One of the best books I have read this year is the 2008 New York Times Bestselling Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh (you can find a fascinating interview about the book here). The book takes place in the 1990's and chronicles Venkatesh's experiences as he integrated himself into the projects of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. The housing project was one of the nation's most notorious housing projects, known for gangs, prostitution, and crack cocaine before it was torn down in the name of gentrification. The book examines how race and poverty intersect; how to make a living in the projects; how a man's home is his castle, even in the projects; and how national public policy affected the tenants of the Robert Taylor projects.
Venkatesh says the book is about "that difficult place people are in when they have to turn to a gang in order to survive."
I believe the book is about the dignity and re-humanization of marginalized people that we as a society all so often ignore and erase.
Venkatesh spends most of the book allowing the reader to fall in love with otherwise-easy-to-dismiss characters. Once he connects us to these figures, he challenges us to come to terms with how our society uses public policy as a tool to continually marginalize disenfranchised groups through racism and poverty. He creates space for the reader to rumble with this discomfort by being vulnerable and sharing his own challenges and transformations as a person of privilege spending every spare moment in one of the poorest areas of the United States. Only after he has created a personal investment between the reader and himself/the Robert Taylor community does he discuss how city, state, and national public policy directly displaced the poorest of the poor.
As I read the memoir and struggled with the thought-provoking challenges the material poses, I could not help thinking of the places I lived and how poverty/race was separated through housing. I come from a small town in North Carolina; growing up, there was an unspoken measure of worth between me and other classmates. You either lived in a trailer park or you lived in a house. This measure was also tied to race. I was lucky enough to grow up in a nice two-story house which seemed to be as much a part of the family as any of its occupants.
When I lived in Greensboro, NC as an undergraduate student, I lived in apartments a few miles from the university, but it was "dangerous" to walk or bike to school (code for "you might pass homeless people, someone of a different race, or a drug dealer").
Cleveland, Ohio was perhaps the largest indicator of housing segregation. As a graduate student, I lived in University Circle, a half mile from Severance Hall and the Cleveland Museum of Art on East 105th street. A half mile in that direction was also Case Western Reserve University; all indicators of wealth and prosperity. If I went a half mile in the other direction of my apartment, I would enter the most crime-infested part of the city. Depending on which direction I went, a few hundred steps could lead me to promise, prosperity, abundance, or crime, poverty, destitution. Downtown Cleveland had similar disparities. I worked at a church on historic Public Square, an institution which housed stained glass by Tiffany and where President Lincoln's body was toured after his assassination. Buildings like Tower City reminded us of the Gilded Age, when Cleveland was one of the most powerful economic forces in the country. However, at night, the "underworld" came out. Downtown Cleveland turned from white middle-class workers, retiring to a comfortable evening in the suburbs, to a land of drugs, crime, and prostitution.
Here in Houston, where I've lived since 2012, there major neighborhood disparities. On the one hand, we have the River Oaks community, one of the richest zip codes in the world. On the other hand, a February 2018 article in the Houston Chronicle reported that Third Ward (where University of Houston is located) and Sunnyside are two of the most dangerous communities in the United States. I lived in Third Ward for the first four years I was in Houston as I pursued a doctoral degree at the University of Houston, in a part of the community that had been re-gentrified. I had no idea I benefited from my housing at the expense of a less privileged previous tenant. I now live in Sharpstown, which used to be a white middle-class neighborhood but is now primarily Hispanic.
Although Venkatesh's book focuses on Chicago housing in the 1990's, it is a specific and emotionally compelling account of problems in cities and communities across the United States. Some of the most powerful moments illustrations include:
J.T. (the gangleader Venkatesh befriended) asked Venkatesh what sociologists thought about gangs. The response was sociology's notion of a culture of poverty, that poor blacks don't work because they don't value employment as highly as other ethnic groups. J.T.'s response was "So you want me to take pride in the job, and you're only paying me minimum wage? It don't sound like you think much about the job yourself."
Ms. Bailey, a tenant and president of the Local Advisory Council, basically ran the Robert Taylor Homes. When Venkatesh addressed the 60% drop-out rate of the project's high school kids, he stated "research today says that if kids can get through high school, they have a 25% greater likelihood of escaping poverty. She interrupted, saying, "if your family is starving and I tell you that I'll give you a chance to make some money, what are you going to do." Venkatesh humbly replied, "Make the money. I have to help my family. School will have to wait until my family gets enough to eat."
