In the opening minutes of Frederick Wiseman’s Public Housing a woman named Helen Finner argues on the phone with an official from the Chicago Housing Authority. “But it is an emergency,” Finner insists. “She’s a young girl with a baby and no place to stay.” The scene distills to a single conversation Finner’s two decades of battling the CHA. She complains about the red tape that leaves 200 units at the Ida B. Wells Homes vacant when there’s a waiting list of applicants–like the homeless teenage mother who sits in her office, wrapped in a white blanket. “I can’t seem to get anybody to hear our cry,” she tells the official, “so I guess what they want us to do is just to go crazy and act crazy.”
Public Housing is Wiseman’s latest essay on the bureaucracies of caring. Like High School (1968), Juvenile Court (1973), Welfare (1975), and High School II (1994), this three-and-a-quarter-hour film documents with minimalist rigor the contradictions that unfold when agencies like the CHA try to remedy social ills. Twenty episodes of verbal interaction, most of them shot inside the project’s buildings, alternate with exterior shots of baby strollers, skateboards, bicycles, shopping carts, buses, and patrol cars. A Sunny Day ice cream truck provides the syrupy music that laces the film. Wiseman expects us to sort out incidentals like names, places, and dates. Despite the references to Marshall Field’s and the White Sox, we could be anywhere in America; the Nike logo on many residents’ clothing is a more accurate cultural signpost.
Wiseman aims for clinical accuracy, and he says his three-person crew became relatively invisible over the five and a half weeks they spent shooting 80 hours of footage. “I don’t think any of us has the capacity to suddenly alter our behavior because our picture is being taken or our voice is being recorded,” he says. “We’re going to act in ways we think appropriate for the situation, which are the ways we know.”
For all its upbeat meetings and sincere talk, Public Housing shows little progress. Other than a plumber repairing an elderly resident’s sink, the only person who completes a task is a preschool boy who sorts cards picturing yellow trucks. The film ends with former NBA star Ron Carter delivering an economic pep talk at Kennedy-King College. Now working for HUD, Carter suggests that CHA residents start businesses like elevator maintenance: “Y’all ride them, I know you all can fix them.” In the audience, a grown man diligently sucks his thumb. Outside a car and bicycle pass, and we hear the childish ditty of the ice cream truck.
Public Housing will be broadcast at 9 PM Friday and again on Monday, December 15, on WTTW, Channel 11. –Bill Stamets
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.