Where We Are Living Now. Inheriting the Grid #13

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Where are we living now? As we look back over eight years of AREA Chicago, we find that many of us aren’t living here anymore. That means different things for different people. AREA’s core population—staff, advisors, volunteers, contributors— has changed dramatically as artists and organizers have moved on to other cities, students have graduated and found jobs (or couches) elsewhere, other students have arrived. Many of our stalwarts are no longer in Chicago. That’s the micro level. On a more dramatic scale, the most recent US Census informed us that in 2010, 181,000 fewer African Americans lived in the city of Chicago than did ten years earlier. We still don’t know exactly what that number tells us about the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, the foreclosure crisis, the public school crisis—or even the reinvention of the city of Atlanta as a great place to live. Would the 2012 election of the first post-Richard M. Daley mayor have been less of a farce had we had a growing, and not declining, Black population? Is this trend only to be intensified by the current crisis situation in Chicago’s neighborhoods? This issue looks at the topic of housing (concretely) and home (more metaphorically) from a number of different perspectives.

Of course, housing is not new to AREA’s pages. When I first discussed the theme for this issue, someone said to me “but isn’t every issue of AREA about housing?” In a way, that’s true. Pauline Lipman wrote in the first issue of AREA that it is “a direct challenge to the practice and discourse of hijacking the city for private gain—a challenge from the ground.” That ground has often meant literally speaking this challenge from the places where we live. Many AREA voices have already explored the themes of this issue. To cite just a few examples, we have addressed the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, its fallout, its critics (see Micah Maidenberg’s “CHAos Creates Change” in issue #1, in 2005) and alternatives (William Wilen’s “The Horner Model” in issue #6, in 2007), the foreclosure crisis (Michael Van Zalingen’s “Foreclosures in Chicago,” also in issue #6). Issue #9, Peripheral Visions, contained pieces on hobos and on suburban homelessness (by Paul Durica and Shannon Beaudry) and in issue #10 we reprinted a classic 1993 text by Tor Faegre on the Mad Housers, a guerrilla construction team building simple hut shelters for homeless people in downtown Chicago in the early 1990s. Issue #11 was about migration and immigration, movement from place to place, which implies questioning what ideas about “home” we carry with us.

But this issue takes dwelling and dwellings—verb and noun—as its central focus, addressing home and housing squarely in both historical and present contexts. These reflections and interventions take shape in the context of a city still reeling from the “Great Recession” housing crisis that has ramified into other areas of life—social disintegration, violence, school closures. I trace the beginnings of issue #13 to a frustration I had following the Peripheral Visions issue (issue #9). In that issue, we had hoped to provide space for personal accounts of CHA residents displaced to the edges of the city and the suburbs by the Plan for Transformation. We contacted a number of writers in turn, hoping they could take on the task, and in the end we had to give up. We could write about the issue from a policy perspective, from an activist perspective, but we didn’t have first-person accounts. Part of that was who we were—writers AREA contacted didn’t necessarily have the trust of people affected by the Plan, something it could take time and effort to build. But part of it was the effects of the demolition of a whole network of informal social bonds that might have facilitated conversations of the sort we’d imagined. Residents displaced by the Plan have worked to maintain relationships forged in their former dwellings, but they have faced often insurmountable obstacles—scattered to the four winds, stigmatized, living in precarious situations. Realizing how vital it is to document and share these experiences, good and bad, we began a project now known as Drive By (http:// chadrivebyproject.wordpress.com). The idea was to provide a platform for current and former CHA residents to record memories and experiences of public housing.

Meanwhile we researched related documentary and oral history projects and began both specific and general discussions on housing—research and conversations that inform this issue. In addition to discussions within AREA’s advisory group, a brainstorming conversation took place at SHoP (formerly temporary art-based social center in Hyde Park; see John Preus’s “Anticipating Departure,” in AREA #12). The conversation documented in the piece “Driving by the CHA” in this issue was held at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. At New Projects (a space at 3621 S. State St. curated by Marshall Brown and Stephanie Smith), the advisory group for the issue met and discussed, among other things, the challenge of making the publication useful for activists. We hope it is useful for activists— as well as others who care about the politics of where we live and how we live there.

