May 14, 2009
After the journalism and public housing forum last night, I’m left with a couple thoughts I need to get down.
• The Plan for Transformation is not being covered well at all. The Chicago Pubic Housing Authority’s initiative to slowly shift from centralized, dense public housing to scattered sites will dramatically shift the way journalists find and work with sources. There were a couple comments at the forum that broached the issue, but it was never really tackled by the panel. As public housing residents become the minority in neighborhoods dominated by renters and homeowners, it’s not unthinkable that they will be more reticent to go on record and advertise their housing subsidies to their neighbors. It’s a common problem now when trying to write stories on Section 8 housing, a system where the government pays roughly 60 percent of the costs to rent of a privately owned apartment. Who should journalists be looking to when trying to adapt to the new landscape of the beat (considering it goes back to being a beat)? New York, Harlem specifically, does a lot of scattered site public housing. Are there methods to be picked up there? The forum was largely dominated by discussion of how journalists handled a public housing landscape that is largely gone now.
• A case study would have been hugely beneficial. Jamie Kalven was on the panel and is one of the people who really helped bring the rampant police abuse perpetrated by the Special Operations Section of the Chicago Police Department to light in his series The View From the Ground. Some of those officers were eventually brought to justice for such horrible acts as threatening an elderly man with a chainsaw, running people down with squad cars, extorting money from the drug trade, and innumerable other crimes. I was doing my own reporting on the situation when I first moved to Chicago, but it was at the tail end when lawsuits were being brought and the political grandstanding was in full swing. As a clear point where sustained writing on one of the most enthralling topics I’ve ever encountered was easy, what was the media’s involvement in breaking and informing the public? How does a story like this die?
• Which leads nicely into my next thought. Coverage of the “rules” of public housing is such an easy story that’s sitting there waiting to be written. If the chances that a police officer at a public housing complex is corrupt are so high, the rule of law can be considered largely arbitrary. How does a community adapt to a situation where it’s so hard to predict which rules will be enforced and when? What informal rules arise out of this system? Same thing goes for what are often thriving informal or illicit economies surrounding public housing. Sudhir Venkatesh has written about both of these things extensively, but there’s room for more than one person to be writing about this.
After the panel I ran into a friend who said she’d had a hard time following the conversation. I don’t blame her at all. It was a lot of insider talk geared towards people already intimate with the issues. But it brings up a good point: Even a curious and responsive reader well acquainted with the social and political situation in Chicago has no good authoritative source for information on public housing right now. It will be difficult to have a productive conversation on public housing until there is a common public knowledge on the subject again. Until then, we’re going to be spending a lot of time at these forums trying to get each other up to speed.