Saturday, March 03, 2012

The American Project

In American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, Sudhir Venkatesh describes the social interaction in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing development in Chicago, from the 1960s to the mid 1990s. He uses participant observation to write a historic monographic about how people lived in and around this modern ghetto. Venkatesh argues that while the creation of the public housing structures were well intended by local and national bureaucracies, but its decline was due to their retreat both in financial and political resources. Regardless, residents of the “projects” were embedded with thick social capital, which assisted them to live and sustain their livelihoods, both financially and socially.

As part of the New Deal legislation, Robert Taylor Homes were constructed in 1962 for approximately $70 million dollars. The 4,500 apartments consisted of three, for and five bedroom units which would home Chicago’s poor black population. The tenants first consisted of families with several children, but with more difficult times, the homes were inhabited increasingly with female-headed households. Because the quarters were tight, mundane chores were often performed collectively. Community trust was a large component of the environment.

For the most part, after national legislation like the New Deal (1940s) and the Great Society (1960s), local governments filled the gap to implement housing, social and economic policy. The actual establishment of the projects, although a novel idea at first, became the bastion of problems for the local government. Because of the high concentration of poor people into one area, their public needs became greater. More police, job training centers, youth centers and other public social services were needed. Except the political will was not there. The project’s representation in Chicago’s local government political machine was minimal. Residents participated worked with the public sector though the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and Local Advisory Councils (LAC). Whereas LAC was composed of residents, they sent representatives to work with CHA, the city’s representation of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

At first residents volunteered to participate in LAC eagerly. Primarily these participants represented new leadership among the poor and downtrodden. They saw their representation as a way to create a better environment for their fellow community members. For example one primarily responsible included reporting systematic upkeep of the infrastructure within the homes like pluming issues or exposed electrical outlets, but these leaders helped to organize community events. The leadership within the LAC relied heavily on the promised met by CHA funds.

But as time went on, the CHA budget decreased and they were unable to meet these requests. The political wind of the Great Society politics changed in Washington and so too did HUD’s budget for public housing. Venkatesh describes the residents’ reactions to these outside pressures. The new emerging leadership changed. Identifying the lack of a patron saint to support their needs, some argued to reach out beyond the CHA, city government of Chicago and speak directly to HUD. But for the most part, residents hunkered down and created new strategies to deal with their increase problems of dilapidated infrastructure and changing demographics.

Although some argue that the new so-called leaders would move out when their finances permitted, CHA representative dispelled that notion and suggested that the mother receiving Aid to Dependent Children (the government supported program) were some of the most effective leaders. Venkatesh illustrates this sentiment through first hand accounts of these mothers describing their participation with the LAC. These mothers activism carried the community culture, especial though the economic downturns of the 1970s and 80s, which lead men to be increasing unemployed. In such conditions, hustling became the “modis operandi”.

Because law enforcement was scant, police where afraid to enter into the buildings, the community developed its own policing and social control as best they could. The ghetto community developed it’s own code and ways to deal with its troubles. The binding social capital assisted with troubles. “Everyone” knew who was doing what and when. For example, some apartments converted into brothels or gambling parlors to generate income. Although neighbors knew about these activities, they didn’t complain to the police because they wouldn’t come into the unlighted buildings. Therefore informal trades and bargaining began. Social assistance was generated as needed. Neighbor would assist neighbor with their needs if they hushed up to the LAC and CHA representatives. In addition, tenants started to pay off the LAC building presidents either monetarily or informally like with babysitting. A type of unofficial culture of informal assistance began.

The hustling culture further embodied the projects as the men and youth became further disenfranchised from society. They engaged in selling drugs to fuel this informal way of life. Venkatesh delicately portrays the blunt options of young men as they engaged in the startling economy of the 1970s and 80s. Often with substandard levels of education, men could either work for minimal wage and slave away or they could fulfill their manhood by selling drugs, allowing them money to assist their families, community and spend time at home. Therefore there was a strong desire to be manly, deal drugs, pay for family needs and engage in the community. As drug money soared, so did their reliance on the community, which assisted with the underground dealings. Again, the community was well aware of the boys’ activities (most participants were between the ages of 14-34), but they were also bought out with gifts such as building improvements and community carnivals.

Although not all community members agreed to the drug money influence, there was little many could do. The community didn’t complain about the gang problems formally until the 1992 fatal drive by shooting of a twelve-year-old girl. This dates when the community’s super gangs of the Black Kings, representing members of the Robert Taylor Homes, and the Sharks, from another neighborhood, met with the NGO No More Wars as intermediates to describe their grievances. Venkatesh highlights this moment as an epiphany and transition point for the community. He describes how No More Wars was a community-based organization, which settled into the area after no official governmental agency would work there. An energetic priest established a youth center and engaged the boy’s pursuing the wrongful activities. Venkatesh argues that one of the many failures the city’s government did was not to find constructive amusement or workforce training for the youth, especially young men in and around the housing project. The gang behavior was developed because of lack of other outlets for these youngsters to use their time wisely.

The 1992 gang summit, finally engaged the outsiders into the internal political process. The Robert Taylor Homes coped as best they could by hustling or the informal exchanging goods and services though economic downturns. The lack of external assistance for the community fueled the informal market of drugs and violence. The lack of political voice into the Chicago machine, the fear of the police in the a impoverished majority black complex, and the constant budget lashing of the CHA by national policy leaders embedded the problems Robert Taylor Homes residents faced.

According to Venkatesh, the problems only stopped in 1996 when the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and the community members were dispersed throughout the greater Chicago area. Disintegrating the high levels of social capital built up of the years while “assimilating” the people with the rest of society. Finally the tale ended as being the most prominent of HUD’s programs to be studied.

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