[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]
By Micah Maidenberg
In late May, a group of Chicago artists hijacked an advertising campaign sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and turned it back on the city as a vehicle for a biting critique of the CHA’s controversial Plan for Transformation. The artists turned the housing authority’s “CHAnge” campaign into “CHAos.”
The Plan for Transformation, now at its midpoint, has been controversial from its the start. Since the start of the 10-year, $1.6 billion effort, CHA has demolished dozens of public housing high-rises throughout the city, and more buildings are slated to fall in the coming months. The Plan’s effects are dramatically visible through the absences it has created. On near South Side, along State Street, just three buildings remain out of the 36 that stood less than five years ago. The corridor is surrounded by empty land and brown fields of grass. Most residents have used Section 8 housing vouchers to relocate into private market housing in low-income, segregated areas burdened by preexisting social and economic problems or have moved into remaining CHA sites.
In the former public housing sites, such as those on South State Street, private developers are in the process of constructing “mixed income communities” on land that once was home to thousands of the city’s poorest residents. Unresolved questions shadow the new construction. Strict return criteria – drug tests, no felony convictions, work requirements, no lease violations – mean the number of public housing residents actually able to return to new housing is up in the air. Whatever the outcome, the net effect of the Plan is a dramatic contraction of housing for the city’s most marginalized citizens.
In the fall of 2004, the Chicago Housing Authority rolled out a major advertising campaign about the massive changes to the city’s public housing system. CHA bought $600,000 of ad space in bus shelters, the public transit system and throughout the print media for ads featuring public housing residents lauding the Plan. Designed pro-bono by the Chicago-based Leo Burnett ad agency, each ad features a resident, face impassive and determined, who looks to the horizon and explains the positive changes wrought by the Plan. In one, a senior citizen says she feels “just like the buildings – all brand new.” In another, Maria Mendoza, assistant manager at the Bridgeport Homes says “Everything is new, even my outlook.” Resident Charles Pinkston says in a third that “public housing is coming to a point I hoped it would – full circle.” The ads were part of a comprehensive rebranding of CHA, one that saw the agency’s logo shift from a New Deal-style graphic of black and white hands shaking in front of high rise buildings to the simple orange “This is CHAnge” slogan, a play on the acronym of the housing authority. CHAnge provided the artists with the lever they used to turn the agency’s advertising strategy inside out.
What a difference a few letters make. On May 27 and 28, CHAos advertisements went up at prominent spots throughout Chicago. In front of City Hall, CHAos members disguised in maintenance vests and work pants, opened up privately owned bus shelter displays in the middle of the day to install ads. The process was repeated at other shelters and on the public transportation system without a hitch. No one confronted the group during public distribution, except for the occasional curious aside from a passenger on the El.
Joe, an assumed name of one of the principal organizers behind CHAos, said anonymity was an intentional part of the group’s subterfuge (all the names used here are assumed ones). He said legal issues were just one reason the group wanted to maintain anonymity. By not emerging as public speakers about the campaign and Plan, the CHAos group would focus attention on the content of their ads, and the CHA’s actions more broadly.
Joe said the collusion between CHA and Leo Burnett to shape public consciousness about the Plan was among the factors that moved CHAos to respond to the CHAnge campaign.
“CHAnge was trying to close the chapter, seal the deal, end dialogue around public housing. There’s kind of an acknowledgement that public housing went wrong but now the Plan for Transformation is correcting it,” he said. “The way the ad campaign functioned was: the Plan has started, it’s going on in full gear and it’s being successful. People’s experiences are positive. So everything is fine.”
Shelia, another member of the group observed,”the ads said all residents were glad the high rises were coming down, the management of their buildings was going really well and people were having a really good time with their Section 8s. All of those things in our research turned out to be really contentious issues and that people had a diversity of experiences with.
Members of the group said the context for the CHAos intervention was the strong trend toward privatization in Chicago. From mundane pieces of infrastructure like bus shelters now operated by the French-based company JCDecaux to the sale of the Skyway toll road to private investors to the new space created in public schools for private operators, private monies play a central part of local government operations. Millennium Park, Chicago’s “new front yard” and perhaps the most visible of new projects in the city, was built with a mixture of public and private dollars, but will be closed off to the public on certain dates for corporate fundraisers and events. The CHAos group said they see the Plan for Transformation as both related to these other instances and as transcending them in terms of its human impact. That impact, unlike Millennium Park, is largely invisible, though some news reports and academic studies have demonstrated it in clear terms. A recent Chicago Tribune investigation, for example, found that four in ten buildings used by Section 8 holders fail inspections, leaving voucher holders in unsafe housing.
CHAos organizers said their intervention was designed to sow doubt about the privatizations in Chicago and expose to public scrutiny the political and economic interests of those implementing the Plan for Transformation.
