I have no theoretical perspective to offer on the issue of property rights for the poor. I do have some relevant experience with respect to what can happen when the poor have no meaningful say in the fate of the place where they live. My experience is grounded at Stateway Gardens, a high-rise public housing community that was located, until its recent demolition, on South State Street in Chicago.
Since 2000, Chicago has been implementing a public housing strategy it calls “The Plan for Transformation.” The stated objective of the Plan is to replace high-rise concentrations of public housing with “mixed income communities.” To date, the City has proved far more effective at demolition than construction, at destroying neighborhoods than renewing them.
The name—“The Plan For Transformation”—used to seem, at best, comically grandiose and, at worse, Orwellian. Today it seems quite precise. The city has, indeed, been "transformed." No other word will do. Within a few years, entire communities have disappeared. Places have been erased. And fundamental human rights issues have receded from view.
I offer two statements written almost a decade apart.
The first was prepared for a seminar on “The Consequences of Abandoned Communities,” convened by the Open Society Institute in Harlem in 1998.
The second is a speech that opened a conference--"The View From The Ground: Issues and Inquiries Arising From Eight Square Blocks of Chicago's South Side”—at the University of Chicago Law School in 2007.
From piece to piece, certain motifs recur; above all, the theme of abandonment. There is, though, a difference in tone: a shift from edgy optimism to something more bluesy and elegiac. There is also an emerging theme, muted in the first and central to the second, that goes to the interactions between law enforcement and development, between “the war on drugs” and the restructuring of the central city, between abusive police practices and urban renaissance.
At the juncture of the two pieces is a link to a photo essay by my colleague (and wife) Patricia Evans evoking the Stateway community—a community that survives today in the form of memories, stories, images, and unresolved questions of social justice.
The Uses of Abandonment
I speak out of a particular place at a particular moment in its history: the South Side of Chicago in a time of transformation. With the support of the Open Society Institute, I am writing a book that explores the ways in which the geography of urban apartheid that shapes the city also shapes—and distorts—our public discourse about race, poverty, and “community development.”
My project is a personal inquiry in the medium of narrative. Some years ago I made a decision to stay close to the ground, to be accountable to a particular place, to seek local knowledge. On this path I have participated in various efforts to improve conditions in South Side neighborhoods. Among other things, I direct an organization, the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC), that seeks to generate jobs—and civic leadership—through what we call “grassroots public works.” My colleagues in the NCC are all present or former residents of public housing; most are veterans of the streets gangs whose previous employment was in the drug trade. In ways I only partially understand, I have found it necessary to do this work as a writer. That is not to say that it is a deliberate strategy for advancing a literary agenda (e.g., by establishing street credibility, cultivating access, or whatever); I am not that clever. Rather, I have been moved by a more elemental need to recover language that has been emptied of meaning, a need to connect words to deeds at the prosaic level that daily presence and physical work allow. For me, attention to place, physical labor, and recovery of language as a tool of resistance have come to be closely related. I find that I do some of my best thinking with a sledgehammer or shovel in my hands.
The knowledge I glean from these efforts is of a sort that policy makers and academics tend to dismiss as “anecdotal”—until perhaps after years of work at a narrative loom one manages, with luck and grace, to weave it into a fully-realized work of literature. That is the goal: to evoke a world that readers enter and experience in their own lives, that persuades by speaking creditably to their deepest sense of life. En route to that ever-receding goal, all I have to offer are my local, partial, uncertain impressions. The only authority I can claim for this street-level knowledge is that it arises from direct, daily experience in the places of which I speak.
My project is, in a sense, a tale of two neighborhoods. I live in the integrated, middle-class neighborhood of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago is located. I work in and around the Stateway Gardens public housing development which is said on the basis of the 1990 census to be the single poorest neighborhood in America. I thus pass daily back and forth across the borders and boundaries, the moats and demilitarized zones that define the South Side. The perspective from which I write is rather like a permanent form of the condition of heightened lucidity travelers sometimes experience when they return home after a long period abroad and see the strange in the familiar.
