Gang Leader for a Day

Tearing Down the High-Rises—How Will Chicago Relocate 200,000 Citizens?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 31 2008 11:55 AM

Gang Leader for a Day


Dear Sudhir,

I'm not sure that the standards between ethnographers and journalists in the end are as different as you suggest. Or perhaps I should clarify: between ethnographers and writers of nonfiction. Like ethnographers, we spend months, if not years, with people, observing, participating in their lives, building friendships, arguing, kibitzing, and joining them in their daily activities. And you're right, though there is this notion out there that you can strive for this fly-on-the-wall posture, in fact just our presence can affect—sometimes deeply affect—the course of events. Moreover, nonfiction writers struggle all the time with the use of the first person. We're always asking ourselves, how much does the reader care to learn about us—and, as you suggest, will our presence detract from the story at hand. As you point out, there are extraordinary examples of writers whose very story revolves around their participation in what they're reporting. Barbara Ehrenreich and Ted Conover come to mind. And of course there is the classic book Paper Lion, in which author George Plimpton tried his hand at quarterbacking for the Detroit Lions.


I've always thought it would make for a provocative gathering to bring together ethnographers and writers of nonfiction to reflect on these very issues. I speak for myself here, but I know that I would benefit from hearing ethnographers talk about how they tangle with understanding their own place in the reporting. In the end, you're absolutely right that the reason we do this work, and the reason why most (though not all) choose to share their stories in such a public way, is that if we're fortunate it'll push readers to think about themselves and the world differently, that it'll push readers to look unflinchingly at corners of the world they'd rather turn away from. At least that's our hope.

Which actually takes me to what I was itching to talk about next. It's switching gears some, but I can't let this opportunity go by without getting your thoughts on what's happening here in Chicago and around the country. Toward the end of your book, you talk about the fact that most of the family high-rises in the city have been razed (this is happening around the country) to make way for mixed-income housing. It's an audacious plan—and some might say a mismanaged, if not misguided, one. When you consider that in the early 1990s an estimated 200,000 people lived in Chicago's public housing, it's the equivalent of tearing down a city the size of Des Moines. In short, the plan calls for construction of new housing on the sites of public housing, one-third of which will be reserved for former public-housing residents. Most, though, will have to find places to live elsewhere.  

What will happen to these residents? That, of course, is what everyone wants to know. You and others have shown that many are moving into equally troubled neighborhoods, and as we now know, many are settling in the city's first ring of suburbs. The demolition of public housing will change the landscape of our cities and the lives of the poor for decades to come. I fear that Chicago and other cities will come to resemble the cities of Western Europe, where the poor—in Europe's case, mostly new immigrants—ring the city like a wreath. Truly out of sight, out of mind. What are the implications for cities? For addressing poverty? For American politics? What has happened to J.T., Ms. Bailey, and the others in your book now that their community has been leveled? I drive by that 2-mile stretch of what used to be the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, and it takes my breath away. It's all urban prairie, a stretch of vacant land awaiting the new homes to be built. Some 50 years ago, as the city's public-housing high-rises were being constructed, a local journalist suggested, in a moment of naive hope, that squalor is going out of fashion. I fear that people drive by that 2-mile stretch of now-empty land and think the same thing.


Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.



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