My mission—with multimedia help from my colleagues David Eads, Patricia Evans, and Jason Reblando—is to place and ground the conversation that will unfold at this conference.
Let’s begin by locating the eight square blocks of the title. The coordinates are 35th and 39th, State and Federal: the footprint of the Stateway Gardens public housing development. Eight high-rise buildings—a total of 1,644 family apartments—on 33 acres. At full occupancy, the legal population was roughly 5,000. Others lived there off the lease. And then there were those who didn’t collect their mail or lay their heads on the pillow at Stateway, yet regarded it, in some sense, as home. I am one of them.
I first came to Stateway Gardens in the early 1990’s, following a set of moral intuitions where they led. As a citizen, I was moved to explore what it might mean to conduct oneself as a neighbor under conditions of urban apartheid. As a writer, I felt the need to earn the right to use certain words. I was, in short, deeply but actively confused. Over time and by degrees, the Stateway community embraced me with hospitality and kindness that changed the course of my life. Day after day, year after year, I kept coming back. I came back, because I found useful work to do. Because I formed sustaining friendships. Because I located a place to stand where I could resist the gravitational pull of the official narrative about inner city neighborhoods and see with my own eyes. That perspective, that view from the ground, became for me a personal necessity—a form of inquiry and intellectual accountability.
Until recently, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes to the south, together with several smaller developments to the north, constituted the so-called “State Street Corridor.” It was said to be the largest concentration of public housing—and poverty—in the nation. Chicago’s Soweto. A city within the city.
Yet this image of a world apart misleads. We are accustomed to talking about isolated urban poverty. That is a comforting formulation. It suggests the poor somehow pulled up stakes and moved away from the rest of us. This is one of the ways we use language to distance ourselves from conditions in which we are deeply implicated. Looking out at the city from the upper stories of one of the Stateway high-rises, it was impossible to maintain the fiction that this was an isolated community.
To the west, on the other side of the Dan Ryan Expressway, is U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. To the north, across 35th Street, is the Illinois Institute of Technology. Two blocks to the east is De LaSalle High School, a well-endowed parochial school, attended by both Mayor Daley I and II. Across from De LaSalle and a block from Stateway, at 35th and Michigan, is the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department.
Stateway Gardens was not an isolated community. It was an abandoned community—abandoned by public and private institutions, near and far.
Abandonment states a relationship and suggests forms of accountability. Yet, to a remarkable degree, conditions that should be the basis for calling various institutions to account are evoked by those very institutions in support of their agendas. Images of the physical conditions in abandoned communities are mobilized in support of the argument that the neighborhood is dead, that any form of development would be better than this. In effect, power declares empty the places it wants to appropriate. It asserts that no one lives there and hence that no one will be hurt by the development it intends to impose. The vacant lot left by demolition is the emblematic expression of this logic: not a place with a history, not someone’s home, but a blank canvas, tabula rasa, raw potential awaiting “development.” Similarly, the failure to maintain public housing buildings is not only an expression of neglect but also serves the function of making the development look like a ghost town as a prelude to its destruction. Among the various kinds of power the state exercises in this context is that of a formidable conceptual artist using the built environment to represent a set of propositions about the world.
In 1995 the federal government seized control of the Chicago Housing Authority from the City of Chicago on the grounds of gross corruption and failure to serve the needs of the tenants. Several years later, the City regained control of the CHA and soon launched what it calls “The Plan for Transformation”—a set of policies under which high-rise family developments have been demolished and “mixed income communities” are being constructed on their sites.
As part of the Plan, the Stateway high-rises, one by one, have been razed to the ground. The final building is coming down at this moment.
The demolition of a public housing high-rise is a spectacle. It begins slowly. At once monumental and doomed, the building is gradually laid open, exposing the domestic spaces of the families that once lived there. At a certain point in the process, as rebar breaks through concrete like bones through flesh, the scene evokes remembered images of terrible violence. Toward the end, oddly shaped remnants stand like the ruins of a dead civilization or strange natural formations. Finally, the rich, intricate weave of a singular community is reduced to several piles of materials: concrete to be recycled, metal with salvage value, a miscellany destined for the dump. Its work done, the demolition crew departs, leaving behind an expanse of urban prairie.
