Where is Everyone Going?

The Chicago Tribune Magazine

There has been a remarkable turn of events in the city that Nelson Algren once described as so audacious that it dared to “roll boulevards down out of pig-wallows and roll its dark river uphill.” If promises are kept and plans met, within 10 years all 82 public housing high-rises for families will be gone, having fallen to the wrecking ball. Erase the slate and start anew. Already, 29 high- rises have been razed, and plans are in place to build new homes, some allotted for those displaced, others selling—at least in one gentrifying community–for upwards of $400,000. Rich and poor living side by side. One longtime housing advocate, referring to the scope of the plan, told me, “It takes your breath away.”

While public housing across the country is coming down, nothing remotely approaches the scale of what’s happening in Chicago. It’s the equivalent of tearing down a city with the population of Des Moines; at its peak 10 years ago, the Chicago Housing Authority housed 200,000 people. It is presented as a grand gesture to right past wrongs. For four decades, these high-rises and walk-ups have stood as cinderblock metaphors for our disregard for–some might say outright hostility toward—the poor.

Andrew Cuomo, who as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development helped secure a $1.5 billion commitment for the plan, sees it as one of the highlights of his administration. “It is one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said. “We’re going to learn from the mistakes of the past. We’re going to do better…. When you put people in an institutional setting, don’t be surprised if they respond as if they’re in an institution…. Treat them with respect and dignity, and they’ll respond in kind.”

The transformation plan, as it has come to be named, calls for private developers, different ones at each complex, to build a mixture of low-income and market-rate housing. In the end, the city says it will provide housing for the 15,000 families and 10,000 seniors living in CHA property as of October 1999. The seniors’ buildings will be renovated; the families will be given the choice of moving into one of the planned 15,000 new or renovated homes, or taking a voucher for use in the private market.

The rhetoric suggests that what is going on is much larger than simply the transformation of public housing, that this is an opportunity to integrate the poor into the economic and social bloodstream of a city. This after decades of shunting the poor to the fringes of our cities, into neighborhoods spiritually and physically removed from the rest of us. “You live in public housing, you don’t live in the city,” Mayor Richard M. Daley accedes. “That’s the stigma.”

For decades, public housing was considered a public nuisance. But Daley has said that for this plan to work, it will require more than just bulldozing the old or constructing anew. “I am convinced that it’s not the brick and mortar, but that you have to rebuild the soul,” he told me. “Anybody can build a house, but you’ve got to improve lives.”

Ever since I first set foot in public housing 17 years ago, I’ve believed it should all be torn down, so when I recently returned to the complexes, I did so with a sense of anticipation. But as I spoke with residents, with developers and with people working on the plan, I was struck by a lingering and pervasive unease: Has the wrecking ball moved so fast that we’ve only further knotted already tangled lives? Are people being lost in the transition, cast adrift before there is any place for them to go?

More to the point, in the end will the transformation plan really leave the city’s poor better off? It’s a question that comes naturally in a corner of the city that has for decades been shunned, pushed aside, out of sight and out of mind. This could very well be a defining moment for Chicago.

When I first spent time in public housing, in the mid-1980s, I noted that all the trees were painted white, six feet up their trunks. Why paint the trees? The CHA told me to talk to the Park District, which in turn referred me back to the CHA, which couldn’t give me an answer. As I made my way back to public housing recently, I noticed that the trees are still shaded white. “They call themselves decorating,” one longtime resident suggested. “To make them look cute,” offered another. An engineer who consults with tenants groups speculated that it was “so the police don’t hit them when driving up on the lawns.” Derek Hill, the CHA’s media point person, told me they did it to keep away bugs. What kind of bugs? I asked. Why only in public housing and not elsewhere? “You know what,” he said, exasperated no doubt with my trivial pursuit. “I’ll get back to you.” He never did.

To acknowledge the painted-trees enigma is to grasp the basic dynamics of public housing in Chicago: The behavior of the housing authority and other public officials has often been inexplicable and without accountability, so for tenants, resignation and distrust have become a matter of self-protection. Take, for example, a 1989 news conference at which Daley assailed water bill deadbeats, the largest being the Chicago Housing Authority. Daley flippantly suggested that the CHA consider limiting residents to one shower a day, or that it install coin meters.

The remarks, which Daley quickly apologized for, offered a glimpse into how most people in the city view those living in the projects: as childlike. It also underscored the disconnect with life in public housing, as most units don’t even have showers, just baths. But what most surprised me was how muted the response was: No one at Henry Horner, where I was virtually every day that year, so much as noted the comment, let alone condemned it.

