Gang Leader for a Day

When You Close a Housing Project, Where Do All the Gang Members Go?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 31 2008 6:02 PM

Gang Leader for a Day

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Dear Alex,

There are quite a number of interesting lessons to be taken away from the transformation of public housing in Chicago.

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On the whole, I tend to agree with your sentiment: Losing the projects has led to a loss of awareness of poverty in the United States (a fact that is not going to be helped by the withdrawal of John Edwards from the presidential race). And you are right again in thinking that we are moving toward a European (or Latin American) urban landscape: the poor shunted to the outside while the middle and upper classes reclaim the central city.

It is interesting to note how this movement to demolish distressed public housing began. The objective was to replace concentrated, highly segregated inner-city poverty with "mixed-income" housing in which the black poor would live with the nonblack middle class. Sounds noble enough. The problem was that there was no social science evidence that this kind of mixing was possible or even preferable. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given by HUD to mayors, with minimal oversight. All this rested on the hope that the poor would either live in newly designed mixed-income neighborhoods—or use vouchers to live among the middle class.

Today, we face a difficult situation. As was the case with welfare reform, about a third of the families have been helped by this sea change. But these are small families who tended to have work experience and who were ready for a new home—in the words of Dorothy Battie, a tenant leader who helped her neighbors to relocate from Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, "These people just needed a little kick in the pants."

But most families had greater needs: They were disabled, had many children, no private market experience, and so on. These folks lost a safety net when the projects came down, and few city governments took the time to help them relocate effectively. Chicago has been the unquestioned failure across the country—nearly 90 percent of families have moved to black and poor neighborhoods as bad as the projects; New York, and smaller cities like Tucson and Seattle have done better.

It's hard to imagine that a family could be worse off than in the projects! But, in fact, as the poor migrate outward, they find communities that simply don't have the services to cope with the influx of needy households: There are not enough settlement houses and faith-based organizations providing food and clothing; there is minimal affordable housing; landlords tend not to have much experience with the travails of poor people; and schools can't provide remedial education or day care. Public housing was more than simply shelter for most families. It was a place in which a number of supportive services for the poor congealed. Policymakers have simply hoped that the private market would provide a similar safety net and, to date, it hasn't occurred. Look around Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami and you see a real mess.

But, as I follow families, I find the same kind of resilience and creativity that I saw in the projects. Some of it is truly inspiring: Dorothy Battie helps a network of a dozen families stay together by reinforcing the kind of sharing they used to experience in the projects: They trade day care for free food, one family cooks while the other does the laundry… and these families may be traveling several miles to do this, where once they lived on separate floors. Even the squatters have come together by staying in touch with one another and helping one another deal with homelessness.

Sometimes, however, the relocation of project tenants produces the bizarre: I will never forget watching hard-core street-gang leaders from the projects try to adjust to the loss of their housing development. This meant the practical loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money. They would pull up into suburban high school parking lots to meet with local kids, hoping to start up a gang in a new neighborhood. As they spiritedly made their sales pitch to a ragtag group of middle-class youth, inevitably one of the teenagers in attendance would ask, "Does being in a gang mean I can buy a 10-speed bike" or "Will I have to give up my allowance if I join the gang?"

In these moments, I felt like I was tailing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. Street toughs—self-described "thugs"—were trying desperately to hold onto a way of life, filled with prestige, violence, and riches, and they were met with an innocence that made one think of Spanky and Alfalfa from Our Gang. Most of these gang leaders eventually gave up. Some were arrested or killed, but many simply faded into obscurity by working part-time jobs in the service sector.

This massive federal initiative to alleviate poverty was done with the best of intentions: namely, to create vibrant, economically diverse neighborhoods. And nearly every tenant I ever met agreed that the conditions of the projects needed to be changed. But, in the end, the pace of demolition and relocation was too quick, there were few watchdogs looking to see that government monies were spent effectively, and the stories were never sexy enough to sustain the attention of academics and journalists. So, not surprisingly, we now hear calls of "land grabs" on the part of developers and of mayors wanting to get rid of the poor.

I think the next few years will be critical for Americans, because we seem to be facing a new kind of poverty, one that is largely out of sight. But the older and wiser among us would probably point out that, in the late 1950s, we were similarly awakened by the shock of deep rural poverty and entrenched urban ghettos. All this makes me think of James Baldwin's phrase "The Fire Next Time."

Sudhir

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.

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