Adele Oltman is a historian, journalist and author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow (UGA Press, 2008).
Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes--once the nation's largest public housing project--is currently being dismantled. Half of its buildings have already been torn down, and of those that are still standing only some are occupied. It is only a matter of time before the remainder will meet the wrecking ball.
Completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes at one time housed more than 27,000 residents, all African-Americans, in twenty-eight identical sixteen-story buildings. While the housing project replaced one of Chicago's worst slums, it became itself the stuff of legend--one of the nation's most infamous and troubled housing communities. It is being demolished in response to federal pressure on the grounds that the projects are no longer habitable.
Sudhir Venkatesh's new book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, is both an ethnography and a history of the Taylor Homes from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Venkatesh spent a year and a half hanging out, as he puts it, primarily with longtime tenant leaders and gang members. The result is a fascinating study of community dynamics between various groups of tenants, including leaders and members of the Black Kings gang, and how they created and lived what Venkatesh refers to as an "ordered environment"--against incredible odds.
One of the ironies of this story is that the Taylor Homes were named after a black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) who served in the 1940s. Robert Taylor was committed to racial integration during a time when virtually all power blocs were opposed, albeit for different reasons. After the Federal Housing Act was passed in 1949 providing funds for more than 800,000 new units of public housing, Robert Taylor submitted a number of sites for the construction of a new housing project, which included vacant land in white communities. Chicago's City Council--with the support of powerful black machine politician and political broker Congressman William Dawson (in power from 1942 to 1970), ministers of the largest black churches and the Chicago Defender--supported urban renewal instead: the razing of existing slums with the purpose of keeping the housing project inside Chicago's black belt. The CHA used the federal funds to buy up poor neighborhoods and turn them over to private companies at bargain prices for demolition and commercial redevelopment. The residents of the slums were forced to move into different slums with the promise that they could apply for public housing sometime in the future. Robert Taylor's career in public housing ended in 1950 over the issue of urban renewal, well before the projects named after him were completed.
Venkatesh's portrayal of the Taylor Homes during its first decade depicts a complicated arrangement that to the uninitiated appears to have bordered on lawlessness and social instability. Tenants and the CHA maintained social order largely through such informal and formal female-led tenant organizations as the Mama's Mafia, Mothers on the Move Against Slums, elevator committees and citizens' committees, and CHA-organized Building Councils, which comprised tenants who were theoretically elected but often appointed. Each member of the community had his or her role in maintaining economic solvency and social control: There were the tenant leaders who had informal relationships with the local police, and the off-the-books entrepreneurs, including marijuana dealers, car mechanics, clothing sellers, pimps, prostitutes and proprietors of gambling parlors--all of whom paid taxes to tenant leaders who in turn paid off the police, thus avoiding investigation and allowing the much-needed informal economy to prosper. One informant, who operated an off-the-books car repair service with his brother in the Taylor Homes parking lot, recalled, "We paid our [tenant leaders] real good, so they'd keep the pigs off of us."
The tenant leaders' informal relationships with the police, writes Venkatesh, afforded "a practical means of working with a city agency that people generally distrusted and from whom they did not expect timely service." Tenant leaders became the police department's first point of contact, and as the testimony of a number of residents indicates, they had more to fear from tenant leaders than from the police department. One longtime resident recalled, "Hell, we never saw [the police] when I was growing up," adding "just look who caught me. [It was one of the tenant leaders] not the police. She was the one who called them to bust my ass."
The underground economy and the tenant leaders' informal relationships with the local police were, according to Venkatesh, what made the Taylor Homes "viable." Indeed, here lies Venkatesh's main argument, which provides the name of the book. The residents of the project--just like residents of any American community--faced the challenges of building a habitable community by procuring city services and controlling the behavior of local youth. Only, in this instance, with a more than 90 percent unemployment rate, "it is almost assured that aspects of daily life will be somewhat unique and possibly at odds with institutions in the wider world."
As obvious as this point should be, it is a useful heuristic device not so much for its sagacity but to offset a tendency to regard long-term ghetto residents as pathological and living beyond the pale of human decency. Venkatesh situates himself in the company of recent social scientists and historians, including Adolph Reed, Michael Katz and Kevin Phillips--to name just a few--who have attacked what William Julius Wilson infamously referred to as the "tangle of pathology"--a term that has attained popularity in the press and that has become a central component of the New Right's political lexicon. In contrast to those who indulge in underclass explanations for poverty--and they range from those who would situate themselves in the liberal camp (Nicholas Lemann) to those on the extreme right (Charles Murray)--Venkatesh focuses on complex internal social patterns of obligation, reciprocity and expectation. He shows that Taylor Homes residents, including gang members, had a work ethic just like most other Americans. And despite the high percentage of single heads of household (near 75 percent in the 1980s), he avoids the politically charged rhetoric of family values--another New Right buzzword--that stigmatizes female-headed households and absurdly identifies out-of-wedlock births as the root cause of poverty.