The geography of the South Side is complex, divided, balkanized. It embraces robustly middle-class enclaves (such as Hyde Park), a vast landscape of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, and the largest concentration of poverty in the nation—the South State Street corridor of public housing dominated by the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. Disinvestment and demolition have devastated much of the area. It looks as if the city waged war against itself. Remnants of the “Black Belt”—the African-American city within the city that was “the promised land” for successive waves of migrants from the South—stand in isolation amid vacant land. In many areas the drug trade is the biggest employer, and the streets are dominated by young men with guns. Failures of democracy are manifest not only in mass disenfranchisement and in violence arising from powerlessness but also in injuries to place, in physical conditions that reflect and reinforce the powerlessness of those living there. The landscape testifies to a history of injustice.
At the same time, it is possible to begin to discern the shape of the future. A quickening pace of rehab and new construction foretells what is to come. Chicago celebrates itself as a city that is constantly rebuilding and reinventing itself. It is also a city that has at critical junctures in its history resegregated itself--notably in the 1950s and 60s when the slums of the Black Belt were razed and public housing high-rises constructed on the same land. Today Chicago is once again building on a grand scale. After years of neglect and containment, inner city neighborhoods have become attractive for middle class and up-scale development. The return of the middle class—the black middle class—to the inner city is obviously not in itself a bad thing. But what will be the impact on present residents of these neighborhoods, a population that includes some of the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens? Will they benefit from redevelopment—in the form of jobs and improved housing—or will they be driven off the land? Will they have any say in what happens to the places where they live?
At the center of this drama are large, impoverished public housing developments—such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens on South State Street. Fear of these places is a major impediment to redevelopment of the area; their elimination or transformation would both remove that impediment and make available much valuable land for development.
Public housing in Chicago differs from public housing in New York in several respects. It is far more concentrated. The residents are more impoverished. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has been notoriously badly managed. And to live in Chicago public housing is to carry a stigma that extends beyond race and class to something akin to caste. I doubt there are many places in the country where people are more feared and discriminated against on the basis of their address. In any case, Chicagoans have little doubt about the precise location of the innermost circle of the inner city. It is evoked by names like the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, and Stateway Gardens.
HUD is implementing plans to demolish as many of the high-rises as it can and to disperse the population that lives in them. The stated rationale for this policy is to replace isolated, high-rise concentrations of poverty with mixed income developments integrated into surrounding neighborhoods. One need not challenge the good faith of the architects of this policy in order to question its viability. For it is being pursued within an immensely powerful gravitational field of development interests. As if in accordance with some immutable law, everything seems to conspire to push the poorest of the inner city poor ever deeper into invisibility. The public rhetoric sings of inclusion. The underlying logic is that of a purge.
Only the most robust, searching democratic discourse could possibly discipline this dynamic. Yet no such discourse is evident. The interests driving the redevelopment process face little scrutiny, resistance, or public criticism. Beneath the self-congratulatory hum about civic renaissance and community development, there is a deep silence about fundamental issues that touch the soul of the democracy.
With the possible exception of the word “peace,” I can’t think of another word that has been used to cover more crimes than the word “community.” Abuse and over-use have left it so elastic that it can be wrapped around virtually any purpose the speaker seeks to advance. I have a friend—a tough-minded African-American organizer—who interrupts the conversation whenever someone uses the word “community.” “Whose community?” he asks. “Who is in the community? Who is outside the community? What do you call those outside the community?”
These questions have a particular edge when asked from the perspective of Stateway Gardens. The depoliticized language of “community development” that neighborhood organizations have learned to speak at the behest of their funding sources obscures more than it illuminates. And what it obscures is precisely the claims of fellow citizens living in places like Stateway—people whose exclusion is one of the ways in which various “communities” define themselves. This is not language in which the disenfranchised can name their condition and press their grievances. Having evacuated classic political and moral language, we can hide from ourselves the fact that the inhabitants of these places are denied effective citizenship. To paraphrase DuBois, we see them as “problem people”—human beings defined by their problems rather than by their rights and responsibilities, their equal standing, as citizens.