There’s a popular misunderstanding about why things went so terribly wrong with public housing. As Sharon Gist Gilliam, the current chairwoman of the CHA, told me, “While intentions might have been good, it was clear the high-rises don’t work for families with large numbers of children.” That’s the benign view, shared by many: It’s the architecture, stupid.

A lot more has been at work, however, than misguided design. Initially, public housing was intended to be a way station for families–black and white—who were temporarily down on their luck. But when the bulk of Chicago’s high-rise public housing was built, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, white politicians didn’t want the buildings constructed in their neighborhoods, and so had them erected on the edge of the black ghettos. Public housing became a bulwark of segregation. Moreover, the high-rises were constructed on the cheap - -most notably omitting lobbies in favor of breezeways that cut through the center of the buildings, exposing the elevators to the city’s harsh winters and leaving the buildings without any security.

Then, Mayor Daley Sr. appointed Charlie Swibel, a local businessman, to run the agency, and for the next 19 years, maintenance became an afterthought and the agency a personal patronage fiefdom. Swibel eventually left, but not before a federal report concluded that the CHA “is operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray…. No one seems to genuinely care.” These neighborhoods became so isolated that legislators passed laws that applied only to crimes committed there. And in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan slashed funds for public housing, there was virtually no outcry.

To ignore this history is to believe that knocking down the high- rises is enough. Public housing could have been a model for what a community should look like: racially and economically integrated. It could have been a place where those facing hard times were afforded a measure of dignity and a helping hand. It could have been a place to direct social services, a place to direct jobs. But, to state the obvious, it did none of this. The same mistakes will be made if we don’t recognize what a missed opportunity public housing was—if we don’t, metaphorically speaking, figure out why the trees are painted white.

Consider the tale of Gwendolyn Hull. When I called the CHA last winter to ask how many evictions had been carried out that Feb. 8, the agency’s chief spokesperson said with absolute certainty, “I can tell you, there weren’t any.” But there were.

On that day I happened to be visiting Stateway Gardens, a housing complex along the CHA’s State Street corridor on the South Side, where I met Hull, 43. She had lived in Stateway for 13 years. Earlier that morning, sheriff’s deputies told Hull that she needed to be out of her fourth-floor apartment by 1 p.m., when it would be boarded up.

Hull is a gaunt, high-strung woman, and by noon she was sipping from a can of Miller’s to calm her nerves. With the help of her 24- year-old son, William, who’d taken the day off from his assistant manager job at a furniture-rental facility, Hull had placed her two couches on the concrete breezeway alongside a box of books and a mound of garbage bags filled with clothes, blankets and frying pans. She stored her beds and television with a neighbor. Her three other children, all under the age of 11, scurried about underfoot. For eight months beginning in February 2000, she says, she purposely stopped paying her monthly rent of $88. As she walked me through the apartment, she repeatedly hollered, “Now you tell me, was it right for me to pay my rent?”

The state of this dwelling was among the most dispiriting I’d ever encountered. In the living room and the bathroom, water from the vacant apartment above had seeped through the ceiling. Hull urged me to turn on the hot-water faucet in the bathtub. The water, even after running for five minutes, was cool. Hull boiled water as needed, and so did neighbors I spoke with. She showed me what she’d rigged to keep out the rats that had chewed through the base of her front door: She nailed three soup-can lids to close up the space. The utility room that houses all the circuit breakers remained unlocked for months, so kids would turn off the electricity to many of the apartments. Hull twice lost a refrigerator-full of food. She had the presence of mind to ask her son William to videotape much of this, which he did.

Hull, in blue knit cap, waved her arms, cursing. “Gwen, slow down,” a neighbor urged. The neighbor, who asked that I not use her name, turned to me: “We just been living like in hell.” They have. And the CHA would tell you that’s precisely why it is planning to raze this high-rise. And that’s also precisely why Gwendolyn Hull and her three youngest children would tell you they no longer have a place to live.

Many believe that with their eyes focused on the distant horizon, city officials have failed to see the storm directly overhead. The present is, in the words of one housing advocate working with the CHA, “a mass, mass state of confusion.” (Many people I spoke with asked that I not use their names, wanting to express their concerns while remaining involved in the process.) Conditions in some developments are so grievous that last spring resident leaders threatened to challenge the transformation plan in court. As a result, the CHA recently set aside additional money for maintenance. Nevertheless, families are moving out on their own, and are disappearing into the creases of the city without benefit of counseling or guidance or any kind of social services. For example, a full one-third of the families in Hull’s building, 3833-35 S. Federal St., have moved out without assistance and without rent vouchers. The CHA is now trying to find them. In recent months, the agency has reached out more to residents in an effort to make clear their options (a temporary rent voucher or an apartment in another CHA building) while they wait for new homes to be built.

