Sudhir Venkatesh “American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto”

Although I know what government subsidized public housing means and I have spent time tutoring and mentoring adolescents that reside in those sections of Richmond, I was startled to read this detailed account of what life was actually like for the residents of Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Illinois. I was amazed at the shear size of the development and number of units and residents that made up these towering apartments. I also had no idea on the specific history of the implementation federal housing program and was enlightened to know how these developments came to be.RT1

Originally intended as a layover for homeless, two-parent families, the federal public housing program was developed as result of the economic downturns following the depression and the end of World War II. Families accepted to these housing developments were of various incomes preventing a segregated area of poor from developing. By 1949, additional federal policies including, the Housing Act, were implemented to remove city slums, which were razed under the premise of urban redevelopment and revitalization efforts. In 1962, Robert Taylor Homes opened as a result of this second stage of government subsidized housing programs.

Two groups were instrumental in the development of these homes; those that wanted to group blacks in areas away from white areas and then those that genuinely wanted to help residents get back on their feet after economic hardships and provide stable affordable place to live. Touted as an enormous social engineering experiment, developers of Robert Taylor Homes were optimistic that these homes would be an economical, effective way to provide housing to the poor. As Venkatesh, discovered both local and national forces would later derail these plans.

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With 4,500 units, 27,000 residents comprising the twenty-eight 16-story buildings, encompassing almost 20 blocks, Robert Taylor Homes was the most densely populated neighborhood in Chicago. In the beginning, residents underwent a strict application and interview process and a mix of families and single persons of poor and working class would be accepted. By the 1970s, the overwhelming need to place an increasing amount of poor and homeless population prevented the continuation of the strict acceptance process. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) instead began to give priority to poor families, as a result of government mandated income caps, removing the buffer against deleterious effects of concentrated poverty.

Effective urban planning includes a mix of high and low rise structures, as well as parks and open spaces that would provide places for interaction among residents and areas for commerce, which lend themselves to increased levels of social control. In fact expert planners provided input on many aspects in the planning and development phase but their suggestions were not incorporated because they exceeded budget guidelines. These decisions to cut costs foreshadowed the eventual funding cuts that loomed in the future for Robert Taylor.

Strange as it may sound, funding was not set aside for continuous upkeep of these buildings and surrounding areas. The 16-story building required elevators that eventually broke from children playing and general overuse due to the large volume of people living in each building. Playground equipment also sustained repeated constant use and they eventually deteriorated and were never replaced. A fence was actually placed around the playground to keep children off of the broken equipment, creating blight as well as lack of play activities for children. Children eventually moved their play to hallways and stairwells and the elevators. The deterioration of the homes was undeniable. The CHA actually admitted that the some aspects were poorly designed resulting in the constant breakdown and physical deterioration of the buildings and amenities; they just couldn’t keep up with the repairs.

As if the blight in the area and deteriorating buildings wasn’t enough, by the end of the 1960s, the majority of jobs available in the city were moving to the suburbs, greatly reducing the available jobs prospects for poor, unskilled, black residents. In response to lack of available resources while still having needs to be met, hustling was a major aspect to living in Robert Taylor Homes. Many tenants took advantage of lucrative underground work, such as car repair, making and selling clothes as well as preparing boxed lunches, for off the books pay. Originally started as harmless under the table work, eventually became more dangerous and harmful to the community.55_robert_taylor_entry_requires_metal_detector

Community policing and control of the community was originally parceled out to a tenant-run board called the Local Advisory Council (LAC) by the CHA. This surprised me, as these folks had no formal security training or knowledge pertaining to public administration. For many years this variation of local government seemed to be effective in maintaining social order and safety for residents. In fact, until the rise of the street gangs in the 1980s, this indigenous form of community policing was the mainstay.

When criminal activity got out of hand, local police officers came in with their paramilitary tactics, including “mob action” (surprised appearance and arresting mass amounts of criminals), Operation Clean Sweep (rounding up removing all the non residents) and “stop and frisk actions”. As dangerous criminal activity increased, police officers were not as likely to respond to calls in Robert Taylor Homes for fear of their own safety and well-being. As a result of the open desolate spaces the ability of law enforcement agents to effectively provide service to the area was hindered. Officers feared being vulnerable in large open spaces with no form of cover; they felt like sitting ducks for the criminals that lived and conducted business here.

This limited policing created an environment for gang activity to intensify and secure its hold in Robert Taylor Homes. The Black Kings claimed Robert Taylor as their own. Although many groups tried to suppress their activity, the lucrative business of drug trafficking proved more powerful. Additionally, once the gangs secured guns, tenants and police were less willing to approach them for fear of injury or even worse, death. To some, gangs were considered unorganized roving bands of criminals, but as Venkathesh found through his ethnographic study, the Black Kings were actually a well-organized entrepreneurial venture. The Black Kings had established leadership roles, and subordinate roles and responsibilities for each. They had established rules of handling business and even held meetings with prepared agenda. The well-run business that it was, was further encouraged with the introduction of Reaganomics in the mid-1980s.

President Reagan’s federal cuts, reduced the CHA budget by 87 percent! Americans didn’t really blink and eye at this as the common consensus was that poor people should stop receiving handouts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. With limited resources to fall back on, more young black males of the Robert Taylor Homes saw no feasible way to attain income through legitimate jobs and therefore joined forces with local Black Kings factions. I can understand the appeal to the gang life. The draw to this lifestyle is much like what draws most Americans to their jobs-the American Dream. I, like many other Americans including the Black Kings, seek respect, autonomy and a sense of pride in accomplishing my job. For many poor black individuals, joining the Black Kings was the only opportunity they saw to experience the American dream.

Although many “bandaids” were used to mitigate the problems associated with the densely populated, poverty-stricken areas, large public housing communities were seen to be unfit places to live as well as detrimental to the larger society, thus the decision was made to close the largest public housing development. Beginning in the fall of 1996, the clearance of the tenants of Robert Taylor Homes began and within 10 years, all buildings will have been razed. After reading this, I conclude that the concentrated segregation of poor, disenfranchised groups is not a feasible idea, and should not be considered. Instead, with proper planning and necessary resources and access to mainstream institutions, including training and jobs, I believe it is possible to provide affordable housing to those in need. It should not serve as along-term solution, but until opportunities for success and social mobility are equally afforded to all, it may be the only viable option.