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Richard J. (second from left) tours a new public housing development in 1968.
Undoing the Mess
The dismal and familiar story of Chicago’s public housing cannot be blamed entirely on Richard J. Daley. By the time he took office in 1955, the CHA had already built a third of the city’s 185 public housing high-rises, and 38 other projects were on the drawing board. Until the 1950s, these towers were widely seen as enlightened modernist responses to poverty, not as warehouses for the poor. Abner Mikva recalls Daley I once telling him: “‘I’m a liberal. Look at all the public housing I built.’ It was almost as if he hadn’t kept up with the times. Public housing was a liberal idea—we were all for it in the thirties and forties.”
When I asked Daley II about his father’s troubled public housing legacy, he got defensive: “He never proposed high-rises.” The federal government did, he says. “That was never my dad’s idea. It’s another myth.”
To prove his point, the mayor’s office provided me with a copy of a transcript from a 1959 congressional hearing where his father lobbied for federal funding for walkup row houses. But by then, Daley I had already gone forward with what were to become some of the most notorious public housing complexes the country had ever seen: the eight massive towers of Stateway Gardens totaling 1,644 units and the Cabrini-Green Extension—15 mid- and high-rises, totaling 1,925 units—both in 1958. The Robert Taylor Homes, 28 concrete buildings housing 27,000 people, were completed in 1962.
Misguided federal stipulations about rent and benefits soon contributed to driving out employed tenants and married couples. But if Daley I didn’t like the federal government’s public housing mandates, why didn’t he do more to challenge them? “He was a sixties Democrat,” explains Bill Daley. “Pump more money into stuff, or get more people jobs. Short-term fixes.”
Daley I’s critics offer another explanation: His Machine wanted to contain the city’s rapidly growing black population within the areas where it already resided, the so-called Black Belt of the South and West sides. “If he would’ve spread blacks into white neighborhoods, you would’ve had, literally, riots,” says Crawford. “So Old Man Daley saw the value of the high-rises’ being able to keep blacks hemmed in, while at the same time they would be easy to control politically by controlling the vote in all of the buildings.”
Figures provided by Dick Simpson show that between 1955 and 1971, the CHA built 10,256 apartments—all but 63 in black neighborhoods. “If you look at where the Robert Taylor Homes were placed, where Cabrini-Green was placed, and where some of the other huge high-rises were, they did, ultimately, form a wall between black and white, between poor communities and affluent communities,” says Lois Wille, the prizewinning journalist. But Daley I refused to acknowledge a problem. “We have no ghettos in Chicago,” he famously asserted in 1963.
The Daley I biographer Adam Cohen argues that “segregation worked for Daley,” in the sense that it upheld his political machine and put something of a brake on white flight. “That said, it came at a huge cost to the city. Due in large part to Daley’s policies, Chicago is, even to this day, an incredibly segregated city.”
Simpson points out that over the past 40 years Chicago has slowly become more integrated. “We’ve gone from a segregation index of 94 to 82,” he says. (The segregation index is used to measure the degree of racial mixing; the highest score of 100 means every city block is completely segregated, either all black or all white; a zero means the races on every block are in exact proportion to their citywide ratio.) “All you can say about it is, it’s gotten better.”
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By 1995, conditions in Chicago’s public housing had fallen into such horrific decay that the federal government had to step in and oversee administration of the projects. At the time, 11 of the nation’s 15 poorest neighborhoods were Chicago public housing communities.
Four years later, Daley II took back control—a politically risky but much-applauded move that drew plenty of contrasts to his father. In November 1999, the CHA launched its ten-year, $1.5-billion Plan for Transformation. To date, the city says it has renovated or redeveloped 16,202 public housing units, nearly two-thirds of the total 25,000 units called for in the plan. It is also five years, probably more, behind schedule. A Tribune investigation published in July found that only 30 percent of the demolition and replacement has been completed, and that half of the new public housing units were built before the plan began. In addition, more than 56,000 former public housing residents are still waiting for new replacement homes.
The writer Alex Kotlowitz, whose best-selling book There Are No Children Here chronicled life in Chicago’s public housing in the late 1980s, says the Plan for Transformation has increasingly sent Chicago’s poorest residents to the bordering suburbs, resulting in a ring of poverty around the city—similar to what has happened in the suburbs of Paris. “On one hand, I admire the audacity of the plan,” says Kotlowitz. “On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s being implemented well.”
Leon Despres says Daley II shouldn’t get much credit for tearing down one of Chicago’s biggest fiascoes. “This mayor didn’t open the gates,” says Despres. “Time just did.”
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Luigi Mendicino