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TODAY

Monday, March 25

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Airbags

Fourteen of us crowded in a room, you would not believe how small, sweltering heat although it was nippy outside. The walls were gray, though they were once white, and the windows filthy and barred, may as well not have been windows at all. It was sort of a party; young men and women from the neighborhood huddled around a low coffee table, a loud and ornate stereo, the kind with all sorts of tubes and lights that you can get for a hundred bucks at Best Buy, and a large screen television showing uncut music videos.

If I remember correctly it was the sixth floor of the Rockwell Gardens, the unlucky buildings that all stood 13 floors, and here's me kinda out of place, getting a good education on the neighborhood. Which buildings were OK (the one we were in was, supposedly, all right — it was right on Van Buren) and which weren't (the southernmost building, right up next to the highway). Most of the kids in the room had grown up together and their instructional session soon devolved into reminiscing about characters they'd known and events in the neighborhood, some hilarious and some terrifying.

This was as some of the buildings were falling down around them.

"If you didn't grow up here," one of the more comely former residents told me, "it'll seem crazy that we don't want these shitholes to be torn down. Well, actually we do want them torn down, but we don't want the neighborhood to go away."

I mean imagine, somebody else said, if the neighborhood you grew up in disappeared in less than a year. Completely wiped out.

Somebody else chimed in, later and in closer quarters to me, That's all bullshit; how ignorant would you have to be to want to stay in all this?

I had had enough to drink that I actually closed my eyes and tried to imagine the various neighborhoods of my youth wiped off the face of the Earth, all of a sudden. Not just the structures gone, but all the people that, like Jupiter's moons, revolved tightly around them, creating a spectrum of colors. I thought about various bad things about those neighborhoods, various good things, weighed it all, but for the life of me I couldn't even begin to imagine being told that my family would have to pick up and leave, and that buildings would be razed, peoples scattered, the social fabric ripped to shreds.

Like Romans fleeing Alaric, and returning to find, poof, nothing. But picture Alaric in an immaculately cut Saville Row special, the Visigoths a network of regulators, politicians, bureaucrats and real estate developers.

Driving down Division Street nowadays and witnessing the complete obliteration of the Cabrini-Green housing complex (specifically the Green part), I remember in patches the conversations I had at that party, and the sense of nostalgia that whipped around that crowded room before the party broke up. You see the high rises — ironically partially named for William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor from the 1920s to the 1950s — are almost all shells now, in one case the southern wall completely torn away, exposing the tiny apartments, and their various paint schemes, to everybody who walks by; not enough that the residents have been kicked out unceremoniously and let to drown in a market that refuses them, but their homes have been stripped naked for all to gawk at.

There is no doubt that Chicago's public housing system was — is — broken; that a radical rethinking of the very concept of public housing was necessary. There is no doubt, too, that much of the whining about the destruction of these behemoths is misplaced liberal guilt or appallingly simplistic sentimentality and aggrandizing of the poor.

But the Chicago Housing Authority's so-called "Plan for Transformation," which has met with mixed reviews to say the least, makes so many mistakes while trying to do so much good.

The "Plan for Transformation" first off treats human beings like chattel — and treats the poor and semi-poor that populate public housing not as human beings or citizens but as a logistical inconvenience. It seems that so many of the people that discuss housing — many even well intentioned — start out with the idea that because these people are living in publicly-subsidized housing, they have no "right" to it — so whatever the government wants to do with the housing, they should be able to do, no matter what the human consequences.

That can't be right, can it? Can't we admit that our society in the way it's organized requires "the poor?" Can't we admit that our city, and probably all cities, will always have some significant population of poor, the people who work on the margins of the economy, the down-on-their-luck, the lowest rung of the economic ladder? When we accept that fact, when we accept that at the end of the day, our current system of economic organization will always create a lowest class, then we can admit to ourselves that, knowing this, our society owes certain things to that class.

Housing, for one.

Public housing is not a favor. The private housing market does not accept the poor, especially in Chicago. It rejects them. Signing a lease, even in most "working class" neighborhoods, often requires a credit check and, if not that, then at least a renting history of some kind. It requires proof of income. It frowns on large families. "The market" is not holy, and it will not solve all our problems. By its own immobile nature, and what it means to be a city, and have an economy, the private housing market can never solve the housing problem. Especially as long as the vacancy rate remains at its historically low levels (below 5 percent across the whole market), renters can pick who they rent to, and meanwhile people are pushed out of their neighborhoods while these "transformations" take place.

Where do they go? One report suggests that they are being forced to use their Section 8 housing vouchers — those who can get and keep them — in these highly-segregated, generally high-crime neighborhoods. There is not as much evidence that they are being forced into the inner-ring suburbs; the predicted spike in crime, either violent or property, has not occurred, and in fact the Cook County suburbs have seen both a real and relative decrease in crime since the Plan for Transformation began in 1999, and poverty levels in the Cook County suburbs has remained more or less steady.

As the Plan for Transformation reinforces the economic and racial segregation of Chicago, one neighborhood, suddenly, becomes a whole new one, with a developer-granted name — "North Town Village?" — and the CHA's "Service Connector," meant to ease residents' transition to the private market, will likely fail them, if recent audits of the program are any indication.

The concept of "mixed-income" isn't a bad one — having housing set-asides that ensure that the city's poor, who will always exist, have a place to live. The idea is that by dispersing the poor across middle class neighborhoods, there is less tendency for a self-contained, dangerous and self-destructive neighborhood to form. The problem with it, though, is that it is not designed to accommodate the poor, is it? It's meant to accommodate the wealthy, really. The city will destroy roughly 3,000 public housing units at Cabrini-Green and replace them with a few hundred scattered throughout the neighborhood. The idea being to attract the wealthy without scaring them off with too many poor people. The poor people have to be accommodated only at a minimum — what is the least we can do before it starts to affect "the market"? The concern is not for the thousands of displaced, who a minute ago had a place to live, but for the hundreds of affluent replacing them, who can live wherever they like.

Housing, of course, is not really the problem, but a symptom of a broken economic system, and one that has gotten considerably more painful since public housing was first conceived as a solution in the 1930s; originally, recall, it was referred to as "worker housing," and was a social program meant to serve the population that worked in construction and manufacturing. That held true as the racial makeup of the projects changed, at Cabrini-Green as well as other locations, such as the Robert Taylor Homes. According to a story in the Chicago Reporter, in 1970 fully 30 percent of the residents of the Taylor Homes worked in manufacturing; in 2000 it was less than 6 percent. As the good jobs have fled, as real wages have stagnated and declined, so did "worker housing" become merely a sort of prison. Minimal options for public housing would not be as serious a human rights issue if there was not such a disparity between executives and wage earners — in other words, if there were a more even distribution of wealth.

If, for example, large retailers paid a wage that allowed its employees to rent or own decent housing.

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About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at rfc@gapersblock.com.

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