Because community based organizations, churches, and government cuts reduced donations to the housing project, Ms. Bailey took it upon herself to find resources for the community, sometimes by cutting unethical deals, in order to advocate for her people.
The following passage brought tears to my eyes : "People in this community shouldn't have to wait more than a week to get a new front door. People in this community shouldn't have to wonder if the ambulance or police would bother responding. People in this community shouldn't have to pay a go-between like Ms. Bailey to get the services that most Americans barely bother to think about. No one in the suburb where I grew up would tolerate such inconvenience and neglect." The author spoke truth to injustice and his own privilege, striking a chord deep within me.
There was an economy of women who sold food, made clothing, offered marital counseling or baby-sitting, read horoscopes, styled hair, and prepared taxes.
"Many of the women of Robert Taylor had protested for civil rights in the 1960s and campaigned for black political candidates in the 1970s; they took the need to fight for their community very seriously. But during the 1980s and 1990s, as their plight was worsened by gangs, drugs, and even deeper poverty, they struggled just to keep their families together. By then the housing authority had grown corrupt and supportive, the police were largely unresponsive, and the tribe of strong women had been severely marginalized.
"While the official statistics said that 96% of Robert Taylor's adult population was unemployed, many tenants did have part-time legitimate jobs. But nearly all of them tried to hide any legitimate income from the Chicago Houston Authority, lest they lose their lease or other welfare benefits."
"Until a few years earlier, men in Robert Taylor could have gotten a few hundred dollars a month in welfare money, but by 1990, Illinois and many other states eliminated such aid for adult men. The conservative revolution launched by President Ronald Reagan would lead eventually to a complete welfare overhaul, culminating in the 1996 directive by President Bill Clinton that made welfare a temporary program by setting time limits on just about every form of public aid--for men, women, and children. For men like the ones in Robert Taylor, the welfare changes only exacerbated their poverty."
"In early 1995...members of Congress and the Clinton administration had begun serious discussions with mayors across the country to propose knocking down housing projects. Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, claimed that 'high-rises just don't work.' He and his staff spoke of demolishing these 'islands of poverty,' with the goal of pushing their inhabitants to live where 'residents of different incomes interact with one another.' Cisneros singled out Chicago's projects as 'without question, the worst public housing in America today.' The Robert Taylor Homes were said to be at the very top of the demolition list. They were to be replaced by an upscale town-house development called Legends South, which would include just a few hundred units of public housing." Venkatesh wrote that tenants were struck with disbelief. The overwhelming sentiment was "do the politicians really have the will or the power to relocate tens of thousands of poor black people?"
Our public policy has dislocated Native Americans, Japanese Americans, African Americans, and other marginalized populations throughout the course of our history. Our politicians really do have the will and power to relocate tens of thousands of people.
Venkatesh continues by saying "from the outset urban renewal held the seeds of its own failure. White political leaders blocked the construction of housing for blacks in the more desirable white neighborhoods. And even though blighted low-rise buildings in the ghetto were replaced with high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes, the quality of the housing stock wasn't much better. Things might have been different if housing authorities around the country were given the necessary funds to keep up maintenance on these new buildings. But the buildings that had once been the hope of urban renewal were already a short forty years later, ready for demolition again."
Venkatesh goes on to say that "while the goal of the demolition was to move families to safer, integrated communities, the Chicago Housing Authority was so inept that nearly ninety per cent of the relocated tenants wound up living in poor black areas that left them as badly off as being in the projects, or worse. In place of the projects, the city began to build market-rate condominiums and town houses...Robert Taylor tenants had been promised the right to return to the community once construction was done, but fewer than ten per cent of the units were set aside for public-housing families...the Daley administration and the powerful real-estate interests, rather creating new and improved low-income housing, in fact knocked down the projects to initiate a land grab."
Who we elect matters. The national conversations we have matter. What our elected officials choose to do with their power matters. Not just in matters of the economy or war or the other big things. It matters to the children of Robert Taylor in this book, who are now the same age as I am.
I don't have to wonder if, like me, the children of Robert Taylor had the chance to travel the world in pursuit of the dreams, if they obtained a doctoral degree. I don't have to wonder if, like me, they have a totally clean record or found resources to get sober from the addictions plaguing their community. I don't have to wonder if like me, they have never known hunger or never had to do things that went against their values in order to provide for their families.
To loosely borrow from Laura Mayo, an orator and writer in Houston, those children in Robert Taylor did not need our prayers. They did not need our sympathies. They needed the system changed.