Public Housing

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

St. Frances Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917), the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, is the patron of immigrants. William Green (1873-1952) was for 28 years president of American Federation of Labor (before the merger with CIO). A notorious public housing project in Chicago was named for these two.
Ben Austen takes us inside that housing project in High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (Harper Collins, 2018). The project started in 1943 with several row houses in an area once called Lower North Side, and previously called Little Italy. In 1958 the high-rises appeared; first 15, then eight more, then others—three were 19 stories, and then others up to 23 stories. Eventually the project came down; demolition completed in 2011.
Originally, Cabrini-Green, like other public housing, was meant to temporarily assist working families; to provide a way station between unemployment and upward mobility. It was also an effort to address slum conditions in the area and to create jobs in construction and administration. Cabrini-Green, a case study in unintended consequences of social policy, failed all three of its original goals.
Austen intersperses the chronology with the stories of select residents. He follows Dolores Wilson, a longtime resident who remains attached to her family and neighbors. There is Kelvin Cannon who, despite potential, soon affiliates with a gang and is convicted of crime. Willie J.R. Fleming likewise shows potential; moves away from Cabrini-Green; yet returns to its danger. He eventually displays organizing creativity, but neither he nor his followers have enough sustaining discipline and power. Annie Ricks comes to Cabrini-Green following a fire in her home. She makes a stand there for the sake of her eight children.
Austen refrains from moralizing. He is also light on analysis; certainly implying the wrongness of some decisions, but not targeting villains. Austen thus challenges readers to draw their own conclusions. His policy narrative is complex enough and his characters are complicated enough that fair-minded readers must put stereotypes aside. Yet, from the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 followed by riots in Chicago and elsewhere, it is obvious that Austen’s book and Cabrini-Green itself will not have a “happily ever after” conclusion.
Are there any heroes in Austen’s book? No super-heroes. But some Cabrini-Green residents manage as best they can, by participating in improvement efforts and especially by keeping their children in school and in some cases finding better opportunity for their families. High-Risers also mentions “friends of Cabrini-Green,” who exhibit constancy in assisting families and young adults there. For example, Brother Bill Tomes (and his handful of disciples) provide a small measure of good example to young people. Marion Stamps, who once lived in Cabrini-Green, is a savvy advocate. She is such a fixture that she can with credibility call-out gang members and politicians alike. The leaders at Holy Family Lutheran Church and at other churches never tire of providing services to residents and eventually, with LaSalle St. Church and others, develop alternative housing. Austen names two police officers who excel in dealing with young people at Cabrini-Green. Jesse White, who is still Illinois Secretary of State, assists many Cabrini-Green residents over the years. His Tumblers group, designed for Cabrini-Green youngsters, still performs at many parades and other events.
Austen includes Ed Marciniak (1918-2004) in his bibliography. Marciniak was involved in race relations and with public housing for decades. As early as 1951 he warned the housing authority not to build high-rises in the Lower North Side/Cabrini-Green area. Over the years Marciniak started a tutoring program for Cabrini-Green students, raised money for scholarships there and served on numerous committees and a few federal judicial panels dealing with Cabrini-Green.

For the last 20 years of Marciniak’s life, I was honored to be his assistant. We spent many hours walking the rim of Chicago’s Loop, often including the area in and around Cabrini-Green. We talked with lots of people—sometimes by appointment, sometimes informally. Here, out of a list of about 20 conclusions, are three in abbreviated form.

1.) The government does a reasonably good job delivering assistance that is not means-tested, specifically Social Security and Medicare. In all other programs the delivery of social services needs to be mediated by smaller, closer institutions. Housing assistance requires partnerships of non-profit entities like churches and community development corporations along with government, plus community-minded, for-profit entrepreneurs, construction companies and management teams. A sufficient number of local institutions need to relate to those in assisted housing—good schools, stores, social service, youth agencies and more.

2.) There has to be a certain quantity of well-managed assisted housing in a target area so that families are not dumped into an otherwise downward scene. At the same time there has to be a limit on assisted housing units in a target area so that the new residents do not inundate the area with poverty. Again, the target area has to have as many local institutions as possible.

3.) Poverty, we also concluded, is not simply about income. An older type of poverty assumed upwardly mobility was possible because a sufficient number of factory jobs in assembly or manufacturing were available. That is no longer the case, as Austen repeatedly mentions. The new poverty includes lack of useful social connections, a lack of proficiency in the requirements of the knowledge-sectors, a loss of marriage and family life as a buffer in one’s daily struggle and more. To impose the expectations of the old immigrant story onto the new urban (and more recently suburban) poverty only leads to blaming people when supposed remedies fail. On the other hand, urban pessimists are wrong to presume that the new poverty is an unbeatable inter-generational sentence and that therefore “those people” deserve to fend for themselves without any assistance.

Marciniak’s book on Cabrini-Green is Reclaiming the Inner City (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5.50). Droel edits NCL’s print newsletter on faith and work.

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