In January 1966, on his 39th birthday, Alexander Polikoff had lunch with friends. They told him about a group of African-American organizations that had asked the ACLU to help them stop the CHA from building public housing exclusively in poor, black neighborhoods. Polikoff, a lawyer, had already helped the ACLU argue some major cases: they’d won the fight to put Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer back on bookshelves, though they’d lost the battle to get a law license for George Anastaplo, who’d been denied one after he refused to say whether he’d ever been a Communist. Polikoff became the lead attorney on Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority and Department of Housing and Urban Development, which eventually wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1969 the CHA was found guilty of intentional racial discrimination, and it was ordered to build most of its new housing in small, scattered sites in well-integrated or mainly white areas. But the CHA dragged its heels, and Polikoff had to keep going back to court. Many of the new homes wound up in poor, often black neighborhoods, though eventually many CHA families were able to move to better neighborhoods using HUD Section 8 vouchers.

Polikoff, who spent 29 years as executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and still works there, has chronicled the court battle and its troubled legacy in Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto, which will be published in January by Northwestern University Press.

Mara Tapp: What do you think of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation? Was the tearing down of the CHA high-rises what you envisioned?

Alexander Polikoff: The transformation plan is a good thing in principle–they ought to be torn down. [The CHA is] beginning to do a good job in terms of building replacement communities, but there are two elephants in the room. The first is how they’re handling the families that are moving out on housing vouchers. It was being done very poorly in the beginning. The basic problem has been that they have the families being moved without a realistic opportunity to move to truly better communities that have low poverty, good schools, and other public facilities, that are safe, and that are closer to jobs. These “communities of opportunity” are more often than not white or at least racially integrated.

To realistically move a CHA family to such communities, some things are needed. Number one is the housing voucher. Number two is premove counseling, assistance [in overcoming] the obstacles that most CHA families face, such as credit problems, domestic-violence problems, crime-record problems, substance-abuse problems, skill-deficit and education-deficit problems, and information problems–not knowing where and how to look for a community of opportunity and to gain access to a landlord in it.

This can be done, but it’s labor-intensive. In the beginning of the relocation process CHA simply handed the families over to relocation counselors with the instruction to find a place where the family could move with its vouchers, and most often the places were in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods that had few, if any, of the attributes of a community of opportunity. Under pressure from residents, CHA hired an independent monitor, Tom Sullivan, the former U.S. attorney in Chicago. In his written report Sullivan said that as recently as early 2003 CHA was moving families from high-rise to low-rise ghettos. That led to a lawsuit, Wallace v. CHA.

MT: This is one big elephant.

AP: Yes, it’s a big elephant. The Wallace lawsuit argued [that by] moving families from high-rise to low-rise ghettos CHA violated its contractual obligation to the families and its legal obligation under the law. The lawsuit was settled in the spring of 2005. CHA agreed to do a better job of premove counseling, and it also agreed to go back and retrofit these kinds of services to families who had already moved.

The second elephant is the to-be-rehabbed projects. There are some large projects–Dearborn, Ickes, Altgeld, LeClaire. The problem is the services have been and are inadequate, and the families moving into these places may have different gang affiliations than those who already live there, creating additional problems.

MT: Like gang wars?

AP: Right, and some of these places, Dearborn and Ickes, for example, are large traditional projects–high-rises or at least mid-rises–that are just as bad as the places that are being torn down. Hundreds and hundreds of CHA families are continuing to live in really terrible places that are actually getting worse, and the transformation plan has nothing on the drawing board to deal effectively with this. From the mayor on down the mantra is “We are about the business not just of rebuilding buildings but of rebuilding lives.” You don’t rebuild lives by moving families from one ghetto to another.

MT: The book follows Gautreaux through its long and tortuous history. At times it almost seems like you’re reliving it.

AP: I had to go through a kind of personal history to ground Gautreaux in history. In those years I was ignorant about a lot of things, particularly about race. Until 1965 we really had two streams of American history, then they merged in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The first stream was slavery and sharecropping and jim crow. The second, parallel, stream was the experience of blacks outside the south, and that experience was ghettoization. The book makes the point that the dehumanization and degradation that went with ghettoization was just as virulent as the dehumanization and degradation that went with jim crow.

One aspect of the history that doesn’t get emphasized enough is that, especially in postwar America, the federal government was one of the major actors creating the separation of the races. For one brief moment it looked like we were going to do something about that, when Nixon appointed George Romney secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Romney was promoting a law that outlawed the discrimination against subsidized housing in nonpoor neighborhoods. As soon as Nixon found out what Romney was up to, he squashed it like a bug on a sidewalk. In the ensuing decades we have had no significant or effective effort–I almost could drop the qualifiers–to combat the segregative effect of the federal government’s massive programs of the postwar years.

MT: What programs are you referring to?

AP: Public housing, which after 1949 was built in black neighborhoods, not in white. FHA insurance, which went to whites, not to blacks, and went to suburbia, not to the inner cities. Urban renewal, which destroyed, by bulldozing, black housing in the cities and replaced this housing with commercial and middle-class housing for white people while the displaced people were shunted into the ghetto. The expressways, which facilitated the white flight that took place in enormous numbers. Blacks couldn’t participate for two reasons. One, they couldn’t get the FHA insurance that made it feasible financially, and two, even when they could afford to buy, the sellers wouldn’t sell to them. These programs collectively, as historian Arnold Hirsch puts it, amounted to such a massive restructuring of the American scene that it was de jure segregation by the federal government.

