Anyone familiar with the dismal, decaying high-rises that have made Chicago’s housing projects a symbol of failed public policy will raise an eyebrow at the title of Jim Fuerst’s oral history When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago (published last year by Praeger Publishers and now out in paperback from University of Illinois Press), which he’ll read from at the Harold Washington Library on Wednesday. But Fuerst, who worked at the Chicago Housing Authority in the 40s and 50s, remembers when those projects were beacons of hope, and he says the conventional wisdom about them–that they are a failed social experiment–is bogus. “It’s like a young man who, having murdered his mother and father, goes into court and begs for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan,” he says. “You ruin the program and then after you’ve finished ruining it you say, ‘That program doesn’t work; we have to get rid of the program.’ But it was the administration of the program that was no good, and the lack of caring that was no good, and the lack of quality people.”

Fuerst, who grew up in New York, describes himself as a “good Jewish intellectual.” “I’m as close to being a left-winger as you could possibly be and still live in a penthouse,” he says, grinning. Then he adds, “But it’s a penthouse in Hyde Park, which is completely integrated, where blacks and whites live together equally.” At 87 he still remembers the names and phone numbers of nearly everyone he’s worked with as well as lyrics to most of the catalog of American musical comedy. He speaks in a gravelly Upper West Side rasp and pronounces his rs with an Elmer Fudd softness (“It’s a vewy impautent pwoblem!”). He punctuates his stories with jokes, and pauses frequently to fumble for books that hold quotes he wants to share.

In the words of D. Bradford Hunt, an assistant professor of social science at Roosevelt University who helped edit the book, Fuerst is a “force of nature. The guy’s 80-something, he can’t see very well, he was in a car accident and shattered his leg, and yet he’s out there doing voter registration in Benton Harbor before the election.”

Fuerst became interested in public housing in 1946 when, shortly after receiving a master’s in social work from the U. of C., he was brought to the CHA by his friend Mick Shufro, then the associate director, to be the director of research and statistics. “And that was the thing that changed my life,” Fuerst says. After working for the CHA for 10 years, he ran an automobile leasing company for 17 (“That’s how I can live in a penthouse!”). In 1970 he became a professor of social policy at Loyola’s Graduate School of Social Work, where he taught for more than 30 years.

A classic New Deal Democrat, Fuerst believes deeply in the responsibility of government to sponsor and encourage social change. The people he worked with during the CHA’s heady first decade, he says, shared this belief. “We had a classy group of people. Jesus Christ. I’ve never worked in an organization like it.” He rattles off the list of “all-stars,” among them a Rhodes scholar, a university president, professors, and lawyers. “These were people who were of enormous stature, and all these people were dedicated to the principle of public housing.”

When Fuerst conceived of his book in 1995, it was the staff of the CHA, not the residents, that he intended to interview. “But I realized you really can’t write about the people who worked there without writing about the tenants,” he says. So he spent the next six years tracking down former residents. In the book’s 77 interviews, tenants gush about the pristine yards and gardens that surrounded the buildings and the state-of-the-art amenities within. “We had new facilities!” recalls Leon Hamilton, a businessman who grew up in Ida B. Wells, in one typical passage. “Central heat! The apartments were new and clean! Everything!…We had a swimming pool. We had a center there that we could go to with activities. So we were like little rich kids. We wanted for practically nothing, and we didn’t think of ourselves as poor.”

Residents say they all used to take care of one another. William Shaw, a retired deputy police chief who grew up in Altgeld Gardens, says, “Most of the people in that area knew me and knew my parents. Listen, if you did something wrong, they would take the belt to you right there….Frankly speaking, those ten years I spent in Altgeld Gardens I still consider the best of my fifty-five years.”

The book’s hero is Elizabeth Wood, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister, a onetime poetry professor at Vassar, and the CHA’s first executive director. “She was a woman who could read blueprints faster than you could say Jackie Robinson,” says Fuerst, “and she was an absolutely gigantic woman with nerves of steel. She was a liberal without being a left-winger. But she was a real liberal. A good, solid liberal–believed completely in racial equality. Believed in human beings.”

Shortly after taking office in 1937, Fuerst says, Wood sent Shufro to the office of Mayor Ed Kelly. Shufro told the legendarily corrupt mayor that a clean, efficient housing system would inoculate him against charges of cronyism. “Mick said, ‘If you leave the housing authority alone it will be your shining star,'” says Fuerst. “He told the mayor to stay away from Elizabeth Wood and allow her to do her job. Kelly left her alone completely, so there was no patronage. That’s a true story!”