Since the plan took effect in October 1999, the CHA has evicted 906 families citywide, the large majority for non-payment of rent. A CHA spokesperson says the agency has a plan in place to work with people who fall behind, and offers what amounts to a six-month grace period. But that didn’t happen for Hull. Delores Irving, who formerly headed a non-profit group’s effort to help relocate families, asks: “The drawings, the renderings are all wonderful, but what about right now? What’s happening to people’s lives?”

During one of my visits to Stateway I attached myself to an entourage of touring CHA officials. Fortunately, a security guard carried a flashlight to see in the darkened stairwells. A seasoned resident advised those of us in the rear that there were 13 steps between landings, so we could count them as we climbed. When a janitor pried open the door of a vacant unit, we were met by a mound of garbage hip-deep, including a mattress, beer and wine bottles, an infant car seat and a Christmas tree.

Francine Washington, the elected head of Stateway’s tenants, explained to the CHA officials that she would have called the Board of Health, but was afraid that it would issue a vacate order on the whole building. This is the house-of-mirrors logic of living in public housing. To eke out a life here means pushing and massaging the rules–and even the law. It is, community activist Jamie Kalven told me, “an inverted moral universe.”

As we walked along the fourth floor of one of the buildings, Kalven whispered to me that a family lived in one of the vacant apartments illegally. I returned later to visit Rosemary Gamble, a handsome, 47-year-old woman with a sunny disposition, who greeted me barefoot in a floral-print dress. She wore a scarf on her head, her curly red hair tied back. That Gamble has chosen to live in this place of squalor speaks volumes for the lack of affordable housing in the private market. Gamble had lived in a working-class suburb with her first husband. Together they had four children. Then things fell apart. She divorced, remarried and divorced again. She lost her job as a telephone operator, and the bank foreclosed on the home. So, Gamble moved in with her dying mother. Two electrical fires in the home forced Gamble to move yet again. By this point, all her children were grown, but her youngest daughter, unable to cope with motherhood, asked Gamble to care for her five children.

Gamble heard through a friend that there were vacant units at Stateway. So she moved into one, illegally, in the building known as the “Deuce” because it’s the second one from the complex’s northern border. (At the time, the private management at Stateway estimated that 500 of the vacant apartments were occupied by squatters–some families, but mostly single men and women, often addicted to drugs.)

If I hadn’t been told, I wouldn’t have known that Gamble was squatting. She installed a lock on the front door. She has electricity and heat. The well-scrubbed three-bedroom apartment has a stove and refrigerator, and Gamble bought a washing machine and bunkbeds for the kids, who are now between the ages of 3 and 7. She repainted the white cinderblock walls, and in the kids’ rooms added a red trim with their initials. When I arrived, the three oldest were at school; the two youngest sat on the couch watching “Sesame Street.” During the year she has lived here, Gamble has been a consistent presence at tenants meetings.

At one point, Gamble was threatened with eviction, but she worked out an understanding with the private firm managing Stateway that she could remain through the winter. “I would love to pay rent,” she told me. “Then I don’t have to worry about someone knocking on my door, evicting me.”

Gamble’s caseworker at the Department of Children and Family Services, Derrick Cargle, has tried to help her find an apartment. “She’s a good person, but she has too much pride,” Cargle said. “I was driving Ms. Gamble around looking for better housing and I would tell her, ‘Don’t tell the landlord you have the five grandkids,’ but her attitude is, ‘If I don’t tell him and he finds out, he’ll put me out and then where’ll I be?’ ” Put simply, there is barely any available affordable housing in the city to meet demand. One study indicates that the Chicago area is short 153,000 apartments for families making under $20,000 a year. At a new cluster of townhouses, just blocks from Stateway Gardens, 650 people inquired about 56 apartments.