Against this background, I am grateful to Mindy Fullilove for the term “abandoned communities.” The addition of the adjective “abandoned” rescues the word “community” and establishes a useful perspective. I often use the idiom of “urban apartheid,” as above, in an effort to evoke the physical and moral geography of the South Side. The apartheid analogy is suggestive but also problematic; one does not want to be captured by it. The concept of “abandoned communities” may well be a more refined tool. There are several things I like about it:
- In contrast to the generality and abstraction of so
much of our discourse about “race,” it refers to actual places.
- It states the nature of the relationship between
inhabitants of those places and the dominant institutions of the society:
abandonment. This perspective does not
preclude analysis of individual responsibility, cultural pathology, etc., but
it doesn’t start there.
- In contrast to terms such as “the inner city,” it
doesn’t frame issues of poverty, disenfranchisement, etc. in purely urban
- Despite my distrust of the word “community,” I like the
way its use in this context invites one to consider the associational and
cultural resources present in these places—resources which, if recognized and
valued, might provide a basis for renewal.
Applied to Stateway Gardens, the word “abandoned” is poignantly precise. Allow me to sketch some of what it means:
- The society has no use for the human capital—every
variety of capacity and gift—present in this population. Hence the only jobs available to most
residents are in the informal economy of hustles, the criminal economy of
drugs, and—once incarcerated—the coerced economy of forced labor in prison.
- Residents have been abandoned by law enforcement. The police, by and large, are used to contain
this population rather than to protect it.
Working on South State Street, we often witness crimes, sometimes
violent crimes, but we rarely see police.
In lieu of adequate law enforcement, residents are offered a menu of
extra-constitutional measures to choose from (e.g., sweeps, gang-loitering
ordinances, “one strike and you’re out” eviction policies, etc.).
- Residents have been abandoned by the public
institutions charged with maintaining the structures in which they live. When HUD took over the CHA, it cited the
failures of the housing authority to discharge its obligations to
residents. Under HUD stewardship, conditions
of life on South State Street have significantly deteriorated. It’s as if a federal receiver took over the
post office for failure to perform its mission, then having done so neglected
to deliver the mail.
- Those who live on South State Street are at once
abandoned and exploited by the media.
Crime stories get big play. The
rest of life goes unreported. This
pattern powerfully shapes how these places and their inhabitants are seen. It also denies residents information they
need as citizens to make informed decisions.
- Aside from the legions who drive through the curbside
drug markets and occasional evangelicals in search of souls to save, virtually
no one comes to these places. The degree
of abandonment by political and civic institutions is astonishing. Apart from the occasional gesture that costs
little, no elected official stands steadfastly with public housing
residents. No civil rights or welfare
rights organizations are present. The
middle class leadership of community organizations in the wider neighborhood,
especially those engaged in “community development,” stand at best in an
ambivalent relationship to public housing residents. The net result is that residents have few, if
any, vehicles for self-representation.
There is a dreadful synergy among different forms of abandonment. Thus, for example, the absence of jobs gives rise to the drug trade which operates in public spaces in the vacuum left by inadequate law enforcement. As refracted through the media, crime and violence come to define the neighborhood. This criminalization of the entire population, in turn, facilitates displacement. We are conditioned to see public housing residents not as prospective neighbors in a restructured city but as wild Apaches—a wholly violent population—who must be removed from the land before it can be settled.
To a remarkable degree, conditions that should be the basis for calling various public and private institutions to account are evoked and/or manipulated by those very institutions in support of their agendas.
Images of the physical conditions in abandoned communities are mobilized in support of the argument that the neighborhood is dead, that any form of development would be better than this. In effect, power declares empty the places it wants to appropriate. It asserts that no one lives there and hence that no one will be hurt by the development it intends to impose. The vacant lot left by demolition is the emblematic expression of this logic: not a place with a history, not someone’s home, but a blank canvas, tabula rasa, raw potential awaiting “development.” Similarly, it sometimes seems that the failure to maintain public housing buildings or to provide any amenities on the grounds—on the 33 acres of Stateway Gardens there is not a single bench to sit on—is not only an expression of neglect but also serves the function of making the development look like a ghost town as a prelude to its destruction.
