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The Mechanics
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Wed Jul 29 2009

Ickes Homes Next On CHA's Hitlist

The Chi-Town Daily News has a good piece on impending demolition of the Harold Ickes Homes on the Near South Side.

The CHA's role in Chicago's history from the Post-War Era onward, has been notable. Once public housing became the province of an isolated lower class, the social fabric of these utopian social laboratories became unraveled. The fact that many of the projects aped Le Corbusier-style "Garden Cities" made the formerly bustling neighborhoods that they eradicated look like something out of a science-fiction movie. Older cops have told me stories of getting sniped from the balconies of the vertical hell that is/was Cabrini-Green.

Undoubtedly, anything that can be done to integrate our less fortunate members of society who have been left behind or disenfranchised by our system, should be. Many of these places have been nothing short of economic jail cells for their residents for years, and no one should be forced to live in circumstances like those. The CHA's "Plan For Transformation" is supposed to be the solution this problem. The problem is, CHA residents who can't "fit in" to the new equation - because it's mathematically impossible to house the same number of people in a dramatically smaller public housing stock - get pushed to the edge. For many, that means the streets - but for some, they simply move out of the city into public housing in suburban areas.

Back in the Mitten State, the neighborhood I grew up in, has had its own brush with public housing and racial issues centered around said housing. There is still a lot of tension between the home-owners (mostly white) that surrounds a neighborhood of renters (mostly African-Americans using public housing vouchers). Chicago's inner suburbs have seen similar demographic changes: Cicero, Maywood, Bellwood, Harvey, and others have transformed from once lily-white suburbs into minority-majority towns.

The question that needs to be asked is: since inner ring city property is (or is rapidly becoming) highly profitable to develop, who's benefitting from this land opening up? While I'd like to believe that the CHA's Plan is one that was set up to benefit low-income and needy families adjust into a more sustainable lifestyle by integrating them economically in mixed communities, there's always more at work when Daley & Friends, Inc. are in charge. If somebody isn't profiting off of some benevolent-appearing giant public project, you might want to check you map - you ain't in Chicago.

Daley has systematically tried to erase all of Chicago's gritty elements that made our city unique. The destruction of most of Chicago's public housing over the last decade is merely the latest slight of hand to convince wealthy suburbanites that the city is a safe place so that they will move in, thereby spurring development for Richie's buddies, and providing a bigger pool for his TIF slush fund and tax base. This, coupled with the Olympic bid, is Daley's dream to white-wash a working-class town into something it never was: a white collar, upper-middle class city that lacks economic diversity and culture. I can see it now. Whereas at one time, you would look down South State Street and see nothing but towers of public housing, in 20 years you'll see nothing but Lincoln Park's mirror image reflected across Madison Street - tacky brick condos, chi-chi cafes, and all. Maybe Daley's old neighborhood, Bridgeport, will one day become upscale and bland enough to compete with his current hood.

 
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Dennis Fritz / July 29, 2009 1:22 PM

An excellent--and well-known--book about the creation of public housing in Chicago is Arnold Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto. I suspect you've read it. For those who haven't, Hirsch's argument goes roughly like this:

Contrary to widespread belief, the disaster of public housing in Chicago did not begin as a misguided liberal attempt to provide hosuing for the poor. It begin as a business-led strategy for clearing Chicago's traditional "black belt" for commercial development.

The problem was, blacks displaced from the black belt could not relocate to other city neighborhoods. The reason: the movement of blacks into traditionally "white" neighborhoods invariably set off rioting. All through the 40s and 50s, the city suffered a long series of violent white-on-black riots, sometimes involving thousands of people. Local newspapers, having been accused of inflaming violence during the riot of 1919, played these incidents down. They are barely remembered today.

Long story short: the solution the city eventually came up with was to house displaced blacks in massive, high-density projects within black-majority neighborhoods.

What we're seeing today is similar. Only now, the land occupied by public housing projects is coveted by commerical developers looking to replace public housing for the poor with "luxury" housing for young urban professionals. As before, the almost entirely black population is being displaced, usually to other, less attractive segregated neighborhoods.

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