The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

WHEN I GROW UP

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember that question being posed to me both by teachers and my parents. The interesting thing was not my answer (it changed over the years many times) but the question’s construction itself.

It’s a different question than might have been asked of a child in the projects in New York’s Harlem. There the question could have been, “What do you want to be if you grow up?” If you do not believe the validity of this point, spend a little time with those who have grown up in the projects in one of our inner cities – and survived.

In Chicago, the largest public housing project was Robert Taylor Homes – in fact it was the largest such development in the country. Another public housing project was Cabrini-Green. Although the show, “Good Times” was filmed in Los Angeles, the hallways bore a striking similarity to the inside of this second project.

Robert Taylor Homes was designed to accommodate about 11,000 residents but at it’s height had well more than twice that number living there. According to Census Bureau data, more than 90% of the residents were unemployed and had only public aid as a source of income.

The crime rate in “The Homes” was staggering – with rival gangs fighting to control turf for their drug businesses. I remember one Monday seeing a report on the local news that over 300 shooting incidents (presumably gang related) had occurred leaving 28 people dead the previous weekend.

It is interesting that public housing took the turn it did – what some have called its ghettofication – where the overwhelming majority of residents were African-Americans. That is far different than when the building projects began in earnest under FDR who was concerned about the number of “tent cities” that had sprung up as a result of the Great Depression.

Initially, public housing was meant to accommodate working poor blue and white collar residents. As the economy began to recover, the Federal government made a requirement that no person could pay more than twenty-five per cent of their income to live in these developments. Superior accommodations at the same cost were available privately, so working-class people left the projects and found alternate housing.

The conditions in the projects carried over to the variant of language that it’s residents spoke. I would ask an acquaintance, “Where do you live?” A resident of the projects, rather than naming a street or address would respond, “I’m staying at…” (Impermanence). Another simple question, “How old are you?,” would be answered, “I just made …” (As though every additional birthday were an accomplishment – perhaps an unexpected one).

For many years Chicago continued as the most segregated city in the north. Public housing made its ugly contribution to that phenomenon. No person who didn’t have to would ever go into the projects because they simply were too dangerous. Even the police kept away, which in part explains the level of violence that existed there.

Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green have now been torn down. But they left a scar on the American landscape and psyche – covering a deep wound from which we have yet to recover. My hope is that some day we will.

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Comments on: "WHEN I GROW UP" (4)

  1. I grew up in a city outside of St. Louis MO. In the 60’s and 70’s, inner city St. Louis was very similar to Chicago. Removing the skyscraper housing projects greatly reduced the crime rate in the 80’s.

    Upon reflection, I don’t think I can attribute the actual reduction crime due to their removal. It may have been coincidental since the rest of the city was undergoing a change. Whatever the reason, I love visiting both downtown Chicago and St. Louis today.

    • In high school in NYC I participated in a program to help tutor kids who lived in the projects in Harlem. My five students were volunteers. I taught remedial reading. Only one of the five children had even one book in their home. When we concentrate a group of people in a small area, whether poor or wealthy, there is a tendency to believe that’s the way the whole world lives – having no frame of reference other than their own experience. To me, that is the deadly effect of what public housing has done to many of our citizens.

  2. I grew up on the Southeast side of Chicago and as a young adult one of my best friends at work lived in Altgeld Gardens, off of 130th street, just west of the Calumet Expressway. I always wondered why he chose to live there because we made the same amount of money and he could of easily been able to afford to live somewhere else. I used to go over to his apartment there after work sometimes and was surprised at how stark and barren the construction of these projects were on the inside. Cinder block interior walls that were just painted over. I realize that they were made cheaply so the costs were kept down and the fact that people who were on welfare could afford to live there. I also knew that him and his significant other chose to get divorced so she could get public assistance and food stamps for them and their 3 adorable daughters. They were abusing the system to basically get free rent and groceries. Despite the fact that Altgeld Gardens was one of the most dangerous places in that area for shootings and gang activity and that my friend chose to stay there with his family was quite perplexing for me. But I guess when greed and the ease the state of Illinois’ welfare department made it for them to use the system, some people are willing to put themselves and the one’s they love in harm’s way.

    • It’s hard for me to understand why anyone – particularly someone who didn’t need to – would choose to put their family at risk by living in an unsafe environment. But we all make choices and follow our own paths. Obviously, neither of us would have gone down the road your friend took.

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