“We tried to be as honest as possible about what these people’s interests in the Plan for Transformation are,” said Phillip, another member of CHAos. “Ostensibly, the CHAnge campaign was about residents who were benefiting from the Plan. We took that at face value and talked about who was actually going to benefit.”
The principals behind the CHAos campaign spent three months researching the recent history of the Plan for Transformation, talking to public housing residents, lawyers and advocates. They drew up a top ten powerbroker list and later winnowed it down to five, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, CHA CEO Terry Peterson, two private housing developers and Alfonso Jackson, the Secretary of the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. The ads are blunt: the poster of Mayor Daley poses the question “Are tourists more important than the poor?” The one of Terry Peterson asks “Do Money and Politics Mix?”– a reference to news reports that the Chicago ward where Peterson formerly served as alderman has netted some $250,000 in contributions from CHA contractors in spite of the fact that no CHA buildings are located there. Next to a headshot of Daniel Levin, CEO of the Habitat Co, one of CHA’s private property managers at Cabrini-Green and other developments, the ad asks “Do you like forcing people out of their homes?” In the testimony space on the Levin ad, the CHAos group says that “Time after time, Habitat has used legal rulings and court proceedings to prevent public housing residents from moving into the new ‘mixed income’ buildings in their old neighborhoods.”
“This information is publicly available and all of our sources can be cited. Anyone can find them if they do hours and hours of research like we did,” Shelia said. “But none of this information has been presented in this particular fashion. It’s our hope CHAos serves as a public resource for talking about these transformations that are happening.”
“We want honest documentation of the actual experiences of people to make it into this public conversation and not have the whole thing shut down by PR money,” Phillip said.
One advocate who has collaborated with public housing residents said CHAos brings a refreshing perspective to the discourse about public housing in Chicago. The prevailing discussion about CHA housing, Jamie Kalven said, is “stale and exhausted.” Kalven, whose Web site “A View from the Ground” documents life at Stateway Gardens (see in this issue of Area), said the typical public housing discourse does not “serve to frame the fundamental human rights issues implicated in the Plan for Transformation.” The CHAos intervention, according to Kalven, “opens up space to ask questions about the human realities behind the slogans and advertising imagery.”
“One of the ways the city exercises power is as a conceptual artist. A derelict, half-vacant public housing high rise with unsecured window openings – that’s a statement. A wrecking ball hitting that high-rise is a statement. The vacant lot left by the demolition — a blank slate awaiting ‘development’– is a statement. The city uses the built environment to make statements about public policy,” Kalven said. “The CHAnge ads were an extension of this and it’s appropriate to contest them. CHAos comes out of a different cultural space – it’s canny, shrewd. As artists, they were able to break through to something essential.”
Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University professor and one of the foremost chroniclers of Chicago public housing and the changes rippling through it, said the CHAos campaign may remind Chicagoans about the importance of public housing redevelopment even though many buildings are gone.
“White liberals get very upset where there’s talk of a conspiracy of institutions and that institutions of government are acting consistently against people’s interests,” Venkatesh said. “They block that out because it’s an uncomfortable thought that institutions don’t serve people. People have a tendency to tune that out. This was an innovative way to keep the issue alive.”
One former resident of the Robert Taylor building at 5100 South Federal, Janice Patton, said she was aware of the CHAnge advertisements and even knew one of the persons featured on them.
“I didn’t pay CHA’s ads much attention,” Patton said. “I don’t pay attention to what CHA says. There wasn’t anything wrong with the CHA buildings. They always said the residents tore up the buildings but they were the slum landlord.”
CHA is not happy with the CHAos campaign. New CHAnge ads have already been placed in bus shelters. Chuck Levesque, deputy general counsel of CHA called the campaign “churlish” and said the agency is considering “a panoply of actions.” The agency already has sent a letter to the registrant of the CHAos Web site. Kim Johnson, the deputy CHA press liaison, said CHAos was unfair to residents and accused the group of hurting families undergoing relocation.
“From CHA’s perspective, this is a group of individuals who have taken great pains to not let themselves be known,” Johnson said. “You have to wonder, what’s the goal here? At the end of the day, have you helped the families? Our contention is they did not.”
The CHAos organizers have stayed anonymous several months into deployment of their ads and are now contemplating their next steps. If the CHAos ads were, as Kalven said, an exciting breakout from the typical discourse about Chicago public housing, the challenge for CHAos going forward is how to continue pushing the dialogue in new directions. The group is considering whether to distribute counter-advertisements that feature residents’ experiences under the Plan, but that may slip back into the all-too-familiar dueling sets of resident testimony brought out by CHA and its critics.
CHAos started as a reaction. Its next moves may well be determined by the steps the CHA and city take.