Photos: Step Inside A Bygone Era Of Chicago Public Housing
By Stephen Gossett in News on Aug 24, 2016 4:41PM
Five years after the last remnants of Cabrini-Green Homes were demolished, one still doesn’t have to look far to see the lingering legacy of Chicago’s troubled history of public-housing projects.
For instance, slow-moving and opaque redevelopment efforts of the razed LeClaire Courts, in Garfield Ridge, have left former residents irate with the Chicago Housing Authority. Further north, protesters demonstrated this spring against a plan that would reduce the number of public housing units by 525 at the Lathrop Homes complex, which straddles Lincoln Park and North Center. And near Cabrini-Green itself, the NEWCITY shopping-and-entertainment district includes remnants of the now-flattened YMCA, one of the few common-ground spaces once shared by both Cabrini-Green residents and other Lincoln Parkers. To put it Faulknerian terms, Chicago’s public-housing past isn’t even past.
With so much of that history manifesting itself anew recently, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit those sites. Photographer Matt Tuteur captured photos of the aforementioned LeClaire Courts, Lathrop Homes and Cabrini-Green Homes, plus three others: Ida B. Wells Homes in Bronzeville; Harold Ickes Homes, part of the “State Street Corridor” of CHA housing in the Near North Side; and the ABLA constellation of four buildings and rowhouses on the Near West Side. (You might recognize a few of the Cabrini-Green photos from our story on the housing complex's demolition last fall; you can follow the link to see more photos in the series.)
The photos, taken between 2008 and 2011, visualize the government neglect that became endemic to an era of public housing, and they at least once allude to the media-sensationalized crime angle that dominated the public narrative. But other details—a list of children’s routines, a coffee table astride a slipcovered sofa, an abandoned church sanctuary—point to the most obvious but easily overlooked truth: People lived here.
The timeline stretches back at least to 1937, with the creation of the CHA. The next year, Lathrop Homes emerged as the first CHA project built under the New Deal’s Public Works initiative. Portions of the five other projects in our gallery appeared shortly thereafter, between 1939 and 1941. The “neighborhood composition rule,” initiated by New Deal lead administrator Harold Ickes, mandated that occupants reflect the “prevailing composition of the surrounding neighborhood.” According to author D. Bradford Hunt in Blueprint For Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing, the rule was a necessary evil, needed to assuage segregationist sympathies in Congress, but it was left intentionally vague enough to allow for integration. And while it had the desired effect in rare, modest instances (26 of 1,027 apartments occupied by African-Americans in the ABLA’s Jane Addams Houses in the late ‘30s), segregationist collusion between the CHA and the City Council in '50s and '60s effectively killed any chance of integration, according to BPI.
As the decades progressed, CHA’s housing practices essentially sequestered the black and poor, sometimes in inhospitable brutal-functionalist designs, and often feebly kept by the government stewards tasked to maintain repairs. Eventually it got so bad that the federal government absorbed the local housing agency: the Department of Housing and Urban Development seized control of Chicago’s 40,000 public housing units in 1995, prompted in part by the decades-litigated landmark case Gautreaux v Chicago Housing Authority.
Aside from the Lathrop Homes, all of the complexes and rowhouses pictured above have been destroyed. The Plan For Transformation, announced back in 1999 by the CHA and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, heralded the wave of demolition and a new emphasis on mixed-income housing. But the present moment has its own issues, of course, ranging from absurdly long wait lists to a lack of supplemental social services that might truly boost quality of life. So while the physical landscape of Chicago public housing has drastically changed in the last 16 years, the long shadow of the previous era stretches on.