Clifton Cooper has lived on the West Side for nearly 50 years, growing up in the shadows of Rockwell Gardens high-rises. Some of his family is from the neighboring Henry Horner Homes.
When the Rockwell and Horner buildings were razed around the end of 2008, Cooper knew the adjustment that former tenants would have to make to their new neighborhoods.
Rockwell residents, he said, lived within certain boundaries – “Madison Avenue on the north, Van Buren on the south, Talman on the west, and Western on the east.” These four streets were their world.
“A lot of residents didn’t even know how to get downtown,” Cooper said. “And if they got down there, they didn’t know how to get back.”
Downtown – Chicago’s Loop – was less than five miles away.
When families did leave public housing through the billion-dollar Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation, much of that limited experience followed.
“One family had a brand new house with a washer and dryer,” Cooper said. “Rather than use the dryer, the lady put one nail through a brand-new cabinet and another nail through the drywall, and then strung out a clothesline and used the heat from the oven to dry her clothes.”
Relocating from places like Rockwell, Henry Horner, Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side, and Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells to the south has been a bit of a culture shock for many former CHA residents – and potentially life-threatening for their new neighbors.
Some believe that the influx of former public housing families into their communities has caused an increase in violent crime, a claim the CHA denies.
“I would say it’s easy to target former public housing residents as causing crime in communities,” CHA spokeswoman Kellie O’Connell-Miller said. “But research has shown that crime is actually down across the city over the last several years, so I find it particularly hard to believe that residents moving out of public housing would increase crime in the different neighborhoods.”
Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), who said her Chatham community was a destination for many families from Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens, an area known as the Stateway Corridor, says her ward has been hit particularly hard by violence in the past year, including two fatal shootings of Chicago police officers
“It’s not all public housing residents,” Lyle said, “nor is it the majority of public housing residents.
“But if there were people with criminal tendencies, they brought those tendencies with them.”
Much of the crime in public housing was due to drug trafficking by Chicago’s street gangs. Gangs controlled entire buildings, such as the 28 16-story towers in Robert Taylor, once the country’s largest public housing project.
In the course of CHA demolition, Cooper said, “The projects have been turned on their side.” Close to 150,000 people once called Chicago’s projects home, and many of them – including gang members – are now being dispersed throughout the city and moving to existing gang territories.
“That’s where a lot of the conflicts are coming in,” Cooper said, “because some of the guys are coming in and trying to sell drugs in an area that’s already been established.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said her South Shore community was the first to receive CHA residents, but when people began to move in, they were left without many of the supportive services that public housing sites provided – the satellite police stations, Boys and Girls Clubs, and mentoring programs provided for anyone who wanted to take advantage.
“Basically, what it did, is it took them from one segregated community and put them in another segregated community,” Hairston said.
And, Lyle said, this was due not only to the distance between residents and their old resources, but the resentment felt by longtime members of her ward. There were both generational and cultural gaps between new residents and her predominantly older, middle-class community.
Established residents were proud, yet intimidated. Newer residents were frightened, yet defiant. Things that had been minor in one instance now were magnified with the increased tension.
“There were things that were cultural that did not exist in public housing,” Lyle said. “How do you tell someone who’s never seen grass not to walk across your lawn?”
“We’re seeing some of the same behavior that was in public housing on the streets of the communities now,” Hairston said, “where the drug dealers and the gang bangers prey on the residents.”
Jonathan Scales, 52, was born in apartment 101 of the 330 S. Maplewood Ave. building in Rockwell Gardens. He lived there until he was 12 and his family moved to 55th and Perry Avenue in Englewood, minutes from the Robert Taylor Homes.
He is now a computer programmer living in Lakeview. Physically, he couldn’t be farther from the blight and neglect that defines much of Chicago’s history of public housing, but cares deeply about where he came from.
“The city’s plan was for transformation, and beautification,” Scales said. “But they forgot about education. Just by giving people subsidized housing, you haven’t changed their mindset.”
It’s this mindset that many attribute to disaffected youth, who are often the product of fatherless, single-parent families.
“They’re the lost generation,” said Deanna Williams, a former Rockwell Gardens resident now living in Austin. “They’re the ones who are doing all the murder and mayhem.”
Dr. Carl Bell, president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, refers to such youth as “all gasoline – no brakes and no steering wheel.”
It is up to adults to teach restraint, Bell said, and restore the social cohesion that the fall of public housing may have disrupted in receiving communities.
“The more that the social engineers can engineer social fabric, social cohesion, block clubs, neighborhood and community connections, the less aberrant behavior they’ll have,” Bell said. “That’s just how it works.”