Having witnessed this scene many times at Stateway and other Chicago public housing communities, I have come to think of it as the construction of a vacant lot. A necessary condition for the creation of what the CHA and various civic and philanthropic institutions are pleased to call, without apparent embarrassment, “new communities.”
Essential to this process of erasure is the renaming of places. Stateway Gardens is now Park Boulevard. (Almost all the names of the so-called “new communities” are variations on the name “Pleasantville.” ) The Ida B. Wells development is now Oakwood Shores. Think about that: what does it mean to change the name of a community named after a black journalist who courageously investigated and reported on lynching—to Oakwood Shores?
The underlying logic of “The Plan for Transformation” was perfectly expressed by a billboard promoting Park Boulevard that appeared several years ago at the corner of 35th and State. The sign was a montage of photographic images: a boy blowing on a dried dandelion, a grandfather with his arm draped around his grandson, a little girl held aloft by strong, loving arms. All the figures were conveniently racially ambiguous. Lightly superimposed upon the images were a series of words: “family, dreams, life, diversity, laughter, happiness, hope, fun, together, learning, independence, sharing, success.” Four words were in a darker font than the rest. They occupied the foreground and formed the phrase:
This message was meant to be read with reference to the acres of vacant land created by demolition to the south of the billboard. It was intended to promote the idea that the developers would create on this blank slate a new community embracing the qualities evoked by the words on the sign. The inescapable subtext was that those words did not apply to the generations of Stateway residents for whom this place had been home. The logic of redevelopment was necessarily blind to the forms of community, meaning and beauty they had created on this land.
* * * *
On an afternoon in the mid-1990s, when Stateway Gardens was still intact, I noticed a young African-American woman on State Street. She appeared to be a middle-class professional. And she looked shell-shocked. It turned out she was new to Chicago and had just been at the Art Institute where she had seen the painting “Many Mansions” by Kerry James Marshall. One in a series of canvases in which Marshall explores the circumstance that several derelict public housing developments in Chicago are named “gardens,” “Many Mansions” depicts black men, wearing white dress shirts and ties, gardening on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. Moved by the image, the woman had left the Art Institute and driven directly to South State Street where, stunned and disoriented, she collided with the full force of Marshall’s irony.
As a counterstatement to the logic of abandonment, as a way of remaining visible as citizens, we worked over the years at Stateway to make good on the name of the development: to cultivate—both literally and figuratively—the community as a garden. People around the South Side used to joke that when the Mayor started planting trees in your neighborhood, it was time to start packing—those trees would provide shade for future residents not you and your family. So we planted trees on the grounds of the development as a strategy of resistance. We engaged in what we called “grassroots public works.” We did insurgent maintenance of the buildings.
My colleagues in this effort, which we undertook with the support of the resident council, were primarily veterans of the street gangs, men who had labored in the criminal economy. We planted more than seventy trees on the grounds; mostly, red maples and honey locusts. We did the interior demolition of the historic Overton Building on State Street directly across from Stateway. And ultimately we trashed out the Stateway high-rises, removing truck box after truck box of garbage that the CHA had allowed to accumulate in vacant units over more than a decade.
We worked hard. We had fun. And, for a time, under conditions of abandonment, we exercised our freedom. We never fully realized the dream of making Stateway a garden, but we did get precious glimpses of what might be possible. For years, I couldn’t go anywhere on the South Side without being approached by gang members, some of them hard-core warlords, seeking jobs swinging sledgehammers and planting trees for between $7.50 and $12.00 an hour. Some would not have cut it on the job, but many, given the chance, would have—probably in roughly the same proportions as, say, college students.
Equally important, we demonstrated in the rhetoric of action that conditions in public housing reflected not some monolithic, irreversible system failure, as the logic of abandonment would have it, but a mass of discreet patterns of neglect and disregard that could be corrected by sustained care and attention.
An image from those years comes back to me now. On a cold November day, just before the ground hardened for the winter, we organized a big tree planting day at Stateway. At the corner of 35th and State, where we used to conduct monthly anti-violence vigils, we planted five honey locusts. They were large trees. It took several men to wrestle each tree ball into the hole. The moment the trees were upright, dozens of sparrows alighted on their branches, animating them with movement and song. It was as if in this abandoned, desolate place life had been awaiting its supporting forms.
