On The Inside Looking Out

3517-19 South Federal building known as

This essay was broadcast on “Eight Forty-Eight” (WBEZ, 91.5 FM) on March 26, 2002. Click here to listen to the audio version.

I recently ascended to the seventeenth floor of 3517-19 South Federal, a doomed public housing high-rise at the Stateway Gardens development. The elevator wasn’t working, so I climbed the stairs and had the mountaineer’s satisfaction of earning the view. Known as “The Kingdom,” 3517-19 affords one of the great skyline panoramas available anywhere in the city—an almost unbroken vista extending from the west side to Navy Pier.

That view is about to disappear, for the Kingdom is at this moment being demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” Within a few weeks, all that will remain of this structure that once housed 230 families will be a large vacant lot. One by one, CHA high-rises throughout the city are being razed. Soon we will no longer be compelled, as we drive from here to there, to confront the questions they pose.

But what of the views of the city from these buildings—the perspectives from the inside looking out—that will be lost when all the high-rises have come down?

From the seventeenth floor of the Kingdom, Stateway Gardens seems a fixed point amid movement. The traffic on 35th Street and State Street is constant. The “green line” of the el, runs alongside State. A series of parallel transportation lines reinforce the boundaries of the development: The METRA tracks along Federal convey commuters to and from their homes in the suburbs. The Dan Ryan Expressway, a great river of cars and trucks, continuously flows by. At its center, between north and southbound lanes, the “red line” of the el moves at a fixed speed with sovereign disregard for stop-and-go congestion on the expressway. And on the far side of the Ryan, major rail lines still carry freight and passengers to and from the city. These are the tracks that in the heyday of the stockyards, in an endless cycle, brought frightened animals to their deaths and carried away meat to hungry consumers.

They also brought wave after wave of migrants from the South to “the promised land” in search of jobs. I once heard Congressman Danny Davis remark that when he first came to Chicago, “You could wake up in the morning, roll over in bed, think job and you’d have a job.”

Unemployment at Stateway is estimated at roughly 90%. This figure is deceptive in that it does not reflect the economy of hustle in which many labor—an economy that includes not only the drug dealer but also the junk man, the alley mechanic, the peddler, the woman doing hair weaves, the man selling nachos from his apartment, and so on. But it does suggest the extent of the catastrophe that struck this part of the South Side.

As a white child growing up in the 1950s and 60s at the edge of the black South Side, the air I breathed was gritty with coal dust and laced with toxic gases released by the steel mills to the south. On summer nights, when the wind blew from the west, it carried the sickly sweet smell of the slaughterhouses, and we inhaled air humid with blood. These were, I realize now, the odors of work.

It always amazes me to encounter analyses of this or that aspect of inner city life—family dynamics, drug use, street gangs, or whatever—in which the catastrophic impact of the disappearance of work is not mentioned. Before the catastrophe, the land on which Stateway stands was the most densely populated area of the city, the heart of the old Black Belt, the place to which Southern blacks came for jobs and found jobs. After the catastrophe, it came to be known, on the basis of the 1990 census, as the single poorest neighborhood in America. This is a distinction some residents contest. My friend Francine Washington, president of the resident council, always corrects me when I speak of poverty at Stateway.

“We’re not poor,” she says. “We’re broke. There’s a difference. To be poor is a condition of the spirit. To be broke is a temporary inconvenience.”

This is an important distinction. Yet the fact remains that Stateway is, by any conventional measure, a very broke place.

We have become accustomed to talking about isolated urban poverty. This is, in some respects, a comforting formulation. It suggests that the poor somehow pulled up stakes and moved away from the rest of us. Looking out at the world from the Kingdom, one cannot easily maintain this fiction, for “the poorest neighborhood in America” is surrounded by powerful institutional neighbors.

To the west, on the other side of the Dan Ryan Expressway, like a space ship hovering in the air, so close yet so remote, is Comiskey Park, the home of the Chicago White Sox, surrounded by acres of parking. The contrast with Wrigleyville, the neighborhood around Wrigley Field, is telling. A defining image of Wrigley Field (lovingly and repeatedly shown in virtually every broadcast of a Cubs home game) is the scene of neighbors on nearby rooftops picnicking and enjoying each other’s company while watching the game. During White Sox games, by contrast, camera angles are carefully choreographed to avoid showing the public housing high-rises across the expressway.

On the other side of 35th Street, the Illinois Institute of Technology extends to the north. Flush with money for development of its campus and environs, IIT not long ago considered moving to the suburbs but in the end decided to stay put in the expectation that the neighborhood would change. We sometimes joke that we have discovered the precise location of “the digital divide”: it’s 35th Street—with IIT on one side and Stateway on the other.

To the east, at 35th and Michigan, is the new administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department. The $125 million, 100,000 square foot facility is said to be “state of the art.” Residents who toured the headquarters when it first opened reported being shown surveillance equipment that, in the words of one, “let’s them see everything that’s going on at Stateway.” Two blocks away, in the open air lobbies at Stateway, drug dealers, bundled against the cold, hawk their wares and sing out warnings to each other when they see a police car approaching.

Across the street from the police headquarters is De La Salle High School. An interior courtyard contains a statue of the First Mayor Daley in the posture of a sprightly leprechaun. He attended De La Salle, as did the current Mayor Daley, who was a student there when the first generation of families took up residence at Stateway Gardens up the street. What, I wonder, did the Mayor see during those years, as he went back and forth to school?

From the top floor of the Kingdom, one looks out on an intimate landscape that contains great social distances—a geography created not only by where we place expressways but by how we use language and deploy our imaginations. It’s a perspective from which certain questions become immediate. Are the current demolitions the expression of a moral awakening? Are they the necessary prelude to addressing injustices from which we have long averted our eyes? Or are they the culmination of such patterns of denial—a machinery for disappearing the victims of those injustices, so that they will no longer intrude upon our vision and trouble our consciences?

Poor—or as Francine would have it, broke—communities such as Stateway aren’t isolated. They’re abandoned. They can’t afford to be isolated. It requires a large investment of individual and collective resources to insulate a community fro
m the conditions of life around it. Looking back at the city from the seventeenth floor of the Kingdom, the question is inescapable: who has isolated themselves from whom?