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The theory behind current plans for redeveloping the Cabrini-Green area has its roots in the Chicago school of sociology of the 1920s. Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Illinois at Chicago and DePaul’s Larry Bennett think that’s bad sociology–based on faulty assumptions that blame poverty on poor people’s behavior.

Led by Robert E. Park at the University of Chicago, the Chicago school focused on neighborhoods–Chicago’s “community areas” map is one of its legacies–and concerned itself in part with “Americanizing” immigrants. Its classic work is Harvey W. Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), which discusses the same area being fought over today. Back then the Cabrini-Green area was called Little Sicily (or Little Hell), and a rooming-house district stood between the ghetto and the wealthy lakefront.

The Chicago school defined middle-class norms as “healthy” forms of social organization and declared anything else “deviant,” neglecting larger political players and economic forces in its close focus on neighborhoods. Bennett and Reed say these biases have been maintained by later sociologists like Oscar Lewis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, most recently, William Julius Wilson, who argues that high concentrations of poverty and isolation cause social breakdown and a self-perpetuating culture. These biases, Bennett and Reed say, lead to policies “that are both ineffective and unnecessarily punitive.”

By contrast, in a recent report Bennett and Reed describe a community consisting of family and friendship networks, 20 local churches, a dozen social service agencies, tenant councils, and resident management groups. Resident initiatives range from conflict resolution training to a gardening group. While residents are moved out in the name of breaking up concentrations of poverty, many end up in the poorest African-American neighborhoods. “The wholesale displacement of residents [is] pulling apart the very networks of social and family ties that allow the low-income population of Cabrini-Green to survive,” Bennett and Reed wrote. “It’s a case of well-intentioned social scientists–who are not necessarily as authoritative as they are generally taken to be–whose work is being used to justify this mercenary process,” says Bennett.

The two professors undertook their analysis after lawyers for the Cabrini-Green local advisory council asked them to be expert witnesses in the council’s lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority’s Near North Redevelopment Initiative. As the residents’ representative body, the council had been involved in redevelopment discussions since 1993, but was cut out of the process before a final plan was chosen in June 1996; it called for 1,300 units of public housing to be demolished and replaced with up to 700 units in a larger mixed-income development. The council filed suit, charging the plan would violate federal law by disproportionately displacing African-Americans, female-headed households, and children. That suit is scheduled to go to trial in June.

Bennett and Reed call for a planning process with resident involvement, reformulating redevelopment plans to include economic development, and–something left out of current plans–funding for the rehabilitation of remaining public housing.

Bennett and Reed’s paper “Cabrini-Green and the New Face of Urban Renewal” will be among those presented at a free conference this Saturday called “The Future of Public Housing: A Search for Solutions.” It’s at 2 at DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center, 243 S. Wabash. Videos of public-housing life by Columbia College students and Cabrini-Green residents will also be shown. Call 312-362-8988. –Curtis Black