* * * *
There is an exquisite passage in Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain in which she describes a man building a chair for his pregnant wife. Her theme is the compassion that resides in objects, the human regard and fellow feeling, the wish for the well-being of others, that is manifest in material culture. She asks the reader to imagine the man “in the action of making a chair—standing in one place, moving away, coming back, lifting then letting fall his arm, kneeling then standing, kneeling, half-kneeling, stooping, looking, extending his arm, pulling it back.” She then asks that we imagine “all these actions as occurring without a tool or block of wood before him.” It is, she writes, as if he dances before his pregnant wife “a dance entitled ‘body weight be gone.’”
In this lovely image, Scarry enables us to see a chair as an act of compassion given material form. Consider now the ways the material world can express contempt and disregard for others. Consider a Chicago public housing high-rise late in the regime of abandonment. In light of the chair image, it is perhaps worth noting that for the most of the time I was engaged at Stateway there was not a single bench on the grounds of the development on which, say, a woman carrying bags of groceries home to her family might rest for a moment. But that absence was the least of it: everywhere a resident looked the built environment reflected back contempt.
The ultimate expression of that contempt is the official diagnosis that attributes the conditions of the buildings to the moral failings of the residents rather than the criminal negligence of the landlord. This symbolic equation is the essence of “The Plan for Transformation”: the buildings are symbols of every urban ill, so their demolition is, in itself, progress.
Yet the community was not the buildings, any more than the handsome new bricks and mortar being built on former public housing sites by private developers constitute a community. Let’s try a variation on Elaine Scarry’s chair exercise. Let’s remove the physical structure of the abandoned high-rises and observe the dance of the community. A dance to bluesy rhythms of tough realism, robust humor, and resilient hope.
What a busy place it was. The unemployment rate at Stateway was said to be on the order of 90%. Yet somehow almost everyone seemed to be working. Some had conventional jobs. Many labored in the economy of hustle. I am not here referring only or primarily to the drug trade. There were all sorts of peddlers—selling food, clothes, trinkets, loose cigarettes, videos—and an enduring mystery I never got to the bottom of—white athletic socks. There were barbers and women who did hair weaves. There were alley mechanics and cable guys. There were master recyclers--junk men in pickup trucks and alley entrepreneurs with shopping carts. Virtually everyone had some sort of job or hustle.
Abandonment gave rise to forms of neighborliness and to an ethos of generosity that were enviable. As one resident put it, “Nobody cares about us but us.” And another: “If we have nothing, we share it with one another.”
It was an intensely political place. I have occasionally been described as “a voice for the voiceless.” This formulation offends me. It misstates the problem. The point is not that residents of abandoned communities are voiceless; it is that no one is listening. Man, do they have voices. The ongoing commentary about bureaucratic absurdities was bracing and often funny. How many times a day did I hear the refrain, “It don’t make no sense”? And the quality of discourse about the constellation of issues our mayor refers to with the phrase “gangs, drugs, guns” was far richer, more intelligent, and morally accountable than the prevailing discourse in the broader society.
Stateway was, in this respect, a nourishing environment for me as a writer: a place where people, unconstrained by the evasions and circumlocutions of power, tried to call things by their true names.
Above all, I miss the life of the street. The theater. The human comedy. The play of wit and affection. The truth is that qualities of urban life that people go to Paris and Venice in search of were daily available on South State Street.
The roots of that urbanity go deep. In the old Black Belt—razed to make way for public housing—this stretch of State Street was known as The Stroll. The building where my office was located stood near the site of the Dreamland Lounge where Louis Armstrong—and modern jazz—found their stride. The clubs have long been gone, but certain social forms persisted. A certain elegance and refinement in the way people would meet, greet, and “conversate.” It was delicious.
A question: how is it that three people sitting at a side walk café talking and drinking wine in a tony Chicago neighborhood is seen as the height of urbanity, while three people sitting on milk crates on a vacant lot or the grounds of a public housing development drinking wine and having the same conversation is urban blight?