As issue #13 took shape, topic clusters emerged that form our sections. A section on Housing Histories looks back to the recent and more distant past of housing activism and home finance, specific buildings and neighborhoods in Chicago, and domestic labor and the history of “home economics.” Also included here are poems and short essays reprinted from several issues of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s Journal of Ordinary Thought, providing a range of voices reflecting on the places where we live.

Section 2, Notes from the Current Crises, documents activist work that addresses issues specific to this historical moment in the US: the foreclosure and eviction crises, development agendas and displacement, the “housing” of immigrants in detention facilities and home-based detention, and the situation of household workers in conditions of economic crisis. Often, these crises replay old histories, as we can see from the preceding and subsequent sections, but with technologies and intensities specific to the present.

Somehow it all comes back to the CHA, the focus of section 3. The political art intervention CHAos was first documented in AREA’s very first issue, with Micah Maidenberg’s “CHAos Creates Change,” and here “CHAos agents” look back at the project with the help of some critical questioners. Shorter historical pieces trace the history of the present situation discussed in depth by Mary Pattillo and Pauline Lipman; research begun several years ago by AREA resulted in the Drive By project, which organized a discussion at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum about strategies for documenting the experiences of current and former CHA residents—and how residents can obtain the services they need.

Phillis Humphries’s interview with Deborah Taylor on CHA resident activism alludes with its title to the general context of gentrification, the subject of section 4, focused in this case on the Pilsen neighborhood. Pilsen isn’t, of course, the only neighborhood to undergo gentrification, but it’s one of particular concern given its historic concentration of cultural and artistic resources threatened by the decline in affordable housing. Geographers Euan Hague and Winifred Curran (whose research Paul Lloyd Sargent reviewed as “Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification” in AREA #3) help to contextualize the neighborhood tensions, economic shifts, and cultural richness addressed by Nicole Marroquin’s piece, “Puppies Out of Pilsen,” on her and others’ project A Day Without Public Art in Pilsen, along with Mark Walden’s blueprint for affordable housing financing and José Guerrero’s longtime Pilsen Mural Tour.

At the time of this writing, home prices have continued to fall in Chicago, unlike almost every other major city in the US. Across these four sections, we can see how communities of color, in particular, have been under attack in Chicago through a series of formal and informal recipes for housing inequity. The stories of these attacks and of how people have defended themselves have something to teach us about the present. In Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor’s account in “The Other 1968,” the mainstream emphasis on open housing activism (both at the time and in historical perspective) has obscured histories of the tenacious work of tenants who fought to improve conditions where they were, rather than move out somewhere else (often meaning yet another move, since many had moved to Englewood or Woodlawn or Lawndale from the overcrowded mid-south Black Belt). This history resonates with Pauline Lipman’s critique of the current “deconcentration of poverty” ideology that has promoted what we might call the mixedincome mirage. The vision of mixed-income housing and schools, based in New Urbanist design ideas and sociological theories that may have some value in and of themselves, works hand-in-glove with a gentrification agenda that’s really about pushing poor people and people of color out. The foreclosure and eviction crisis reveals banks that promote decline in neighborhoods by not maintaining the properties they own; is it too paranoid to imagine that the final agenda is to create large swaths of unlivable space that can then be flipped, on a grand scale? The theme that resounds is the destructiveness of the neoliberal urban agenda and its inability to find value in the integrity of communities and families of color.

It’s dispiriting. Here we can provide only a smattering of optimism—possibilities not to cling to but to expand upon and enrich. Section 5, Making it Work, provides examples of alternative models for living together, modes of hospitality, services for vulnerable populations, and strategies people in precarious circumstances can use. Additionally, the “Introducing” pieces in this issue represent new and imagined exhibitions, spaces, and research projects that open up further possibilities. Could we imagine a broader, more diverse, more ambitious set of visions for the future? What we have here is a start. But it’s up to you—up to all of us—to keep enriching it with new ideas and new possibilities to make something different of the places where we live.


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