Further, power can exploit conditions of political abandonment to achieve a fiction of legitimacy for its plans by making gestures of inclusion in the decision-making process toward the chronically disenfranchised—inviting them to the table—secure in the knowledge that they cannot offer an effective challenge.
Abandonment, it appears, has its uses.
The uses of abandonment by power are a teaching, an argument, a rhetoric. They support an ideology of civic demoralization that both engenders and is sustained by fear of abandoned communities and pessimism about their prospects. Curiously, this ideology is consistent with—provides support for—the boosterism of civic renewal. It facilitates the disappearing of whole populations of “problem people” for whom there is no place in our glorious urban renaissance.
As practiced in Chicago and I assume elsewhere, urban development involves the exercise of immense power by government, real estate interests and developers. Yet this power is not exercised nakedly. It is facilitated and rationalized by ideology. The images and symbols, the half-truths and falsifications that constitute this ideology form a medium inside of which the actors operate. This ideological medium has several functions. It legitimates the ends and means of power. It affords the comfort of self-deception to those exercising power, enabling them to hide from themselves, at least partially, what they are doing. And it blocks out independent critical perspectives. It does so not by direct suppression but by displacement. Such debate as occurs takes place within well-defined parameters (e.g., in the sanitized idiom of “community development”).
The central teaching of the ideology of civic demoralization—sometimes stated, more often left implicit—is that the problems of abandoned communities are insoluble, that they are beyond hope. We have tried everything, but nothing has worked. We have all but bankrupted the nation in our concern for the poor. And just look at all these vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Just look at the deplorable condition of those public housing high-rises. Hence, the logic goes, anything would be better than this. Thus does pessimism give license to power. Exploiting the demoralization it has done so much to engender, the reigning ideology gathers power from hopelessness. Whatever public policy is being proposed—“the end of welfare as we know it,” “the transformation of public housing,” etc. —is, we are told, the best we can hope for under the circumstances.
Under the sway of this ideology—stupefied by a mix of fear, isolation, and denial—we are subject to every kind of manipulation. We see the public housing high-rises of South State Street as the inner circle of urban hell and assume that any alternative those with power are offering must be better than hell. Neighborhoods like Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes become symbolic landscapes rather than actual places. When we see images of a wrecking ball striking a public housing high-rise, we “read” the demolition as the dismantling of the myriad evils the high-rise has come to symbolize. Thus, the same political and economic interests that created these wretched developments are unimpeded as they proceed to eliminate them and call it “progress.”
To the extent that it performs its functions, ideology creates a seamless world of appearances. That is its strength but also its vulnerability. For this tissue of ideology—this veil wrapped around the world as it is—must be stretched to the tearing point in order to cover all it must cover. As Vaclav Havel has observed in another context, such “a world of appearances trying to pass for reality” is threatened by any act that asserts reality, that makes visible an alternative. “It is utterly unimportant,” he writes, “how large a space this alternative occupies: its power does not consist in its physical attributes but in the light it casts.”
My colleagues and I navigate by this basic insight. It would be hard to overstate how small our enterprise is. We are scarcely more than a little ghetto business, a tiny band of non-violent urban guerrillas wandering the South Side in a couple of pick-up trucks. Yet we have glimpsed large possibilities. I look forward to sharing with you at the fellows seminar some of what we have learned—are in the process of learning—about possible uses of abandonment by the powerless in their efforts to secure full citizenship in the city and the democracy.
[This paper was prepared for a seminar on “The Consequences of Abandoned Communities,” convened by the Open Society Institute at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Harlem on July 21, 1998.]
* * * *
* * * *
The Stroll: A Blues Requiem for Stateway Gardens
"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” - Milan Kundera
My mission—with multimedia help from my colleagues David Eads, Patricia Evans, and Jason Reblando—is to place and ground the conversation that will unfold at this conference.
Let’s begin by locating the eight square blocks of the title. The coordinates are 35th and 39th, State and Federal: the footprint of the Stateway Gardens public housing development. Eight high-rise buildings—a total of 1,644 family apartments—on 33 acres. At full occupancy, the legal population was roughly 5,000. Others lived there off the lease. And then there were those who didn’t collect their mail or lay their heads on the pillow at Stateway, yet regarded it, in some sense, as home. I am one of them.