Even toward the very end, when Stateway resembled a refugee camp, remnants of the Stroll survived in the vicinity of the Park District field house at 37th and State, universally known as the Center. People gravitated there to make contact, to get the news. A safe harbor to the end, it remained a place where the community was visible to itself.
One of the things I have learned over my years at Stateway—a lesson taught by the blues—is that life goes forward. I associate that perception with a moment in the demolition of one of the last Stateway buildings. The trees my colleagues and I had planted and older full growth trees that once shaded the Stroll had by then been uprooted to make way for “the new community.” As the building came down, the wrecking crew winnowed materials, forming large tangles of rebar comparable in scale to trees and large bushes. They drew flocks of birds to their twisted branches. Life goes forward. Life adapts.
And so it goes for my Stateway friends. Some are better off; some worse off; some have disappeared. The variables have less to do with social policy than with character, resourcefulness, mother wit, and fate. Whatever their individual situation, virtually all, even those who were eager to leave, mourn the loss of the community. I join them in their grief.
As I have celebrated some of what has been lost, I can imagine questions forming in some of your minds about my reliability as a witness. What, you may be asking yourselves, about gangs and drugs? If the buildings were removed, wouldn’t terrible things be exposed? Wouldn’t we see acts of cruelty, wretched conditions, scenes of degradation? Of course. Wouldn’t we find some children abused and neglected by adults? Of course. Wouldn’t we find some women violated and terrorized by men? Of course. Wouldn’t we find forms of commerce being practiced that exploit, poison, and corrupt the community? Of course. This was, after all, a human community. In other words, like other communities, it contained the deplorable and the noble, the cruel and the lovely.
Why is it then that we see only part of the spectrum of human possibility, when we consider communities such as Stateway Gardens? Why is it that the image of the gangbanger so often eclipses the rest of life? How did places like Stateway come to be seen less as communities than as loose criminal conspiracies? How did our perceptions of such places become so crude and one-dimensional? Whose interests are served by this dynamic?
As is no doubt now apparent, I have approached the themes of this conference obliquely. We are here to engage a set of issues about the impact of law enforcement polices and practices on inner city communities. My colleagues and I have offered these images in words and photographs in the hope that we all might enter the conversations that will occupy us today and tomorrow bearing in mind the possibility that the eight square blocks that were once Stateway Gardens were the site of a community as complex and mysterious, as mixed and unfathomable as any.
As Albert Murray put it thirty-seven years ago in The Omni-Americans, his spirited polemic against what he termed social scientific folklore, why is it so hard to grasp “something that is as obvious as the fact that human nature is no less complex and fascinating for being encased in dark skin”?
* * * *
Whatever else might be said about Chicago’s vertical ghetto, you could see it. As you moved through the city, it was difficult notto see public housing high-rises. Even registered in passing at the periphery of your vision as you drove by at 60 mph on the expressway, they posed questions, unsettled the mind, and abraded the conscience. The invisible ghetto fast replacing the high-rises allows us to move through the city unimpeded by moral friction and relieved of the danger of colliding with fundamental issues of social justice.
This restructuring of the city, it is important to recognize, is also remapping the geography of our moral imaginations—what we can see and what we can think, how issues are constructed and the parameters within which they are discussed.
The mission of this conference is to resist this tendency. It is to frame and engage the questions that have survived the demolition of Stateway Gardens and other abandoned communities.
Dr. Paul Farmer has observed:
Human rights violations are not accidents; they are not random in distribution or effects. Rights violations are, rather, symptoms of deeper pathologies of power and are linked intimately to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm. If assaults on dignity are anything but random in distribution or course, whose interests are served by the suggestion that they are haphazard?
Inquiries into the conditions underlying patterns of abuse must move against a powerful undertow. The costs of perception are high. It is easier to see assaults on human dignity as malfunctions of otherwise sound policies and institutions (the work perhaps of "a few bad apples") than as "symptoms of deeper pathologies of power."
This much is clear. Conditions of structural exclusion are ultimately enforced by violence: by particular blows inflicted by particular hands on particular bodies. That is our point of departure—the ground from which we take our bearings—as we now open “The View From The Ground” conference.
[Keynote address at University of Chicago Law School conference "The View From The Ground: Issues and Inquiries Arising From Eight Square Blocks of Chicago's South Side," April 20, 2007.]