The stench of urine and spilled wine in one building’s breezeway. The steel elevator that jerked and rattled as it noisily ascended. The lobby with no doors and the naked-white cinderblock walls, as if the project’s builders had fled before completion. The bloodstains on the stairwell where a teenage boy had come to die the week before after being shot. This is what I remember from my first visit to the Henry Horner Homes some 30 years ago.
And I remember my utter sense of shame. How could I not know? The “Hornets,” as the kids called it, sat within walking distance of the Loop, and yet wallowed in utter isolation.
The projects were a world unto themselves. Outsiders rarely set foot in them. Even our city’s leaders were clueless. In 1989, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley held a press conference to assail water bill deadbeats, the largest being the Chicago Housing Authority. Daley flippantly suggested that the CHA consider limiting residents to one shower a day. The only problem was that in most of the projects, the architects never thought to install showers, just bathtubs. A decade later, Daley acceded, “You live in public housing; you don’t live in the city. That’s the stigma.”
Indeed, they were neighborhoods of mostly African-American families tucked away, out of sight, out of mind. To say they were neglected feels too benign. They were abused. Their spirits were broken by decisions made by the city’s fathers, including the decision to build public housing, the bulk of which was erected in the late 1950s, on the edge of already existing ghettoes so that they served as a kind of bulwark to segregation. The sequestration, the concentration of the very poor, the construction of the high-rises on the cheap led to a set of conditions that a presidential commission compared to “a concentration camp.”
So when the projects began to come down, there was reason to celebrate. They should’ve come down a long time ago. I was there when the first building at Horner was demolished, and I still have a brick from that moment. I keep it near my desk as a reminder of what was — and of what could be. I applauded the intent of reintegrating these communities by class, of luring middle-class families into communities they once fled. And Horner did it better than anyone else. But only because the residents took a stand — and made demands.
With a sense that things could be different, the resignation that had built up over the years crumbled, and in its place residents articulated a vision. We should remember that the community we see today exists only because residents — assisted by their lawyer, Bill Wilen — fought back.
The projects have been razed. New communities have been formed, some more promising than others. Yet as I spend time on the city’s West and South sides, I still feel that sense of shame. Abandoned buildings beaten and scarred list like punch-drunk pugilists. Neighborhood schools scrambling for resources offer false promises. Programs we know that work, like Head Start, struggle to get by. And these neighborhoods, which are predominantly African-American, continue to feel, to paraphrase Mayor Daley, as if they’re not a part of the city. The real tragedy is that in all our efforts to rethink public housing, there has been no conversation about race. What’s clear is that this city remains deeply divided. Shortly after “There Are No Children Here” came out, another journalist said to me that it was as if I had parachuted behind enemy lines. But I didn’t parachute. Nor did I cavort with the enemy. I simply drove a couple of miles to spend time with people who in more civilized times would be considered my neighbors.