Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Ruins of Progress

Ruins of one of the demolished Cabrini Green housing project highrises in Chicago.“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (from Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”)

For a change, I thought I might actually write something on planning…

The always-amazing BLDGBLOG has an article up on the demolition of the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. I’ve mentioned in other contexts that ruins feature somewhat prominently in my memories of Chicago. In a past life, I did some work in and around the Cabrini Green development, so I also have memories of the residents beginning to mobilise as they realised that the housing estate’s proximity to high-value land in Chicago’s North Shore would lead to pressures to displace their community. The BLDGBLOG story prompted me to backtrack through the recent history of the development, with which I had lost touch in the intervening years.

One of the things I always found most striking about the administration of public housing in the US was the way in which the system seemed structurally geared to penalise intact families. To obtain access to public housing, families were often in the position of either hiding the ongoing family involvement of a male partner – or, alternatively, of electing divorce and separation in order to secure stable housing for the mother and children. I notice that similar choices are still being made by families caught up in the Cabrini redevelopment. To qualify for residence in the mixed-income North Town Village development that would be built on some of the housing estate land, Cabrini residents had to pass drug and criminal background tests and agree to complete a “good neighbour” seminar program designed to help them “fit in” in a community they’ll share with much wealthier neighbours. For some families, these requirements have entailed a choice between keeping the family together (and having to choose housing options outside their long-term local community), or excising family members who can’t make the cut. As Vicki Mabrev reports:

Sheri Wade was desperate for a safer community. A run of bad luck landed her at Cabrini-Green eight years ago. And for her two youngest children – Travis, 12, and Jamilla, 9 – the projects have been a prison. In fact, Wade says, she had to keep them indoors in order to keep them safe.

Sargent and Wade both made it to the next stage of the application process, which included attending a meeting with some of the buyers.

Wade seemed a shoo-in, but her application hit a snag. Her on-again off-again husband wouldn’t pass the drug test, and she knew it.

So she found herself in a difficult position: her husband on one hand, a brand-new home on the other, and Howell in the middle. Wade made a wrenching choice. She and her children would leave her husband behind.

“I couldn’t keep having it happen to the whole family,” says Wade. “It wasn’t just affecting him. It affected the whole house.” From Vicki Mabrev (2003) “Tearing Down Cabrini Green”, CBS News, 23 July

The other thing that struck me, from my admittedly very brief look at the Chicago Housing Authority plans for the redevelopment, is the rather narrow and technocratic understanding of “sustaining viable communities”. In my current work, I often express some scepticism about the tacit (and sometimes not-so-tacit) romantic notion of “community” that underlies some community development projects. Reading the CHA document, I found myself reacting even more strongly to the singular focus on physical asset management and top-heavy managerialism, in what is apparently the section of the CHA plan most directly relevant to community building. I’ve been reminded that it is, in fact, possible for something to be too… non-romantic for my taste.

The redevelopment plans for the Cabrini Green site can be found online at the Chicago Housing Authority website.

Some of the backhistory for the redevelopment is provided in articles assembled at the Chicago Tribune, while the Cabrini Green article at Wikipedia, though a bit rough, has a nice list of further resources on the estate and the redevelopment process.

Readers interested in some of the more complex dimensions of Chicago’s public housing history, including particularly the complex intersection of racial segregation and public housing policy, might be interested in the background material on the Gautreaux case – a case that also occupies an interesting place in the sociological literature, for its role in making possible a “natural” sociological experiment into whether dispersing poor households into mixed neighbourhoods would itself have a positive impact on poverty.

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