MT: And how did you think Gautreaux would address these problems?

AP: Gautreaux could only try to deal with the public-housing piece of the problem. We focused on what seemed to be the heart of the matter–building public housing only in black neighborhoods.

MT: The case unfolded against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Did that help or hurt?

AP: Boy, I think it hurt. First of all we blew it because we didn’t connect to the civil rights movement.

MT: Why?

AP: Either we were unthinking, or we were dumb. Another aspect is they were national civil rights leaders engaging in a high-stakes political game. We were local litigators fighting about a single case.

Once we won in Gautreaux, a scattered-site policy emerged. The [government was] supposed to build three units in a white neighborhood for every one unit in a black neighborhood, but guess what happened? Because of the massive white flight to the suburbs, the white areas were shrinking, and because of the massive postwar building, there was less land left to develop in these areas. So the scattered-site program never became as big as we hoped. [And] there was continuing trench warfare in the courts, not to mention in the neighborhoods, which slowed the progress. We started fighting desperately to make this a remedy that included the suburbs.

The most devastating thing to happen not only to Gautreaux but, in my opinion, to America is the case of Milliken v. Bradley, decided in 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court. It involved school segregation in Detroit and busing. When the case was decided 5-4 against the request that suburbs participate we thought this was a death knell for including the suburbs in Gautreaux. [But] we were able to win in the Seventh Circuit. We were able to distinguish the Milliken school situation from the Gautreaux housing situation.

Unhappily, the solicitor general was Robert Bork. He was a law school classmate of mine, so I went to Washington to persuade him not to ask the Supreme Court to look at Gautreaux. I failed. In January 1976 we argued this case before the court. Bork argued [that] we wanted to sweep scores of municipalities into this big housing remedy and make the federal courts the social arbiter of metropolitan housing in Chicago and that was counter to the Constitution. We won by an eight-to-nothing vote, but what we won was pretty limited. All the bad stuff in Milliken–about how the suburban areas were political units and couldn’t be coerced by the federal government–stood. This decision in effect fastened apartheid on America’s metropolitan areas.

We made a settlement with HUD. Over 8,000 families were able to move from inner-city Chicago to decent neighborhoods, most of them in the suburbs.

MT: Gautreaux was transformed into a Section 8 voucher plan. Wasn’t that something of a victory?

AP: It was a damage-control rather than a glorious victory. As James Rosenbaum’s studies of Gautreaux families indicate, if you give poor people a chance to live in a decent neighborhood, hey, they can make it into mainstream society.

MT: You argue that “in order to improve their life circumstances the very poor have to live with the nonpoor.” Why?

AP: Because the social science evidence shows us that that’s the case. Most of the white poor in this country–75 to 80 percent–live in nonpoor neighborhoods. Social science tells us that that’s why they have chances to get into the mainstream. The reverse is true for the poor blacks–75 percent of them live in poor neighborhoods.

MT: You’ve said this is two books–the story of the case and your ideas for getting rid of the black ghetto.

AP: I think that’s playing out in the America of today. I think ghettoization has led to a change in character in America. In the three decades preceding Nixon’s election social justice was in play in society. What happened in 1968? We became an uncaring nation. Very deliberately, very successfully, Nixon used the efforts of blacks to break out of ghettos–and of whites to protect their neighborhoods against black “invaders”–to change the organizing principle of American politics from class to race. Reagan built on that, as illustrated by his ghetto-targeted war on drugs. In 1980 there were over three times as many black men in college and university as in prison and jail–463,000 as against 143,000. Twenty years later the number of black men in college and university was actually less than the number behind bars–603,000 compared with 791,000.

MT: What’s your prescription?

AP: First let’s do the Gautreaux program for 10 to 20 years in all the metropolitan areas where we have severely impoverished black areas. Second–and this is absolutely crucial–we make it clear that no more than a small number of families would move into any given community annually, so that no neighborhood feels threatened. If we do these things, then I believe we have a chance of ending the black ghetto in one to two decades, treating a disease that’s been festering untreated for over a century. I suggest 50,000 vouchers a year be earmarked for this program. If we did this for ten years it would be 500,000 families. Simple arithmetic tells you 500,000 is nearly half of the black poor families who are living in “severely distressed” urban census tracks.

MT: Surely there are objections to this?

AP: There’s lots of nitty-gritty objections about cost and feasibility and other matters, and in the book I try to respond to them.

MT: Isn’t the main objection that this is more of the usual starry-eyed-liberal stuff?

AP: You mean what makes me think that the country that’s treated blacks the way we have throughout our history would ever do what I’m talking about? Isn’t this an indulgent fantasy? Well, here’s my answer. I’m not sure, but history is full of close calls and surprises.

Alexander Polikoff

When: Sat 11/12, noon

Where: DePaul University Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield

Price: $6

Info: 312-661-1028

More: Panel discussion: “Public Housing: Beyond the Walls.” See Chicago Humanities Festival schedule in Section 2.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Join Randolph.