Imagine being sent with hundreds of other families to start a settlement on a new planet. Upon arrival, you learn that you will have to develop your own law enforcement and your own commerce. You soon suffer from severe shortages of basic necessities. Your living facilities and life support deteriorate over the years, as the powers back on Earth decide that the space-settlement program was probably a mistake and cut their losses by refusing to send new materials. The physical environment crumbles, and powerful lawless elements take over the settlement. But the settlers never cease to try both to maintain contact with Earth and to resolve their problems themselves. Eventually, though, Earth declares that the settlers have failed, and the settlement program is recalled.
This science-fiction scenario wouldn’t seem farfetched to the former residents of Robert Taylor Homes, a 4,500-family public-housing development in Chicago. Those buildings are now being torn down under a federal mandate for all local authorities to assess the “viability” of their public-housing stock. Washington is encouraging cities to demolish high-rise projects in the hopes of eliminating the social and economic problems of their residents–or at least removing those problems from view.
Columbia sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh spent several years during the 1990s at Robert Taylor Homes researching his dissertation. The resulting book, American Project, documents the lives of the people who lived at Robert Taylor, understanding them not as passive victims of poverty, nor as a socially disorganized community, but rather as a group of people who navigated serious adversity by turning to a complex network of mostly internal institutions–everything from tenant groups to social-service providers to gangs. Where public housing critics usually see communities of victims or dysfunction, Venkatesh compellingly testifies to a rich and complex society whose members had very good, if painful, reasons for the choices and alliances they made every day.
American Project lacks the narrative power of a good ethnography, but it does go far beyond most studies of its kind in connecting the community it surveys to the social forces that so greatly determine its fate. We are left in no doubt that Robert Taylor Homes was inextricably linked to–and abandoned by–larger social forces and institutions, and that those had a defining impact on residents’ lives. Local service providers refused to enter the political minefield of gang problems. The Chicago Housing Authority never kept up with maintenance and turned its back on gang problems. And the Chicago police often refused to enter the development because the wide open spaces made them sitting ducks for gang shootings.
Ultimately, gangs emerged as the most powerful institution at the Taylor Homes. They had the economic power to dominate the residents, and unlike tenants who struggled to solve problems by working within the system, gangs gained control by not hesitating to break rules and laws and resort to violence. The vibrant underground economy of the projects, which provided essential services to residents in the absence of legitimate businesses, was at the mercy of the gangs, who demanded money to allow the sellers to stay in business. Since any tenants engaging in these illicit commercial enterprises would face eviction, they were in no position to complain. Moreover, the relationship of residents to gang members was complex and contradictory, since the latter were often the boyfriends, sons and relatives of residents and frequently paid the rent or bought the groceries.
Venkatesh portrays the dilemma community leaders faced. They tried to win concessions from gang leaders, so some semblance of safety could return. Yet in working with gangs, the tenants were actually helping them ensure a stable environment for drug trafficking. Venkatesh shows his disagreements with tenant leaders most clearly when he condemns those who did not demand an end to drug trafficking as a basis for negotiations with gangs. The book is at its weakest in showing that such a demand was even remotely possible; it seems clear that citywide drug entrepreneurs would have laughed at such a concession. And while the impact of gangs on the development can’t be overstated, Venkatesh documents only the intricate relationships and pacts between gang and tenant leaders, without ever giving a clear sense of how the vast majority of residents coexisted with the gangs.
Still, in the vacuum created through the abandonment of the development by all but its residents, it is astonishing how persistently those tenant-activists worked to control the environment. From the beginning, Robert Taylor tenants organized to get repairs, provide each other with services, maintain safety and support local entrepreneurship. The tragedy of Robert Taylor Homes and other abandoned communities is that the tenants ultimately failed in managing problems not of their own making, and were forced to leave after years of trying to build a viable community. Venkatesh points out that the tenants themselves were deeply divided about demolition–about half opposed it, while the other half couldn’t wait to get out.
As cities tear down public housing, in a sense we are trying to eliminate more than structures. The razing of the buildings serves to erase the problems as well as the creative human struggles of the communities from our collective memory–an eclipse that Venkatesh has managed to prevent for one community.
Heléne Clark is director of ActKnowledge, a community development research organization at the City University of New York Graduate Center.