I first came to Stateway Gardens in the early 1990’s, following a set of moral intuitions where they led. As a citizen, I was moved to explore what it might mean to conduct oneself as a neighbor under conditions of urban apartheid. As a writer, I felt the need to earn the right to use certain words. I was, in short, deeply but actively confused. Over time and by degrees, the Stateway community embraced me with hospitality and kindness that changed the course of my life. Day after day, year after year, I kept coming back. I came back, because I found useful work to do. Because I formed sustaining friendships. Because I located a place to stand where I could resist the gravitational pull of the official narrative about inner city neighborhoods and see with my own eyes. That perspective, that view from the ground, became for me a personal necessity—a form of inquiry and intellectual accountability.
Until recently, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes to the south, together with several smaller developments to the north, constituted the so-called “State Street Corridor.” It was said to be the largest concentration of public housing—and poverty—in the nation. Chicago’s Soweto. A city within the city.
Yet this image of a world apart misleads. We are accustomed to talking about isolated urban poverty. That is a comforting formulation. It suggests the poor somehow pulled up stakes and moved away from the rest of us. This is one of the ways we use language to distance ourselves from conditions in which we are deeply implicated. Looking out at the city from the upper stories of one of the Stateway high-rises, it was impossible to maintain the fiction that this was an isolated community.
To the west, on the other side of the Dan Ryan Expressway, is U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. To the north, across 35th Street, is the Illinois Institute of Technology. Two blocks to the east is De LaSalle High School, a well-endowed parochial school, attended by both Mayor Daley I and II. Across from De LaSalle and a block from Stateway, at 35th and Michigan, is the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department.
Stateway Gardens was not an isolated community. It was an abandoned community—abandoned by public and private institutions, near and far.
Abandonment states a relationship and suggests forms of accountability. Yet, to a remarkable degree, conditions that should be the basis for calling various institutions to account are evoked by those very institutions in support of their agendas. Images of the physical conditions in abandoned communities are mobilized in support of the argument that the neighborhood is dead, that any form of development would be better than this. In effect, power declares empty the places it wants to appropriate. It asserts that no one lives there and hence that no one will be hurt by the development it intends to impose. The vacant lot left by demolition is the emblematic expression of this logic: not a place with a history, not someone’s home, but a blank canvas, tabula rasa, raw potential awaiting “development.” Similarly, the failure to maintain public housing buildings is not only an expression of neglect but also serves the function of making the development look like a ghost town as a prelude to its destruction. Among the various kinds of power the state exercises in this context is that of a formidable conceptual artist using the built environment to represent a set of propositions about the world.
In 1995 the federal government seized control of the Chicago Housing Authority from the City of Chicago on the grounds of gross corruption and failure to serve the needs of the tenants. Several years later, the City regained control of the CHA and soon launched what it calls “The Plan for Transformation”—a set of policies under which high-rise family developments have been demolished and “mixed income communities” are being constructed on their sites.
As part of the Plan, the Stateway high-rises, one by one, have been razed to the ground. The final building is coming down at this moment.
The demolition of a public housing high-rise is a spectacle. It begins slowly. At once monumental and doomed, the building is gradually laid open, exposing the domestic spaces of the families that once lived there. At a certain point in the process, as rebar breaks through concrete like bones through flesh, the scene evokes remembered images of terrible violence. Toward the end, oddly shaped remnants stand like the ruins of a dead civilization or strange natural formations. Finally, the rich, intricate weave of a singular community is reduced to several piles of materials: concrete to be recycled, metal with salvage value, a miscellany destined for the dump. Its work done, the demolition crew departs, leaving behind an expanse of urban prairie.
Having witnessed this scene many times at Stateway and other Chicago public housing communities, I have come to think of it as the construction of a vacant lot. A necessary condition for the creation of what the CHA and various civic and philanthropic institutions are pleased to call, without apparent embarrassment, “new communities.”
