I last came to Chicago 29 years ago. Back then I was struggling with a lack of education, emotional intelligence and money. At least one of them isn’t so much of a problem now, so it’s good to be back, even if it’s a bit of a bump after New York, not least because it’s a lot colder and (sorry, I have to say it) windier.
In the stuff of classic literary dystopias, when I arrived yesterday I got on the wrong train and found myself in a neighbourhood where I got a taste of what I’ve seen a lot more of today. I met up with Herman Bonner, a local tenant activist I’ve known for a few years and he and some of his fellow campaigners gave me a guided tour of the South Side. When it covers US urban blight, the UK media tends to focus on Detroit or Cleveland, but the scale of abandonment in South Side Chicago has to be seen to be believed. Moreover, it predates the 2007/08 crash and has been deliberately engineered by public policy.
When I first met Herman today he showed me a photo on his phone of the street behind his home where a 15-year old boy is lying dead. He was one of 19 people killed in Chicago last weekend. There have been around 150 murders in the city this year. Herman, whose lived in the South Side all his life, explicitly links these deaths to the policy of demolishing public housing and its consequences.
Chicago was one of the first places in the US to start getting rid of its public housing. Some of the city’s ‘projects’ were among the biggest and most notorious in the country. Herman grew up in public housing and remembers it as the bedrock of a thriving black community that extended across the South Side ‘from State to Lake’ i.e. a substantial area between State Street on the east to Lake Michigan on the west. Since the 1990s, the south of Chicago has been subject to a ‘Plan for Transformation’ in which public housing, particularly high-rise blocks, was to be eradicated. Thousands of homes were destroyed and people displaced, but as Herman says, so was the social and economic infrastructure around them. As in Boston, Jersey City and New York public housing has been partially replaced with ‘mixed income’ developments, but in Chicago, massive gaps have been left in the urban fabric. Twenty years on, the huge Robert Taylor Homes site remains a succession of empty lots, but there are many more around the area where other public housing, local businesses and cultural landmarks used to be. This scene of dereliction is compounded by boarded-up family homes on every block, left empty by foreclosure. In the ultimate message to the South Side population that it no longer has a future in its own community, local schools have also been closed and left to crumble, forcing parents to send their children to schools outside the neighbourhood.
Herman’s theory is that this massive ‘transformative’ destablisation has shattered South Side’s social, as well as its physical, infrastructure. While in no way romanticising gangs, he argues that they operated within a settled territorial environment in which a certain degree of internal control existed. By awful contrast, Herman explains last Sunday’s killing of the 15-year old boy and the many other random deadly acts like it as the product of a place condemned to perpetual internal exile.
As if all of this wasn’t grotesque enough, on the final leg of our tour we drove past the heavily fortified home of another black South Side resident, the one who splits his time with the White House.