American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto [Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh]
In Venkatesh’s American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development (Venkatesh, 1) in Chicago is the focus. Questions such as: what makes a community, how public assistance impacts a community, and what does that public assistance represent to the community are fundamental issues that the residents of the Robert Taylor Homes face on a daily basis. The primary issue, however, appears to be the gang violence, and/or gang activity that seems to have sewn itself into the fabric of the community. On the whole, Venkatesh has chosen to use this community—a community that can represent many communities classified as ‘the projects’ or ‘the ghetto’– to address some fundamental questions concerning what Americans think about communities, how African-Americans are coping with the isolation and –in some cases, power manipulations –within their own communities, and how and why some communities are ‘fixed’, and others are ultimately destroyed.
Venkatesh appears to restrict himself to reporting on the effects of the gang activity on the Robert Taylor community, rather than make himself a commentator; however, his portrayal of what the residents of Robert Taylor have to go through just to survive the atmosphere created as a result of the gang activity that takes place in their neighborhood is poignant and quietly infuriating. The history of gang activity in the Robert Taylor Homes has lasted for a period of about four decades; with the arrival of the gangs being placed in the ‘70s, the ‘spike’—or growth—of gang activity occurring in the ‘80s, and the current state of the gangs’ stronghold on the community in the present day rounding out the last two decades.
Venkatesh’s observations begin in the present; the community’s response to what appears to be a hostile take-over of the gangs—the Black Kings in particular—have left some questioning the wisdom of including the gang members in community planning and preservation efforts, and some clamoring for these gang members to take personal responsibility for the effects of their activities. Themes of corruption and adaption are evident here. In the absence of having access to the same justice and protection offered by the Chicago police department that the rest of Chicago’s residents enjoy, the residents of Robert Taylor have had to resort to their own form of governing and justice. Venkatesh mentions a fragile alliance developed between gang members, liaisons, and elected tenant leaders and board members to negotiate how hazardous their environment had become. This collaboration begs the question: can you truly negotiate with ‘the devil’?
The gang members themselves are not being classified as ‘the devil’ here, but rather the enterprise. If these gang members were pedaling Jordans, or merchandise innocuous in nature, would the community be living in such dire conditions? If these entrepreneurial gang members had developed a thriving black market that worked to truly strengthen their community, and to make goods available (at more competitive prices) that they could actually use and not ultimately poison their customer base, would they not have created a more functional, a much stronger, and possibly safer community?
Make no mistake, businessmen these gang members are; while the elected tenant association board may enjoy a little situational power, these gang members have their eyes on a different brand of power entirely: economic power. And this power may, or may not be in the best interest of the community in which they squat: “In public, the gang leaders justified their participation altruistically, with claims that they were “helping the community”, but when pressed they did not deny more selfish motives: namely, reduced conflict also helped to stabilize their underground economic ventures—most notably their drug trade and extortion of local businesses and entrepreneurs (Venkatesh, 2).” Several issues arise here, one, stabilizing a community in order to better run a business is not unheard of—in fact, it could be argued that it is a good business practice and is thus encouraged by city planners, and local and national governments alike. However, to ‘stabilize’ a neighborhood for illegal activities, with illegal activities, and ultimately fear, is not necessarily community building—in fact, it’s more like community eroding. In an atmosphere such as the aforementioned, those who can leave, do, and those who cannot leave, isolate–or fight. Ultimately, there is no true stabilization in the atmosphere described, there is just a gang stronghold.
Second, are these gang members truly community members? The role of the gang members in the Robert Taylor community brings about a real examination of what actually makes a community member a member, versus an inhabitant, or worse–an occupier. These gang members may live in Robert Taylor, and may even be recruited from Robert Taylor, but why do they remain in Robert Taylor? If business is lucrative, and moving is an option, why do these members choose to stay? Some actually do move their families to safety, some elect to protect their families themselves where they are, and some stay for other reasons—control. Controlling an environment and maintaining an environment are two different actions, with entirely different results. As some community members could attest, these gang members are not actually seen as community members, but occupiers—living among them to better control the functioning of their personal interest: their business. Knowing this, why would a gang member invited to a tenant meeting truly want a safer environment—an environment with proper lighting, fully functioning elevators, and protected living spaces–for community members? If living with a certain level of fear and desperation is in these gang members’ best interest—or their business’ best interest, then obtaining a habitable existence where this community would not have to turn to these gang members for help and/or protection is unobtainable.
Finally, Venkatesh’s examination of the Robert Taylor community could lead to questioning whether a true community can develop in public housing at all. Perhaps, that is why the structures were ultimately taken down. While it could be argued that the structures coming down was done in acquiescence– where Robert Taylor was a failed attempt to provide homes to those who would struggle to find, or obtain, homes for themselves. It could also be argued that we, as tax payers, did not get it completely wrong, and should not give up. Safety nets are good—they are set up for us all, to protect us all. Welfare, public assistance, public housing—these are not dirty words. They are admirable, and indicative of a society that desires to leave no one behind. When systems like these are established it is essential that we do not lock them away like dirty secrets; they need to be nurtured and encouraged to thrive in the light of day. Real, and healthy, communities need to be encouraged to grow in public housing just as they are encouraged to grow in all other areas of a city. In an ideal Robert Taylor, gang activity would be snuffed out, hallways and homes would be safe, playgrounds would be safe, and community areas would be available—and utilized—in every high-rise. There would be libraries and resources available as well—just as in any apartment complex worth its salt. And why would it be this way? Because we paid for it.
Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi (2000). American Project: The Rise and Fall Of A Modern Ghetto . Harvard University Press.