Essential to this process of erasure is the renaming of places. Stateway Gardens is now Park Boulevard. (Almost all the names of the so-called “new communities” are variations on the name “Pleasantville.” ) The Ida B. Wells development is now Oakwood Shores. Think about that: what does it mean to change the name of a community named after a black journalist who courageously investigated and reported on lynching—to Oakwood Shores?
The underlying logic of “The Plan for Transformation” was perfectly expressed by a billboard promoting Park Boulevard that appeared several years ago at the corner of 35th and State. The sign was a montage of photographic images: a boy blowing on a dried dandelion, a grandfather with his arm draped around his grandson, a little girl held aloft by strong, loving arms. All the figures were conveniently racially ambiguous. Lightly superimposed upon the images were a series of words: “family, dreams, life, diversity, laughter, happiness, hope, fun, together, learning, independence, sharing, success.” Four words were in a darker font than the rest. They occupied the foreground and formed the phrase:
This message was meant to be read with reference to the acres of vacant land created by demolition to the south of the billboard. It was intended to promote the idea that the developers would create on this blank slate a new community embracing the qualities evoked by the words on the sign. The inescapable subtext was that those words did not apply to the generations of Stateway residents for whom this place had been home. The logic of redevelopment was necessarily blind to the forms of community, meaning and beauty they had created on this land.
* * * *
On an afternoon in the mid-1990s, when Stateway Gardens was still intact, I noticed a young African-American woman on State Street. She appeared to be a middle-class professional. And she looked shell-shocked. It turned out she was new to Chicago and had just been at the Art Institute where she had seen the painting “Many Mansions” by Kerry James Marshall. One in a series of canvases in which Marshall explores the circumstance that several derelict public housing developments in Chicago are named “gardens,” “Many Mansions” depicts black men, wearing white dress shirts and ties, gardening on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. Moved by the image, the woman had left the Art Institute and driven directly to South State Street where, stunned and disoriented, she collided with the full force of Marshall’s irony.
As a counterstatement to the logic of abandonment, as a way of remaining visible as citizens, we worked over the years at Stateway to make good on the name of the development: to cultivate—both literally and figuratively—the community as a garden. People around the South Side used to joke that when the Mayor started planting trees in your neighborhood, it was time to start packing—those trees would provide shade for future residents not you and your family. So we planted trees on the grounds of the development as a strategy of resistance. We engaged in what we called “grassroots public works.” We did insurgent maintenance of the buildings.
My colleagues in this effort, which we undertook with the support of the resident council, were primarily veterans of the street gangs, men who had labored in the criminal economy. We planted more than seventy trees on the grounds; mostly, red maples and honey locusts. We did the interior demolition of the historic Overton Building on State Street directly across from Stateway. And ultimately we trashed out the Stateway high-rises, removing truck box after truck box of garbage that the CHA had allowed to accumulate in vacant units over more than a decade.
We worked hard. We had fun. And, for a time, under conditions of abandonment, we exercised our freedom. We never fully realized the dream of making Stateway a garden, but we did get precious glimpses of what might be possible. For years, I couldn’t go anywhere on the South Side without being approached by gang members, some of them hard-core warlords, seeking jobs swinging sledgehammers and planting trees for between $7.50 and $12.00 an hour. Some would not have cut it on the job, but many, given the chance, would have—probably in roughly the same proportions as, say, college students.
Equally important, we demonstrated in the rhetoric of action that conditions in public housing reflected not some monolithic, irreversible system failure, as the logic of abandonment would have it, but a mass of discreet patterns of neglect and disregard that could be corrected by sustained care and attention.
An image from those years comes back to me now. On a cold November day, just before the ground hardened for the winter, we organized a big tree planting day at Stateway. At the corner of 35th and State, where we used to conduct monthly anti-violence vigils, we planted five honey locusts. They were large trees. It took several men to wrestle each tree ball into the hole. The moment the trees were upright, dozens of sparrows alighted on their branches, animating them with movement and song. It was as if in this abandoned, desolate place life had been awaiting its supporting forms.
