My concern about the collateral consequences of the city’s big development plans is partly the result of my experience with the city’s largest redevelopment project in a generation, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, which tore down subsidized family housing apartments all over the city, but especially on the South Side. Let me explain by way of a story.
I met Mary Christmas in the last weeks of the last occupied buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes. At the time, I was a reporter for a community newspaper that covered Bronzeville. The Robert Taylor Homes was a massive public housing development on the State Street Corridor. The city tore it down, promising new and better housing to replace it. That was more than a decade ago. Most of the land is still vacant.
Mary Christmas had come up from the South at the encouragement of her cousin, whose name I don’t remember. I barely remember much about Mary, either. But her name was so unusual and charming that her story stuck with me, alongside those of people who lived there with whom I had become friends, civic leaders like Janice Patton and Beauty Turner. Mary couldn’t have been older than her early twenties and was full of determination. She said finding a place to live was even harder down South than in Chicago. I was surprised to hear that. I thought her story was interesting, and poignant – a woman looking for a place to live in one of the few Robert Taylor Homes buildings still standing, where people were being hastily moved out. We exchanged phone numbers. I also got her cousin’s number.
I checked on her about a week later, and she was still trying to work out her housing situation. A week after that, Mary’s number got disconnected. I called her cousin, who said she was still around and still trying to find a place to stay. The cousin said she had gotten her notice from management and was also trying to find someplace to go. I tried her a little later, and her number was also disconnected. No one else I knew was familiar with them, and I never heard from them again.
I have dozens of stories like that, and my stories are a fraction of the tableau of dislocation the Chicago Housing Authority was responsible for, a living Guernica for the South Side. It’s hard to describe the slow-roll chaos that the city caused in so many people’s lives at that time. If you were there, you know. People with very few resources were thrown out by the hundreds and thousands and often did not have anyplace to go. These people sometimes disappeared from sight, no longer able to afford a cell phone, and without shelter. They disappeared, and enough people vanished from my network of contacts like this that it had a shocking effect, like a whole neighborhood had been swallowed up into the ground; a place and people you knew were no longer there, like they had never existed.
A lot of suffering followed in the wake of that plan, which left hundreds of acres of vacant land behind. The condition of the public housing that was torn down was horrible, but the way in which buildings up and down State Street, across Bronzeville, and in other parts of the city were hastily emptied and demolished was disgraceful. People literally died as a result of the clumsiness of the relocation process, some through health challenges that left them too fragile to be treated so roughly and others who were put in harm’s way as they moved from one dangerous environment to another.
Let me say that again: As a result of the city’s policies, and with funding from the federal government, people died during the emptying out and demolition of tens of thousands of public housing apartments in Chicago.
These perils never had to be risked by the residents of the buildings the city tore down, all at once and in a hurry. Residents warned of the dangers, and recommended the sensible alternative of building new housing as demolition took place, but they were ignored, and developers – who saw more profit in tearing everything down first – were listened to instead. Lives endangered and lost in the name of development are a grim and silent testament to the degree to which greed and ambition drive our city, and our society.
But we do not have to make the same mistakes over again. The Obama Presidential Center is likely to attract developers to the South Side with big ideas and big profits in mind. The proposal to create a development corporation run by powerful people to oversee those plans sounds to me like another disaster in the making, one where more people will be put out in a rush and properties thrown up and put on the market with haste, all in the name of profit. I talk in more detail about this proposal here and here. Without rehashing arguments made elsewhere, I will simply say there is a better, more inclusive, less dangerous way.
Big redevelopment plans in South Side neighborhoods should not be carried out without the community having direct oversight. Residents warned anyone who would listen about what would happen if public housing developments were torn down en masse, and it transpired just as they said it would. The local knowledge that living in a community affords is invaluable to sensible planning. Because other forces will always try to drown these voices out, they have to have a unique position in the process, such as would be afforded by neighborhood development councils, popularly elected bodies with legal authority. The people will ensure that plans have been carefully considered and are designed with the highest standards in mind. We need a local development council for each of the neighborhoods that will be most impacted by the development pressure the Obama Center creates.
I hope that Mary Christmas found a home in Chicago, or that she went back South and found someplace to live there. Most people from those buildings found a new place to call home, although there are plenty of people with fond memories of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, the Wells/Madden/Darrow development, and the other properties torn down in that fevered rush to profit. There are also a lot of sad stories of loss and needless pain from those days.
If we can learn from these mistakes, we deserve to be proud of our city. But if we are only driven by the meanest impulses, then the Obama Center will have brought with it a legacy of more of the same, of people over profit, of Chicago business as usual. We will hear a lot of hollow words and empty promises from people looking to personally profit from the excitement around the Obama Center. Remember that the Obamas themselves wish for this to be a Center dedicated to the people, and please join us in an effort to further that dream by putting the power over change in our communities in the hands of those who live here.