The Great Forced Migration

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

I am a proud African American woman resident of Chicago’s South Side…

Throughout my 51 years, I have come to recognize the homeless and the impoverished…

She often stares at me through countless black faces in the City.

Many people may not admit how they turn their heads away when they are approached by someone who may be homeless or just begging for change. But how many of us can relate to living without a place to call home? Honest Chicagoans should at least admit their attitudes about Chicago Public Housing residents were shaped by demonizing media portrayals.

Nowhere else in the nation has there been such dramatic displacement of the black poor and disenfranchised after 1950 than in Chicago’s 3rd Ward. The nation’s largest number of public housing residents were located here. The Robert Taylor Homes high-rise buildings each had an average of 3,000 to 4,000 families. High-rises were deliberately concentrated in isolated corridors of the city, with extremely limited access to fresh food, health care, employment opportunities and recreation. The negative social repercussions of isolation and concentrated poverty were then blamed on the residents themselves. When these public housing high rises were deemed a “failure,” most residents were displaced without any real assistance in finding alternative housing before demolition. Collective apathy and the flawed 3rd Ward leadership made way for a large spike in homelessness primarily affecting countless women and children.

Statistics on homelessness gathered by the City of Chicago use a definition set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. This definition only includes people living in shelters and on the street. These measurements do not include people living in doubled-up housing with family and friends, or residing in unstable situations such as motels, hotels, trailer parks, or foster care. Use of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development definition does not capture clear indicators of just how many people are homeless in Chicago. People who have lost their homes should not have to fit a predefined classification.

How Did This Happen?

More than 80% of the lease holders at the Robert Taylor Homes high-rise located at 5147 S State Street were women with children whose lives were imperiled in the interest of profit. During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the deepest cuts in domestic spending were to low-income housing subsidies. Reagan slashed the $35 billion budget for Section 8 and low-income housing in half in his first year in office. Buildings were allowed to deteriorate, leaving demolition as the obvious solution. For 50 years prior to Reagan’s administration, the locations of Chicago Public Housing projects for Black residents had been chosen to keep the city racially polarized. By 1981, however, gentrification was underway and new value was being seen in the urban real estate occupied by public housing. Eminent domain man-dates were used to pave the way for demolition. Statistics cannot measure the emotional toil, the undermined quality of life, and the impact on children’s education this tragic assault had on public housing residents. The vacant lots are now, more than 10 years later, sore reminders of the lives changed, a reference to the fractured families, comrades, and stakeholders whose lives were scattered.

During the spring of 1981, Bronzeville His-torical Society began recording oral histories of Bronzeville residents at events, programs, and food pantries. The firsthand accounts recorded during this oral history project shaped the tremendous concerns I had for the women of Robert Taylor Homes and their families. I had continuous face-to-face contact through my volunteer work with God’s Gang Mother’s Cupboard food pantry. I worked closely with God’s Gang—a grassroots community organization that promotes food security, economic self-sufficiency, and positive youth development—as they connected with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs at Robert Taylor Homes to address the need for housing placement and food security. God’s Gang had a resident employment program, worm composting, a fish farm, a library, a food pantry and a praise dance team. Despite our efforts, by 1999, resources for housing and food security were increasingly scarce and Chicago had steadily lost thousands of affordable and low-income housing options. Between 1999 and 2010 the availability of affordable housing declined nationally by more than 30%.

Hope For Tomorrow…

In honor of the thousands of Blacks who migrated to Chicago from 1880 to 1950, I pray for a return of Black residents to the lands vacated because of ill treatment and ill gotten gains for developers. The history of displacement in Bronzeville dates back before the rise and decline of public housing. In the 1950s and 1960s, Blacks were also forced to migrate from the communities of Douglas and Washington Heights because of urban renewal programs and the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway. A brand new Bronzeville should emerge from what was dismantled and destroyed in these successive decades of exploitation and displacement. I believe if a bolder collective people’s movement would address policies on housing, education, and immigration as parallel concerns, more Chicago residents could make informed choices to put humanitarians in political leadership. I’m ready. ◊


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