* * * *
There is an exquisite passage in Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain in which she describes a man building a chair for his pregnant wife. Her theme is the compassion that resides in objects, the human regard and fellow feeling, the wish for the well-being of others, that is manifest in material culture. She asks the reader to imagine the man “in the action of making a chair—standing in one place, moving away, coming back, lifting then letting fall his arm, kneeling then standing, kneeling, half-kneeling, stooping, looking, extending his arm, pulling it back.” She then asks that we imagine “all these actions as occurring without a tool or block of wood before him.” It is, she writes, as if he dances before his pregnant wife “a dance entitled ‘body weight be gone.’”
In this lovely image, Scarry enables us to see a chair as an act of compassion given material form. Consider now the ways the material world can express contempt and disregard for others. Consider a Chicago public housing high-rise late in the regime of abandonment. In light of the chair image, it is perhaps worth noting that for the most of the time I was engaged at Stateway there was not a single bench on the grounds of the development on which, say, a woman carrying bags of groceries home to her family might rest for a moment. But that absence was the least of it: everywhere a resident looked the built environment reflected back contempt.
The ultimate expression of that contempt is the official diagnosis that attributes the conditions of the buildings to the moral failings of the residents rather than the criminal negligence of the landlord. This symbolic equation is the essence of “The Plan for Transformation”: the buildings are symbols of every urban ill, so their demolition is, in itself, progress.
Yet the community was not the buildings, any more than the handsome new bricks and mortar being built on former public housing sites by private developers constitute a community. Let’s try a variation on Elaine Scarry’s chair exercise. Let’s remove the physical structure of the abandoned high-rises and observe the dance of the community. A dance to bluesy rhythms of tough realism, robust humor, and resilient hope.
What a busy place it was. The unemployment rate at Stateway was said to be on the order of 90%. Yet somehow almost everyone seemed to be working. Some had conventional jobs. Many labored in the economy of hustle. I am not here referring only or primarily to the drug trade. There were all sorts of peddlers—selling food, clothes, trinkets, loose cigarettes, videos—and an enduring mystery I never got to the bottom of—white athletic socks. There were barbers and women who did hair weaves. There were alley mechanics and cable guys. There were master recyclers--junk men in pickup trucks and alley entrepreneurs with shopping carts. Virtually everyone had some sort of job or hustle.
Abandonment gave rise to forms of neighborliness and to an ethos of generosity that were enviable. As one resident put it, “Nobody cares about us but us.” And another: “If we have nothing, we share it with one another.”
It was an intensely political place. I have occasionally been described as “a voice for the voiceless.” This formulation offends me. It misstates the problem. The point is not that residents of abandoned communities are voiceless; it is that no one is listening. Man, do they have voices. The ongoing commentary about bureaucratic absurdities was bracing and often funny. How many times a day did I hear the refrain, “It don’t make no sense”? And the quality of discourse about the constellation of issues our mayor refers to with the phrase “gangs, drugs, guns” was far richer, more intelligent, and morally accountable than the prevailing discourse in the broader society.
Stateway was, in this respect, a nourishing environment for me as a writer: a place where people, unconstrained by the evasions and circumlocutions of power, tried to call things by their true names.
Above all, I miss the life of the street. The theater. The human comedy. The play of wit and affection. The truth is that qualities of urban life that people go to Paris and Venice in search of were daily available on South State Street.
The roots of that urbanity go deep. In the old Black Belt—razed to make way for public housing—this stretch of State Street was known as The Stroll. The building where my office was located stood near the site of the Dreamland Lounge where Louis Armstrong—and modern jazz—found their stride. The clubs have long been gone, but certain social forms persisted. A certain elegance and refinement in the way people would meet, greet, and “conversate.” It was delicious.
A question: how is it that three people sitting at a side walk café talking and drinking wine in a tony Chicago neighborhood is seen as the height of urbanity, while three people sitting on milk crates on a vacant lot or the grounds of a public housing development drinking wine and having the same conversation is urban blight?
Even toward the very end, when Stateway resembled a refugee camp, remnants of the Stroll survived in the vicinity of the Park District field house at 37th and State, universally known as the Center. People gravitated there to make contact, to get the news. A safe harbor to the end, it remained a place where the community was visible to itself.