As part of the transformation plan, a development team plans to build a mixture of housing at Stateway that will be one-third market rate, one-third for people earning roughly the median income and one-third—or 439 units—for residents of public housing. That’s the good news. But here’s the tough part. The numbers don’t really add up. When the plan took effect, in October 1999, 955 families at Stateway—58 percent of the complex’s population–had in the preceding years moved out on their own, worn out by what the CHA has acknowledged were “deplorable conditions.” It was a kind of de facto demolition. This was commonplace in all the developments. So, since the plan guarantees new housing only for those living on CHA property as of October 1999, the city will in the end have 14,000 fewer public housing units, a staggering reduction in what has long been considered the housing of last resort.

Where are the displaced families going? Into different neighborhoods? Virtually all who have left public housing so far have relocated in largely African-American neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn and Austin. There’s barely any affordable rental housing in white neighborhoods. That’s perhaps one of the understandable, yet sad failures of this transformation plan. While the construction of public housing served to mark indelibly the line between black and white neighborhoods, the plan does little to reverse that.

“Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to acknowledge it,” says Bob Whitfield, the former general counsel for the CHA who now represents tenants groups. “The easiest thing for the CHA to do is demolish and throw people into the Section 8 [voucher] program, and most of them will move into similar poor, black neighborhoods.”

This leads to one of the biggest ironies of this plan: The harshest criticism of dispersing public housing’s tenants comes not from whites but from blacks. In Harvey, a struggling, working-class African-American suburb south of the city, nearly one of every 10 housing units is already occupied by renters with subsidies. Mayor Nickolas Graves, who is white, has made it clear he’ll do what he can to discourage relocated public housing residents from coming to his suburb. He has ordered housing inspectors to crack down on Section 8 landlords to, as he puts it, “make it uncomfortable for them.” Graves told me, “They’re going to go someplace; I just hope they don’t come here…. What they should do if they have a hundred families, they should go into a hundred different communities.”

But that’s not happening. According to CHAC, a group helping track relocated families, 93 percent of those who have taken Section 8 vouchers have settled in communities that are majority African- American, and three-fourths in neighborhoods that are considered high- poverty areas.

The resistance in some cases has been fierce. The African-American neighborhood of Kenwood-Oakland on the city’s South Side has been making a slow comeback. Until four years ago, there had been no new construction of private homes in the area since World War II. Then two years ago, a full-service grocery store opened, the first in decades. In 1985, long before the present-day transformation plan, the CHA relocated 500 families from a public housing complex in the neighborhood, and then demolished their four high-rises. The families were promised that they’d have first dibs on the new housing that was to be built on that site. Seventeen years later, the land remains vacant and those families are, in theory at least, still waiting. (Some have moved into new scattered-site housing.)

It has taken this long partly because the middle-class African-American homeowners protested, loudly. They didn’t want “those people” moving back into their rejuvenated neighborhood. Homeowners routinely would shout at officials that they’d worked hard to get where they were and that they didn’t want to live next door to people who would just tear up their homes. They called them “project people,” “lowlifers” and “freeloaders.” At one meeting, a homeowner taunted then-CHA head Joseph Shuldiner by telling him he knew where he lived. Another told him they could settle things outside. The atmosphere became so threatening that the leader of the public housing residents stopped coming to the meetings.

It would be a mistake to interpret this tough talk as Rush Limbaugh-like rhetoric. The harsh assessment by middle-class blacks, instead, has everything to do with their sense of identity and a clear sense of history. “Some blacks feel that ‘those people’ make it tough on those of us trying to make something of ourselves,” says Shirley Newsome, a homeowner in Kenwood-Oakland and a longtime voice of moderation. “That’s why white America doesn’t want me living next to them, because they look at me and figure I’m from a place like public housing.”

What’s more, middle-class whites, for the most part, are not being asked to live next door to former public housing residents. With the exception of Cabrini-Green, which sits amid spreading affluence on the Near North Side, and ABLA, in a gentrifying West Side neighborhood near the University of Illinois at Chicago, the mixed- income developments that rise from the debris will most likely be predominantly black. So middle-class blacks will be the ones on the front lines, living side-by-side with people whose lives have been shredded by poverty, by drugs, by depression, by years of dependence on welfare, by violence and by just plain neglect. And given the decades of abandonment by the CHA and the city, the middle-class families don’t have much faith in the government’s capacity to help piece together those shattered lives. There finally is a plan to redevelop the vacant public housing site in Kenwood-Oakland, and to create a mixed-income community. But, warns Newsome, “If we don’t deal with [the issues that plague some public housing families], this new housing will end up just like before. You’ve just changed where they live, not how they live.”

