Sunday, June 14, 2015

High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing compiled and edited by Audrey Petty

 Years ago, I attended graduate school in Chicago.  Even then I liked climbing to the top of the tallest edifices in the world so one fine morning I was standing on the top floor of the John Hancock building.  Back then, the John Hancock building was the second tallest building in Chicago (the Sears Tower, now called the Willis Tower, being the first).  As I looked out the window of one side I saw, according the to map on the wall, Cabrini Green.

I had heard of Cabrini Green.  The government housing had been made famous by the seventies TV show, "Good Times", but I was surprised to see that it was situated smack dab in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in all of Chicago on the near north close to Lake Shore Drive.  I had assumed it was on the South Side where the bulk of public housing and where most of Chicago's ethnic minority lived.

Apparently the thought behind putting Cabrini Green in the near north was that a projects housing development would thrive surrounded by wealth rather than poverty.

It didn't work.  Cabrini Green became infamous for being the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago.

High Rise Stories are a collection of essays written down as they were told by people who lived in the government housing experiment that began in the 1940's and ended in the late nineties when the buildings were finally razed to the ground.  The book includes stories by families that lived in Cabrini Green as well as the Robert Taylor Homes, Ida B. Wells Homes and a few other housing development that were built inside mixed income neighborhoods in hopes that the association would allow the black community to integrate with the larger society.

That the experiment became one of the most catastrophic travesties in the history of human rights is a matter of record and the reason why these neighborhoods were ultimately destroyed.  While this book does not try to answer how this came to be, the stories from the twenty-five tenement dwellers offer a lot of insight.

Stories from the older inhabitants, people who moved into the apartments during and after WWII, have mostly good memories of living there.  The renters had jobs, they paid the affordable rent, their lives were centered around their families-which were intact  and nuclear- and the neighborhood community.

Then, starting in the sixties the neighborhoods started changing for the worse.  They became more and more dangerous throughout the seventies until in the eighties, they were virtual war zones. Gang violence and drug trafficking were so prolific that it wasn't safe to leave your apartment.  Snipers from different gangs staked out on top of the buildings and would shoot passersby, often for random reasons.  The most famous incident was when seven year old Dantrell Davis was killed by a sniper as he walked to school.

The stories by people who lived in these homes during the seventies, eighties and nineties have very different stories to tell.  Families are no longer intact.  None of the narrators in their forties or younger come from a home with a mother and a father.  Each had children before reaching their twenties, some were involved in gangs, all of them had gotten involved in drugs.  It was the same story of poverty, violence,  and criminal records that prevented them from breaking out of a vicious cycle.

As the violence got worse, so did the living conditions.  The land lords and maintenance workers refused to make repairs, which caused the apartments to become rat and roach infested,  utilities didn't work.  People began using the halls for toilets.  The elevators wouldn't work and eventually the shafts became filled with trash.

But it didn't start out that way.  The tenants of the forties and fifties did not live like that, so what happened? 

One can only form conclusions since the book only provides us with stories told by individuals who lived there.  One thing that stuck out was the break down of the family.  The book records this fact through the narrators but gives no explanation as to why this happened.  Neither does it provides any explanation as to why drug -related and gang violence became so prevalent. There is an apparent correlation with the break down of the family unit, parent absenteeism, and crime and violence, but how did this develop?

Another obvious conclusion is that government assistance doesn't help.  Families started out strong and ended up dysfunctional under this limited socialist experiment.  The government cannot do the families' jobs for them.  

The reason for building these neighborhoods is also very telling.  Both World Wars left Chicago with an acute labor shortage.  This caused a massive migration of black families from the South to come to Chicago for work.  The white communities in the city did not want their neighborhoods integrated and riots broke out.

In an effort to quell this, the government created neighborhoods where black people could live safely.  That was the original intent of these homes: to stop racial violence.  This also explains why the government homes are entirely of one race of people.  

It was really a make shift solution at best.  Perhaps it did initially quell violence but it also prevented large communities of people from integrating into society and becoming productive members of that society.  With government assistance, the short result may have been positive but in the long run it created generational poverty and a horrible environment of squalid living conditions that sounds like something out of Somalia.

 When the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) removed people from their homes to raze these building, they gave them housing vouchers so they could move into the new government buildings they were constructing to replace the old ones.  It seems the powers that govern Chicago are so committed to their socialist ideologies, they believe that if they start over with the same plan but with brand new buildings, the results will turn out differently.  Isn't that some kind of insanity?

The buildings are unnecessary because the original reasons for building them no longer exist.  All neighborhoods are open to every race and there are laws that ensure it be so.

A majority of the former occupants of Chicago's Government Homes seem to agree.  Less then ten percent have agreed to use the vouchers.  The rest have chosen to assimilate with the rest of Chicago.  That should tell the housing authority something.


  1. It is insanity. But insane people run for office, it seems.

    The law is that no one can discriminate against race, and that includes housing. So why the extra program?

    And our government continues to get involved. Our president is now setting aside more money for cities that will build (whatever that means, or maybe designate) housing for low-income earners in wealthy neighborhoods. They just can't leave it alone.

    1. Ruth, I am convinced that our president and his followers do not care about poor people. They are just pawns they use to make their actions sound virtuous.
      I don't know if the people running for office are insane. I think many of them are opportunists. The people who can't see through them and vote them in may be insane, however.

  2. Great review and commentary Sharon.

    I am a little bit more of believer in social programs then you are but I agree with some of your basic points. I do agree that some bad policies helped to create what can only be called urban catastrophes. I also agree that Housing Projects are bad policy. I do think that if one looks at government efforts in terms of housing today many bad policies have been improved (based on what you wrote it sounds like this is not so in Chicago however). New York for instance has taken a different approach that involves still government efforts but seems to work much better.

    Either way it seems like these stories are well worth reading. They sound like the kind of stories that are not so popular these days.

    1. Hi Brian! I really liked the stories and should probably have included in my review that the voices of these people make it all real rather than a failed social experiment. I've always been interested in life stories and these different people telling theirs is makes the book very much worth reading.

  3. I would love to read these stories they sound fascinating. Your summing up at the end makes a lot of sense. Why it is governments and councils keep on repeating the errors of the past? I’m not sure if it is a lack of insight, or a complete lack of care. Solve the problem for the short-term and don’t worry about the future seems to be the attitude.

    1. Hi Barbara: Having worked in public schools for several years I saw that the administration does a lot of manipulative work in that they construct programs and money budgets that look good on paper but don't really improve things.
      One example would be that our school district wanted to claim that their teacher were all proficient in technology. So we had to take a number of different computer classes so many times a year.
      While I enjoyed the classes and learning how to make web sites and power points etc.. my classroom lacked the resources to actually make use of any of this technology.
      So the school administration could put on paper that their teachers were trained in the latest computer technology, which was true. It was also true that this techno ability was never used as a teaching resource.

      Likewise I'm sure city officials in Chicago can say they are working hard to help people living under the poverty line but how much good it's doing is a different story. It does justify raising taxes, however (wink).


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.