This piece was orginally broadcast on October 29, 1999 on the Eight Forty-Eight program on WBEZ Chicago (91.5 FM). An audio version is available at in RealAudio and starts at the 18 minute mark. [To play RealAudio files, download RealPlayer 8]
Recently a friend asked a favor. Several years earlier his family had moved out of the Robert Taylor Homes to a dilapidated house in Englewood. The boyfriend of one of his sisters had gotten into a confrontation in front of the house with a local gang member over a dice game. Guns were drawn. The boyfriend shot and killed the gang member, then fled. Now, my friend explained, his family–a household of women and children–feared reprisals. Would I help them move?
Early in the morning, before the street came alive, several of us arrived in pickup trucks to move the family out. We discovered that they had reason to be afraid. Someone had spray painted on the house, and a memorial to the fallen gang member blocked their front gate: a sheet of plywood festooned with balloons and plastic flowers and sentimental condolence cards. There were also roughly a hundred empty beer bottles neatly arrayed on the sidewalk in front of the plywood memorial.
The family had packed their possessions–clothes, children’s toys, kitchen utensils, and so on–in black plastic garbage bags. Using the back entrance so as not to disturb the memorial in front, we loaded their furniture and garbage bags on the trucks. We then drove several blocks to another rental property that was in scarcely better condition. My friend described the woman who lived there as “someone who’s always doing favors for others.” She had agreed to store their possessions in her basement, while the family split up to live with various friends and search for new housing.
The damp basement was orderly but overstuffed. There were boxes and piles of black garbage bags similar to those we were hauling in. One room was full of furniture. Tables and sofas were stacked in such a way as to maximize the space; a row of soiled mattresses, smelling of mildew, stood side by side like books on a shelf. Every square inch was put to use.
The basement, we discovered, contained the personal effects of three other families. This was the ultimate safety net, I realized. How frail it seemed. I didn’t know the other families whose possessions were stored there; I can’t tell you their stories. But I do know that all over the city there are people leading essentially nomadic existences, living off the grid and under the radar, uprooting their children again and again, as they move in with relatives or squat in abandoned buildings.
I often think of that Englewood basement these days, as the Chicago Housing Authority’s plan for what it terms “the transformation of public housing” is debated. Under the plan, all CHA high-rises in the city would be demolished within the next five years.
“Where will all the people go?” ask those concerned about the fate of residents living in the public housing communities slated for demolition. One might also ask: Where have all the people gone?
From the perspective of a car driving past on the Dan Ryan Expressway, the South State Street corridor of public housing–once known as the largest concentration of poverty in the country–now resembles a ghost town. Over the last few years, vacancy rates have risen sharply, as residents have been relocated, evicted, or have simply drifted away. Despite a waiting list of tens of thousands, CHA has not filled vacancies. The high-rises of the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens line State Street like an armada of landlocked ships abandoned to their fate. In some of the buildings, virtually all the windows have been boarded up, leaving the impression of vertical chess boards at the moment of endgame. If this is, as some have suggested, a war of attrition, then the residents are clearly losing.
There is no single answer to the question of where people have gone. In the case of Stateway Gardens, the development I know best, some have relocated and are pleased with the outcome; they have improved their circumstances. Others sought new housing only to discover that there are worse places to live than public housing; they long to return to Stateway. Many have simply disappeared.
Then there are those who remain, those who don’t want to leave. The high-rises that look empty from the Dan Ryan are in fact deeply inhabited by people for whom they are home and neighborhood and beloved community. In resisting displacement, these residents are fighting not only for their homes but to remain visible as citizens.
When a tornado or a flood ravages a town, people respond in a range of different ways. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether we should expect more from our public policies than from a natural disaster, that’s what it’s like in various CHA developments these days: the dismantling of public housing has set in motion an invisible refugee crisis.
Judging by the public debate about the future of CHA, many people seem to assume that residents displaced from these communities will either find better housing or will end up homeless. But the reality I see from day to day is something quite different. It’s as if people pass from the hugely visible high-rises, the sight of which abrades our consciences, into an invisible dimension that expands to absorb them, and then they disappear. It was only by chance that I happened upon that basement in Englewood. How many other such basements are there in the city? I am haunted by this question. And by our inability to answer it.