Reflecting Upon “The Beginning of the End of a Modern Ghetto” by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Chicago has been well known for its issues with poverty and crime. An easily discernible gap exists between affluence and impoverished. The poor have been relegated to isolated and under served communities for quite some time and the story of the Robert Taylor Homes Project is a direct testament. Venkatesh, starting with the story of Edith Huddle, shows the heart of how projects in Chicago, through mismanagement and institutionalized prejudice, created the very problems its developers sought to overcome. And, even after being forced to leave the now condemned projects, many residents, like Edith, were still going to be a part of a publicly supported housing system through rent subsidy in private market residency. Of course, this housing would still be in the poorest areas, the most demographically black concentrated, and out of the reach of city services and employment (Boehm 257). With no real plan to reconstruct anything locally, residents were forced to wait-list for Section 8 placement in suburban areas or wait in hopes their particular high rise would not be one of many to be razed. What Venkatesh explores magnificently, is the problem of perspective in managing the fate and function of public housing. As noted, the habitability was never the issue in deciding to demolish the projects. Essentially, a system that refused to police the area, reduced the public resources available, asked residents to handle their own drug and gang problems, and removed any local possibility for employment, created a no-win situation for its residents. As the community was given less and less opportunity with no oversight for the protection of impoverished tenants, unemployment rates hit near 90 percent. Schools were pitiful and the benefits of profitable real estate and decentralizing the poor from Chicago outweighed the desire to help raise the standard of living for the community’s poorest members. By convincing the public at large that the projects were failures and unsustainable, support for the demolition grew. Chicago was simply unwilling to “address the roots of impoverishment (Boehm 459).” Through the refusal to locate low income housing in white communities, officials with the CHA created new ghettos and re-enforced old ones. Essentially, the tenants of Robert Taylor Homes didn’t have the capacity to cope with or solve the problems at hand (Boehm 462). The real fact is that most city officials didn’t ever expect the projects to work and did their best to make the prophecy fulfill itself. Through rezoning, project developers and city planners created areas where schools, businesses, transportation, and effective law enforcement simply could not thrive. They then pointed at those citizens and argued they had done these great evils to themselves by their refusal to live as a community and “pull up those bootstraps.” What should have been a launching pad for upward economic mobility became a life sentence of ghetto imprisonment. And, when the time was finally convenient, they were swept aside just as the white infrastructure had intended to do all along. They put the poor and minority members of the community in situations that lead to the need for the projects and then used the centralization of that demographic to decay itself in order to ultimately remove the “unwanted” element from the economic landscape of the city. The city never gave up on the projects at Cabrini Green or Robert Taylor because they never believed in them to begin with.

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