May 12, 2009
Photo by David Shalliol
The Chicago History Museum in conjunction with the National Public Housing Museum is hosting a panel tonight at 6:30 p.m. called “Telling the Story of Public Housing: Competing Narratives and the Role of Journalists.”
The narrative focus of the panel is of special interest to me as I write about public housing quite a bit. It will be good to sit down and think about what we’ve managed to document, as there’s been a lot of chatter from Chicago writers recently about the topic — especially as people began talking about the new museum in Chicago devoted to the topic.
The National Public Housing Museum opened last month and I have been meaning to make a visit. From friends and colleagues who went to the opening I heard that the story of public housing leans heavily on the physical landscape, as compared to than the individual perspective of residents. In other words, the museum is still struggling to capture the communities of people that lived in Chicago’s public housing.
It’s easy to think of the buildings as memories because so many have been razed. It’s more difficult to think about the specific unique communities that existed at each public housing complex. People like David Schalliol, Jamie Kalven, and former and current residents have strong narratives of life in public housing, but their work captures only a limited picture of the history of cultures that could vary dramatically from one complex to the next. I dislike relying too heavily on newspaper stories to account for the bulk of our narrative stockpile because the articles so often are formulaic and fleeting glimpses.
Hopefully the panel tonight will illuminate what exists as a narrative history and discuss ways to expand in both style and content.
My last story on life at Harold Ickes public housing complex for the Lakefront Outlook follows:
Changes at Ickes a ‘gift and a curse’: Residents seeing slow decline of public housing community
Harold Ickes Homes residents are finding some solace in the relative quiet of the neighborhood, though it is a sign of the final decline of life at the public housing complex.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” said Aaron Boyd, a longtime resident of Ickes, looking down from his third-floor apartment on the flooded courtyard that a year ago would have been alive with people.
In February, the Department of Housing and Urban Development received a request to demolish 536 units of Ickes, a project that would cost about $3.8 million, which the Mayor’s Office said it would pay for with federal money from the economic stimulus bill. The Chicago Housing Authority has slowly moved residents out of the deteriorating 54-year-old public housing complex, which is now has 96 of 738 units occupied.
“It’s quiet,” said Jacob Ranson, a former Ickes resident. “You come down here, there’s nothing.”
The new tranquility at Ickes cannot be entirely attributed to the exit of a large portion of the residents that started in the early part of last summer. New security measures at buildings that require a resident to check-in guests has replaced the periodic police raids of the past. Maintenance at the still-occupied buildings has also been stepped up.
“You could eat your chips off the floor,” Ranson said of hallways that in the past were coated with a layer of dirt, trash and urine.
“It’s like anywhere, if you let just anyone come in, people are going to wreck it,” Boyd said.
The decline in people and the increase in security have changed the culture at Ickes, according to Boyd.
“It’s not an open-air drug market anymore,” Boyd cited as a positive effect. But the community has also lost some of its unique entrepreneurial and cooperative spirit, he said.
Boyd said the basketball court stood as an example.
“We did everything on this basketball court,” Boyd said. He recounted basketball games, cookouts, summer parties and other events that happened at the small patch of blacktop. The court stood empty that day and both Boyd and Ranson were doubtful the community would reconstitute itself in the same way again.
“It was here last year, but I don’t think it will be this year,” Boyd said. “Summer is really going to tell it,” Ranson said.
Boyd and Ranson have documented the community and its residents in a series of videos that show — for better or worse — the very active life at Ickes.
“I just had to film everything,” said Boyd, who now sees the footage as a historical record that other public housing lacks. “Robert Taylor is just gone, I don’t want that to happen to Ickes.”
Boyd said the fracturing and dispersal of the community has meant hard times for many of his former neighbors, who must now adapt to a series of complex new CHA guidelines to remain in public housing and gang territory that is unfamiliar.
“It’s a culture shock — you’ve got a lot of homeless people,” Boyd said.
Though situations have improved at Ickes, Boyd said he felt it was only a matter of time before he and his other neighbors would have to find somewhere else to live.
“CHA is getting out of the poor business,” Boyd said. “For me it’s day-to-day,” he said, looking down at the courtyard. “Thought I heard someone calling up to me,” he said. The courtyard was empty.