Venkatesh is to be commended for rejecting the perception of the black ghetto as a morally deficient space, and for letting the voices of the tenants be heard. The result is a rich account of the political lives of the leaders and some of its residents. Some of the book's most compelling narration is of 1960s tenant activism, which took place in the context of the Black Power movement in Chicago. The signal success of this activism, according to Venkatesh, was the creation of the Local Advisory Council, which grew out of the CHA-sponsored Building Councils. What once had been "the shouts of parents became the voices of empowered citizens," and the "female head-of-household stood at the political vanguard." Community control--another buzzword, this time of the left--intersected with Lyndon Johnson's program of maximum feasible participation and had become all the rage by the late 1960s. All of which sounds promising on the surface, but it ultimately failed to provide the residents of the Taylor Homes with more city services. If Venkatesh had weighed in with some of the more sustained critiques of LBJ's War on Poverty that began (but didn't end) with Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in the 1970s, his contribution to the literature on poor people's responses to urban poverty would have been richer.
Decentralization and local control, as the historian Thomas Jackson has shown, was not a panacea for eradicating poverty. Decentralization ultimately gave the state a role in regulating political dissent when it reached into black political life and reshaped networks and political loyalties. Steven Gregory, in his recent study of Corona, Queens, has taken this point further, arguing that the War on Poverty reframed explicitly political issues of racial and class inequality, which led to the "articulation of new forms of political subjectivity and action." Urban poverty, in other words, was now a black problem, and inequalities that were exacerbated by the economic restructuring of the 1970s and '80s helped to define places like the Taylor Homes as the problem--so the links between urban poverty and broader structures of economic and racial subordination became obscured.
In what sense was the 1960s activism and the spawning of the Local Advisory Council a marker of success? Jackson and Gregory have suggested that this was the moment when social inequality became depoliticized, as local leaders, once militant and agitating from the outside, became political brokers. At the same time, the ghetto itself became a hyperpoliticized site on the American landscape. Venkatesh succeeds in transcending the trope of the black ghetto. But if this had been a mere starting point and not the denouement, his exploration of local power dynamics and how they intersected with larger social processes and politics might have been more thorough.
The idea of local control as a way to achieve more equitable distribution of resources that the federal government has made scarce remains alive today. Our public education system, for example, which is being dismantled--a process that began during the Clinton Administration--has been met by some community activists with a cry for more local control.
As an ethnography, American Project is an innovative, insightful and valuable examination of internal project politics. Venkatesh's research method enabled him to explore in fairly minute detail a multitude of tenants' positions and conflicts with one another and various organizations that sprang up in the projects over a thirty-year period. "The patterns of hidden work and the complex schemes for policing social problems," he writes, "offer a clue as to how the poorest sectors of black Americans coped with the growing impoverishment of their communities," especially during the 1970s.
As a history that attempts to explain the failure of the projects, however, it is incomplete. Its almost exclusive reliance on the oral testimony of tenants and gang members--("I let the voices of [the] tenants chart our course")--is the crux of the problem. The author pays too little attention to municipal and federal policy, and to senior CHA and police officials, especially after the 1970s. This bottom-up approach leaves the reader with the impression that tenants' failures to create and sustain an "ordered community" were stymied by their inability to form a consensus on whether to include gang leaders and members in their efforts to build a political movement that could successfully win adequate resources for the Taylor Homes in the mid-1990s. "With the discussion so sharply polarized," writes Venkatesh, "it was difficult to see how tenants could move forward together in a practical effort to address their concerns." Those who supported inclusion of the Black Kings in order to achieve at least short-term benefits--most notably safe public spaces--lacked effective mediation skills. Those who were opposed were unable to provide a workable program for addressing the social ills--some of which were gang-related--that confronted the tenants.
Venkatesh's success in portraying the residents of the Taylor Homes not as victims but as individuals actively searching for ways to create a habitable living space contributes to a weakness in his overall argument. It is a contradiction that cries out for resolution. Inadvertently, by paying too little attention to the larger political and economic context in which the projects existed, he lays blame for the failure of the tenants to secure more government resources on the tenants themselves. Not until the last few pages of the book is there mention of structures or institutions of racial and class inequality, and even then it's only as a generality and not with any historical or topical specificity. A more effective social history that attempted to locate the underlying causes of the Taylor Homes' failure would have to examine tenant strategies not in a vacuum but in the context of policies enacted by those with access to power and resources.
The most immediate question, of course, is what happens to the remaining residents of the Robert Taylor Homes. More than forty years ago, poor black people who lived in the same area were also told to pack their things and get out. Then they were told to wait for public housing. Both times city officials made promises they couldn't possibly keep. In recent years the federal government's approach has been to rely more heavily on private market forces to eradicate poverty. For some, this has resulted in new spaces of apartheid--this time in the suburbs. According to researchers at Northwestern University and elsewhere, there have been limited benefits, but the problem of structural poverty has not been addressed at all. Others have remained in their old neighborhoods, which have become "empowerment zones." Their new neighbors might be middle class and professional--and some might even be white--and even though the long-term residents might not be able to afford the $5 coffee drink at Starbucks, a few might find employment there. How does this private initiative benefit them? Aside from saving on subway fare, in a negligible way at best. So it seems that the main beneficiaries of mixed-income urban housing are the new homesteaders, who buy their properties at bargain prices, and the quality-of-lifers, as unseemly urban blight becomes slightly more hidden.