LectureHOPE: Twenty Years of Change

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The demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes

William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology Sudhir Venkatesh (yes, the one who pretended to be a Gang Leader for a Day) organized a group of young idealists, called them the Urban Research Workshop, set them loose in cities like Mexico City, Paris, and Chicago to research public housing, and wound up with this — an event featuring an exhibit of public housing research by the URW, a screening of Venkatesh’s film DisLocation, and a panel discussion featuring Carla Shedd, Assistant Sociology Professor, Catherine Fennel, Assistant Anthropology Professor, and Sarah Martin, the Head of the Grant Houses Tenants Association.  Free and Impartial Journalist Anna Kelner gives you the highlights:

“Any chance I get I show this film, just to make the funders happy.” Sudhir Venkatesh’s film DisLocation chronicles the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago’s South Side. Venkatesh explains that national HOPE VI legislation passed in the 1990’s aimed to improve the lives of residents by demolishing old buildings and dispersing poor families into better neighborhoods. The film features interviews with longtime residents, 1960’s footage of politicians discussing their original hopes for public housing, and dramatic shots of objects like eviction letters, Bibles, and cockroaches.  DisLocation aims to take the public housing debate out of the intellectual realm and ground it in the stories of the people most affected by it.

“We’re so close, yet there’s not a lot of interaction between the two places.” Becky Davies, CC ’10 and URW alumna, spoke briefly about her attempts to establish a community garden at the Grant Houses on 125th Street. Later Sarah Martin, the president of the Grant Houses Tenants Association, told the audience about her 50 years of experience in the development.

“Public housing in Chicago and New York represent two very different visions of the built environment and how it should be organized.” Catherine Fennel gave an overview of Chicago and New York’s distinct approaches to “how we give individuals the resources to be where they want to be.”  While Chicago took HOPE VI grants to demolish most of its projects in favor of mixed-income housing and rental vouchers, New York’s public housing has always been scattered and often integrated into middle class neighborhoods, where it has mostly survived attempts at demolition.

Issues surrounding “Post welfare citizenship” and “the power of place” grounded Catherine Fennell’s discussion on the movement to establish a Public Housing Museum in Chicago’s West Side.  Inspired by the Holocaust Museum, it would preserve the Alba Homes to educate visitors on the “love, squalor, and resilience” that museum supporters say has characterizes the public housing experience.

“You couldn’t tell the co-op across the street from Grant Houses.” Sarah Martin remembers what the Grant Houses were like when they were built across the street from a high-rise, middle-income co-op called Morningside Gardens. Martin attributed the decline in the Grant Houses and the public housing system to factors as diverse as budget cuts and the increased numbers of homeless housed in the system. Martin saw what was once a clean, safe, affordable place  to raise a family transform into a drug-riddled nightmare, and, ideological differences aside, she noted, “what happened in Chicago could happen anywhere.”

As the event closed, audience members asked questions, URW participant (and – full disclosure – Bwog Senior Editor) Liz Naiden explained the group’s current attempts to preserve a resident-written community newspaper on the South Side, and Venkatesh himself delivered a memorable anecdote on the pitfalls of activism. After a group of young socialists decided to chain themselves to a South Side public housing unit slotted for demolition, residents gathered in astonishment and asked, “why are you trying to save this building?  We don’t even want to live in this building.” Hence, Vankatesh explained, the importance of what the URW tries to do: research and advocate for public housing residents while respecting their perspectives on their own homes and communities.

Photo via URW’s South Street Journal Archive. For more info on URW email urbanresearchworkshop@gmail.com.


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