Wood implemented a quota system that set aside 75 percent of the projects’ units for white residents and 25 percent for blacks, in accordance with the racial makeup of the city at the time. In 1949 the City Council voted against mandated integration in public housing, but Wood worked hard to keep the projects mixed. In 1953 she gave a unit of the Trumbull Park Homes, a white project on the far south side, to a black family. White neighbors rioted, and Wood was fired a year later. “They said it was because of inadequate administration,” says Fuerst. “That’s a lot of crap! The general people of Chicago were not very keen on having black people put in white areas, so there was a big hullabaloo.”

After Wood left, other integrationists in the CHA quit their jobs. “I left in 1954,” Fuerst says. “I didn’t want to work for the new head of the agency.”

Wood’s replacement, General William B. Kean, changed the CHA in two important ways: he no longer strove for racial integration in the projects, and he stopped screening potential tenants. “There was a real screening process with Elizabeth Wood,” says Fuerst. “It wasn’t creaming, it was screening. Do you know the difference? Creaming is when you take the very cream, just the outstanding people. Screening is just not letting in the worst.” Under Kean, tenants didn’t have to hold down regular jobs; they could be untreated drug addicts or drunks. “When General Kean came in he said, ‘Must be first come, first served!'” says Fuerst. “He ruined it! That’s his claim to fame is that he ruined this thing.”

According to Everett Jackson, a professor of theology at North Park University who grew up in Altgeld Gardens, abandoning the screening process had dramatic effects. “When I came back from serving in the military–that’s the Korean conflict–and went back to Altgeld Gardens, I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said at a reading of Fuerst’s book at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore last year. “It was like Altgeld had been bombed rather than Korea. And I began to ask people who had grown up there with me and were still there, ‘What happened?’ What happened was they started admitting people who were never screened.”

“Now the question that everybody asks, and I’ll anticipate it for you: what happens to the people who get screened out?” says Fuerst. “If you had a federal program that could provide enough psychiatric services, enough health services, enough educational services, enough welfare services, enough vocational services, and even recreational services, fine, then you could take them all in. But if you don’t get that assistance from the federal government or the state government, a lousy housing authority can’t do everything. They can only provide housing. So when you have people who require all those other things, you say, I’m sorry–until I get all those other services I can’t take you. We want to do all we can, but you can’t do it all.”

Fuerst admits that he doesn’t much care where such people end up. “They go back to where they came from, to the slums or somewhere else,” he says. “Because if they go to the housing projects, the upward-striving people who want a job, who are perfectly fine people, who are maybe temporarily unemployed but are good, honest people, won’t want to come live there. The left wing hates to hear that, but they know it’s the truth.

“And you know who the biggest proponents of what I’m saying is?” he asks. “The tenants in the projects, who say to you, ‘Just throw out those people who are no good, don’t throw everybody out.’ That’s the answer. And yet when I say that, I’m accused of being a brute, a fascist. But if you want to save a program, you have to do something like that.”

In 2000 the CHA imposed strict screening requirements as part of its ambitious “plan for transformation.” Bill Wilen, the lead housing attorney at the National Center on Poverty Law, says the criteria are far too rigid and “impossible for residents to meet. Thirty hours a week for work, no bankruptcies, no criminal history. We think that’s going to result in about 10 to 15 percent of the families making it into the new CHA. The families who should be getting this housing, who should be the primary beneficiaries, are not going to be able to get back in, and the CHA has replaced them with, quote, ‘better’ families who can make it through the screening.”

I read Wilen’s quote to Fuerst, expecting him to disagree. “This guy is not wrong,” he says. “He’s on the ball. That’s the problem with the housing authority–they have ridiculous rules. When you don’t have people like Elizabeth Wood…and, if you don’t mind my saying so, myself, you get these rules that are so inflexible, enforced by people who follow them just to avoid getting fired. You can’t make absolute rules like that. You have got to make a full-scale evaluation of each person like a social worker would. I’m willing to be careful about whom I take in, but I’m not willing to make stupid rules like that. If someone has a criminal record, that’s not so terrible, as long as they’re ordinary folks who want to have a good life and make a good life for their children.”

Fuerst calls the agency’s plan, which will demolish nearly all of the city’s high-rise projects and replace them with scattered-site, mixed-income developments, a “betrayal” of the CHA’s original vision of multifamily, high-density working-class communities that would serve as a “gateway to the American Dream.” “They say they’re building more public housing,” he says, “but what they’re doing is a pittance. The idea that you have to have middle-income families to make it successful is apple strudel. People can be very happy as long as they are living with people of their kind, upward-striving people who are trying to make it.”

J.S. Fuerst

Date: Wed 12/1, 5:30 PM

Place: Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State

Info: 312-247-4080

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Llloyd DeGrane, Fritz Goro–Time Life Pictures/Getty Images, CHA/Greenwood Publishing.