“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.