We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?



In the late 1950s and ’60s the city of Chicago bulldozed overcrowded slums in the black belt and built almost 20,000 high-rise public housing units. In the 2000s the Chicago Housing Authority has torn down 3,000 apartments a year, promising to replace them with low-rise mixed-income communities.

Under Mayor Richard J. Daley this was called “urban renewal”; under Richard M. Daley, it’s “transformation.” Then the starkly modernist “tower in the park” was all the rage; now it’s new-urbanist townhomes with front porches. What hasn’t changed, according to Patricia Wright of the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the editors of Where Are Poor People to Live? Transforming Public Housing Communities, is the way decisions are made. The book’s 11 essays, most authored by Chicago-based academics, take a critical look at what’s happened to public housing in the last ten years in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S.

“Policymakers,” writes Wright, “continue to make the same major mistake of the urban renewal plan in the 1950s and 1960s–the presumption that experts know what’s best for public housing residents.” But Carol Steele, a longtime resident of Cabrini-Green, cofounder of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, and one of the few nonacademic contributors to the collection, didn’t trust the CHA to make decisions for her. She and the CPPH have fought since 1996 to have the high-rises fixed up instead of torn down. “They were proposing for my people to be evicted and become homeless,” she says. “That is why I am in this fight.”

Most expert and public opinion is against Steele. Says attorney Alexander Polikoff, who spent 40 years litigating the landmark desegregation case Gautreaux v. CHA, “Even if efforts to improve relocation don’t succeed, society should continue to tear down its public housing high-rises.” Living there was so bad, he says, that he “does not view even homelessness as clearly a greater evil.”

Steele and the CPPH have lost that battle: the Robert Taylor Homes, Rockwell Gardens, and the Cabrini Extension are gone. But her mistrust of the CHA’s plan has been borne out by the numbers. In 1999 the agency estimated more than 140,000 Chicago families had extremely low incomes and needed cheap places to live. At the same time, the agency put forth a plan to reduce its housing stock from 38,000 to 25,000 units. Since then it has accomplished 88 percent of its demolition goal by tearing down nearly 19,000 units, while by the most generous count it has constructed or rehabbed just 1,937 units, 31 percent of its rebuilding goal.

A third of the way through its ambitious “Plan for Transformation”–the timetable has been pushed back five years since Where Are Poor People to Live? went to press–the CHA’s demolish-first, build-later policy has forced former residents into isolated neighborhoods as poor and segregated as the high-rises from which they were removed. Paul Fischer of Lake Forest College found that 82 percent of those who left CHA housing with Section 8 vouchers between 1995 and August 2002 moved to high-poverty areas that are more than 90 percent black–and this doesn’t include the significant number of people evicted for various reasons or who just left on their own.

How many former tenants will be able to return to CHA’s new mixed-income communities–and how many will even want to, a decade after they left–remains to be seen. Under the new rules primary leaseholders will be required to work 30 hours a week and all other adult residents must do the same or be in school. In November 2001 a report prepared for the state Department of Health and Human Services found that fewer than one-third of recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families met this standard.

When the CHA unveiled the Plan for Transformation in 1999, it announced that it was stepping away from its original mission: “In the past, the CHA was primarily an owner and manager of public housing. In the future, the CHA will be a facilitator of housing opportunities,” a project in which failure will be much harder to define or detect. The late Wardell Yotaghan, a Rockwell Gardens resident and cofounder of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, to whom the book is dedicated, had the agency’s number. “Over the years the mind-set has moved from solving problems to shifting them somewhere else,” he told the Chicago Reporter in 1997. “If there’s a tremendous economic problem in public housing, they’re going to be the same disadvantaged people wherever they go.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume rebuilding will be done in a timely manner and that those who want to return can do so. The high-rises will be replaced by “mixed-income communities,” places designed on the theory that poor people suffer from idleness and isolation–things that will change if they live among stockbrokers and schoolteachers, get acquainted with them, and learn the ways of the mainstream world.

Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, author of American Project, a 2002 study of life in the Robert Taylor Homes, puts some serious questions to that theory in his new book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. The hustlers and entrepreneurs he acquaints us with in the pseudonymous south-side neighborhood of “Maquis Park” (a ten-square-block area near Robert Taylor) are anything but idle. What they lack aren’t role models so much as reliable connections to institutions that over the long term could turn their hard work into lasting gains–flexible, responsive lenders who don’t discriminate and impartial arbiters to settle disputes over trade and private property. And in the short term what “James Arleander” needs is a piece of alley to do his off-the-books car repair, something he’s not going to find in a squeaky-clean mixed-income community. (Almost everyone in Venkatesh’s work is given a pseudonym–standard practice for ethnographic work of this kind.)

Venkatesh paints a detailed picture that reflects his close acquaintance with the neighborhood, moving from businesses that are legal but off the books to those that are entirely outside the law and talking to home-based food preparers and preachers, street hustlers and gang members. “Beneath the closed storefronts, burned-out buildings, potholed boulevards, and empty lots, there is an intricate, fertile web of exchange, tied together by people with tremendous human capital and craftsmanship,” he writes. “Electricians, mechanics, glassmakers and welders, accountants and lenders, carpenters and painters, sculptors, clothing designers, hairstylists and barbers, cooks, musicians, and entertainers…. Only a few are listed in the yellow pages…but any resident of Maquis Park knows where to find these services.” This is a Chicago you don’t know, told in readable prose that puts most other sociologists to shame.

Still, the work Venkatesh describes would yield better results if it got credit in the straight world. “Providing excellent car repair on the street does not bolster one’s resume,” he points out. “Establishing a detente with pimps and drug dealers so that children can walk to school will not help one obtain a job in diplomatic circles.” And it’s not just racism or structural neglect that prevents this. The underground economy is so tied up in shady or outright illegal stuff that the cops, for instance, can’t come in without tearing up everyone’s livelihood, the straight along with the crooked. Still, though ghetto life may be no picnic, Venkatesh goes far to show that it’s not a Hobbesian war of all against all either–the connections that bind the community together are just invisible to those on the outside.

Over half a century, many things have changed: Chicago’s mayor has a different middle initial. The old ghettos were vertical, the new ones are horizontal. In the days of urban renewal, the great sociologist Herbert Gans lived in Boston’s East End and wrote sympathetically about that city’s displaced residents; today Venkatesh fills that role for Chicago’s south side. But one thing is just the same now as it was in 1956: middle-class policymakers decide what poor people need and give it to them hard.