicago's Henry Horner Homes in 1989. He found a basement filled with sewage, "scurrying rats and dead cats and dogs," and the waste from heavy drug use. Thousands of new kitchen appliances and cabinets lay rotting in the waterlogged basement. Kotlowitz eventually turned his reporting on Horner into a book, "There Are No Children Here."

Disgust with the conditions in public housing projects led to a series of lawsuits across the country and a national movement to end the failed public housing experiment. Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat Henry Cisneros - successive secretaries of the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) - were eager to jettison the monstrous high rises. From Hartford and Newark to Chicago and San Francisco a consensus emerged: Tear down the old projects.

In Atlanta, the East Lake Meadows complex, built in 1970 with high hopes and soaring rhetoric, had become so crime-ridden it was known citywide as "Little Vietnam." By the mid-90s, its crime rate was more than three times higher than the rest of Atlanta. East Lake Meadows was demolished in the run-up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

The last of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, 28 high-rise buildings with 16 stories each, was knocked down in 2007. At one time Robert Taylor was the world's largest housing project for the poor.

In St. Louis, most of the Cochran Gardens public housing complex, completed in 1953, came down in 2008. One high rise tower, turned into elder housing in the 1980s, remains.

The question was, what would replace the high-rises? Where would the tenants go? The consensus answer: Better neighborhoods. Residents would move to private apartments in safer communities or into newly-created mixed-income developments, or they would stay in completely remodeled and updated public housing developments.

The neighborhood concept took hold for a number of reasons. Perhaps most important is the economic revival of urban America. In the post-World War II years, companies abandoned cities for cheaper space in the suburbs, taking employment with them. Those with means followed the jobs. The poor stayed behind and, lacking work, grew poorer. The tax rolls thinned, city services crumbled, crime soared and retailing soured. Cities were written off as economic dinosaurs. That is, until the 1990s. Big cities turned into the economy's information and service hubs. Cities became clusters that housed vibrant knowledge-based businesses like media, advertising, financial services, information technology, and healthcare.

Little wonder more and more people decided they wanted to live in cities. Real estate developers were eager to accommodate them, but they needed more land to put up condominiums and townhouses. Many public housing projects occupied valuable, scarce space in metropolitan areas. And, at the same time, governments at all levels were enamored with private-public partnerships. Advocates pushed privatization both as a more efficient way to do business and as less of a drain on the public purse. Public housing authorities embraced the construction of new mixed-income developments on the sites they managed.

What's more, the federal government's main housing initiative for the poor became market-based vouchers rather than subsidized public housing buildings. The key to vouchers is that they offer poor families the power to decide where they want to live. Public housing residents with vouchers find housing on the private market, typically paying 30 percent of their income toward rent, with government making up the rest.

By 2000, the evidence was compelling that the quarter-century experiment with vouchers was largely positive, with the families moving overall to better-quality housing. They were also less likely to live in a neighborhood with highly-concentrated poverty compared to their peers who stayed in public housing.

Bill Wilen, a Chicago housing attorney and Crystal Palmer, a resident leader.
Photo by Laurie Stern

Poverty may have dropped off the public policy radar screen in Washington D.C., but city mayors had no choice but to confront deteriorating neighborhoods. The lawsuits and rising crime rates alone forced city officials to act. There was also an idea that policymakers, scholars, media, and others could seize on to justify their actions. The notion that that you are where you live and who you know was deeply influenced by the scholarly work of William Julius Wilson, formerly of the University of Chicago and now at Harvard University.

Mark Joseph, professor of community and social development at Case Western Reserve University, says Wilson "talked about the impact when you have concentrated poverty of the sort we had in Chicago and again across inner cities in America, and the social isolation and what he called concentration effects that come about when you separate and segregate the poor from the rest of society, effectively cutting them off from the economic and social mainstream."

Simply put, the idea was to bring the residents of poverty-stricken ghettos into mainstream society and economy.

"How do we connect the disconnected, and that's the key to success in this community and any other community is connecting the disconnected," says Crystal Palmer, a public housing resident and a public housing employee in Chicago.

The Plan for Transformation

It's been nine years since Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a new multi-billion dollar initiative in public housing. Read more about the details and current progress of the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation.

Atlanta is trying. So are St. Louis and Baltimore. Among the nation's more ambitious blueprints is the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation. The CHA is the third-largest public housing landlord in the country (after New York City and Puerto Rico). Following decades of widespread mismanagement and ingrained corruption, it was taken over by HUD in 1995. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley negotiated for the city to take back control of the CHA in 1999 in return for HUD's supporting its Plan for Transformation, a multi-billion dollar, nearly two-decade initiative begun in 2000.

"One of the things we're doing with Plan is getting away from this whole notion of isolation," says Lewis A. Jordan, the recently appointed chief executive of the Chicago Housing Authority. "There are ongoing meetings we have with planning department, the police department, school districts, talk about ways in which not only recreating bricks and mortars in certain communities, but redeveloping communities. If you look at in most places where we've gone through the redevelopment process, you see the fact that the CHA drew a line in the sand and said, 'We're gonna do something different,' It's spurring development in areas. We measure ourselves by not only the redevelopment we do, but how does the neighborhood respond."

The current mayor is the son of Richard J. Daley, a legendary Democratic big city boss who ruled Chicago from 1955 until he died in office in 1976. Daley was the architect of the extreme geographic isolation of blacks into acres of barren public housing on Chicago's west and south sides. His oldest son was elected mayor in 1989. He's considered the most powerful current sitting city mayor in the U.S. He's also unwinding much of his father's legacy when it comes to blacks, the projects and segregation.

Indeed, the Plan's goal isn't just to connect public housing residents to the rest of the city, although that's no mean feat considering the city street grid stops at the projects and, until recently, the city and the projects didn't share police, sanitation, and other basic civic and social services. It's also to place public housing residents into better neighborhoods through two major initiatives: first, by using housing vouchers to disperse the poor into privately owned apartments throughout the city, suburbs or other towns; second, by building 10 mixed-income communities on former public housing sites. Several scaled down and remodeled public housing units-like Dearborn-will likely survive, too.


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