One of the things I have learned over my years at Stateway—a lesson taught by the blues—is that life goes forward. I associate that perception with a moment in the demolition of one of the last Stateway buildings. The trees my colleagues and I had planted and older full growth trees that once shaded the Stroll had by then been uprooted to make way for “the new community.” As the building came down, the wrecking crew winnowed materials, forming large tangles of rebar comparable in scale to trees and large bushes. They drew flocks of birds to their twisted branches. Life goes forward. Life adapts.
And so it goes for my Stateway friends. Some are better off; some worse off; some have disappeared. The variables have less to do with social policy than with character, resourcefulness, mother wit, and fate. Whatever their individual situation, virtually all, even those who were eager to leave, mourn the loss of the community. I join them in their grief.
As I have celebrated some of what has been lost, I can imagine questions forming in some of your minds about my reliability as a witness. What, you may be asking yourselves, about gangs and drugs? If the buildings were removed, wouldn’t terrible things be exposed? Wouldn’t we see acts of cruelty, wretched conditions, scenes of degradation? Of course. Wouldn’t we find some children abused and neglected by adults? Of course. Wouldn’t we find some women violated and terrorized by men? Of course. Wouldn’t we find forms of commerce being practiced that exploit, poison, and corrupt the community? Of course. This was, after all, a human community. In other words, like other communities, it contained the deplorable and the noble, the cruel and the lovely.
Why is it then that we see only part of the spectrum of human possibility, when we consider communities such as Stateway Gardens? Why is it that the image of the gangbanger so often eclipses the rest of life? How did places like Stateway come to be seen less as communities than as loose criminal conspiracies? How did our perceptions of such places become so crude and one-dimensional? Whose interests are served by this dynamic?
As is no doubt now apparent, I have approached the themes of this conference obliquely. We are here to engage a set of issues about the impact of law enforcement polices and practices on inner city communities. My colleagues and I have offered these images in words and photographs in the hope that we all might enter the conversations that will occupy us today and tomorrow bearing in mind the possibility that the eight square blocks that were once Stateway Gardens were the site of a community as complex and mysterious, as mixed and unfathomable as any.
As Albert Murray put it thirty-seven years ago in The Omni-Americans, his spirited polemic against what he termed social scientific folklore, why is it so hard to grasp “something that is as obvious as the fact that human nature is no less complex and fascinating for being encased in dark skin”?
* * * *
Whatever else might be said about Chicago’s vertical ghetto, you could see it. As you moved through the city, it was difficult not to see public housing high-rises. Even registered in passing at the periphery of your vision as you drove by at 60 mph on the expressway, they posed questions, unsettled the mind, and abraded the conscience. The invisible ghetto fast replacing the high-rises allows us to move through the city unimpeded by moral friction and relieved of the danger of colliding with fundamental issues of social justice.
This restructuring of the city, it is important to recognize, is also remapping the geography of our moral imaginations—what we can see and what we can think, how issues are constructed and the parameters within which they are discussed.
The mission of this conference is to resist this tendency. It is to frame and engage the questions that have survived the demolition of Stateway Gardens and other abandoned communities.
Dr. Paul Farmer has observed:
Human rights violations are not accidents; they are not random in distribution or effects. Rights violations are, rather, symptoms of deeper pathologies of power and are linked intimately to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm. If assaults on dignity are anything but random in distribution or course, whose interests are served by the suggestion that they are haphazard?
Inquiries into the conditions underlying patterns of abuse must move against a powerful undertow. The costs of perception are high. It is easier to see assaults on human dignity as malfunctions of otherwise sound policies and institutions (the work perhaps of "a few bad apples") than as "symptoms of deeper pathologies of power."
This much is clear. Conditions of structural exclusion are ultimately enforced by violence: by particular blows inflicted by particular hands on particular bodies. That is our point of departure—the ground from which we take our bearings—as we now open “The View From The Ground” conference.
[Keynote address at University of Chicago Law School conference "The View From The Ground: Issues and Inquiries Arising From Eight Square Blocks of Chicago's South Side," April 20, 2007]