I’ve been driving all over the city lately just looking at how the different black neighborhoods are doing. Driving down King Drive, one of the biggest empty lots is where the Ida B. Wells projects use to be. Drive down the Dan Ryan, and the infamous Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens are long gone. As this newspaper reported last week, Rockwell Gardens and the Henry Horner Homes are all memories. Even the project that I grew up in, Cabrini-Green, is just a shell of what it used to be.
One of the things that public housing was supposed to be was the safety net for families and even individuals when they became down on their luck. Public housing was to be there so that families didn’t become “homeless.” Even during a person’s worst economic time, public housing could put a roof over their head and be there as they got back on their feet.
But the original intention of public housing changed as politicians played games with it. For black politicians, it was their source of power. Thousands of votes could be delivered and those politicians could make or break the future of someone running for office. Public housing also became a trap as the rules were changed so that employed individuals could no longer live in it.
It was during the Clinton administration when housing changed forever. Mayor Daley, after getting the green light to demolish public housing, did so at a record-breaking pace, especially in light of the fact that there wasn’t any immediate replacement housing available.
The residents of those CHA developments were disbursed throughout the city and not necessarily to better and safer places. More often than not, they have ended up in neighborhoods that were already fragile. The demise of public housing hasn’t done much to improve Chicago’s crime-rate either. The crime moved with the individuals. The neighborhoods where the projects once stood are admittedly a lot safer now. Then again, those neighborhoods don’t have the people they once had.
All of this is adding up to what I fear will be the worst summer ever. Now, I’m not blaming the current crime rate on people who once lived in public housing. Lord knows I grew up in the rowhouses of Cabrini-Green and living there made me the person I am today. I grew up during a time when the projects were a good, safe and relatively clean place to live – where everybody knew each other. And even more, when there was an incident, people knew the reasons for it. But I am lamenting that a psychological safety net source has been removed from people’s minds. By that I mean that if a person had to as a last resort move into public housing, just that option alone was enough to buoy them on during rough economic times. They would at least have a place to live. Now when people think of losing their house, the only option is the streets. And that means that mentally, people are on a very short fuse.
One of the reasons that I am choosing to keep highlighting that this summer may bring about a lot of problems is not to harp on it, but to remind people and make them more cognizant and therefore aware of the problems many people are facing. This is not the 1920s where information was hard to come by and people only knew the limited information that was available to them. Rather, we have a continuous stream of bad news being given to us – Swine Flu, unemployment, failure of the American automotive industry, stress tests for banks, boarded up houses and people on the verge of losing their houses and on and on, so much negativity that people having minor setbacks will make them major. Tempers flare and negative behaviors ensue.
I saw the very thing I hope to not become an everyday occurrence just this past week on my block. Close to 30 teenagers were on the back porch of a corner building looking for another teen. As an adult stood on the third floor preventing them all from reaching her back door, rocks flew and then the woman and her family began tossing flowerpots down on the surging teens – a classic case of two wrongs not making a right. Thankfully, the police were called and everyone disbursed without any further problems. But five minutes later, a man who I would estimate to be in his late 20s, with a drink-in-hand came cussing and talking about how he wasn’t going to let them jump on his niece. Again, I am thankful that four police cars were still there and seeing the police changed his actions. But what irks me is that when our young people gather and begin to engage in negative behavior, they do so knowing that they have adults who have obviously given them the message that they will back them up on their negative behavior. One young lady was spouting how she would get “her mama” to come over and do this and that.
I’m asking everyone who reads this column to take the time to talk with others about how we all can actively work to make this summer better by having cooler heads. We can all resolve controversies without contributing to or making additional controversies. A lot of us are on the brink. Let’s do all we can to keep each other from going over the edge.