This is a critical juncture for the transformation plan. Demolition is well under way. As I write, five buildings are being razed; as many as 13 more are scheduled to come down by the end of the year. How the city and the CHA handle the families uprooted by this process will speak to their ability to pull this off; it will speak to their ability, as Newsome says, to change how people live. Daley has publicly urged private companies to hire public housing residents. And the CHA has set aside $6 million for a program called the Service Connector that will direct residents to the appropriate social services. But the agency has reduced its workforce from 2,622 to 459, and is essentially overseeing its own demise. The Service Connector seems woefully understaffed. In Stateway, for example, there are two caseworkers for the 350 families there.

Moreover, other resources are limited. Substance abuse, for example, touches many public housing families. Yet there are so few drug treatment beds for people without private health insurance that one public health agency routinely refers addicts to hospital psychiatric wards.

An official close to the transformation plan told me, “The CHA still hasn’t figured out the human piece. You just can’t move people around like deck chairs on a ship.” A private developer who is building at one of the sites is concerned that with demolition moving so fast, the CHA will lose contact with the displaced families and thus lose any ability to make a difference in their lives. “That’s the sad part of it,” he said. “They’re going to miss an opportunity again.” The CHA, in response to such concerns, is about to hire a former U.S. attorney, Thomas P. Sullivan, as a sort of in-house watchdog to audit the relocation process.

Rosemary Gamble, the squatter, now has a job, working security for the CTA. It pays $7.50 an hour. She also has six more people living with her–another daughter and her five children. She’s still hoping she can find something in the private market that she can afford. The CHA also recently began a pilot program at Stateway to help find housing for those living there illegally.

Then there’s Gwendolyn Hull. Her case would seem to be a straightforward one: She refused to play by the rules so there are consequences. But maybe it’s not that simple.

Hull had received a notice to appear in court, but didn’t go. There, she could have challenged her eviction order, presenting evidence, like the videotape her son made of the building’s condition. “It’s sad they let it get out of hand,” said Vanessa Dorsey, who at the time was the private manager who oversaw this development. “I’m sorry she got evicted, but one thing she did not do was take this process seriously.”

But not without reason. Until recently, the CHA didn’t take this process seriously either. The agency issued eviction notices as a matter of course whenever anyone was behind in rent, which happened frequently since residents’ public aid checks often didn’t arrive when the rent was due. A former CHA executive told me that in the late 1980s, the agency had a backlog of more than 10,000 eviction notices. “When I got that 14-day notice,” Hull told me, “I thought it was about nothing ‘cause everybody got it. Nobody got evicted. Some people just paid their rent late.”

Ironically, it was the tattered remains of Hull’s community that came to her assistance. The day of her eviction, a neighbor came by and removed the screws on the grate covering her kitchen window. Later that afternoon, after her door had been nailed shut, Hull removed the grate and crawled back into the apartment. Another neighbor helped her move the furniture back in. After she got the door working again, a janitor on his own time fixed her lock, which had been made inoperable during the eviction. Her son William, who spent two years at Illinois State University and now works full time, helped her out financially.

Last summer, the CHA vacated Hull’s building and began demolition. Hull and her three youngest children have since been living off the generosity of family and friends. They have stayed with William and with a former neighbor from Stateway. They also have spent nights at the Greyhound bus station. According to one friend she stayed with, Hull periodically called shelters looking for a vacancy. But there are at this writing no available beds for families. I’ve tried to find Hull, in part to ask her if there might be other reasons she didn’t pay her rent, but without success.

The CHA is not accustomed to wrestling with the often snarled lives of its residents. One could argue that the agency should do nothing more than be a responsible landlord. You don’t pay your rent, you’re out. But this is an opportunity to go beyond the bricks and mortar; otherwise, a community’s hardships are simply being pushed into the laps of others. To be fair, there are no easy answers here. Even intensive intervention in someone’s life doesn’t guarantee success. But if the CHA and the city don’t try, are they, as one person I spoke with suggested, performing a kind of social triage, in which some people just won’t make the cut?

Shortly after Hull’s eviction, Rose Patrick, who at the time was the building’s president, expressed disappointment with her neighbor. Why, she asked rhetorically, didn’t she challenge her eviction in court? Why did she stop paying her rent? But then Patrick, who’s a no- nonsense woman, paused. “You gonna put her out, and she got kids. They coulda did something. But they don’t want to help people.”

I find myself wondering how historians will view this time. Some 40 years ago, when much of the city’s public housing was under construction, a local newspaperman, full of bubbling optimism, wrote that “squalor is going out of fashion.” It would be too easy to lull ourselves into the same thinking today.


Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2018, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved