D. Bradford Hunt's new book on the Chicago Housing Authority





n the 1980s, D. Bradford Hunt was a Hinsdale high schooler tasting the freedom of a driver's license by tooling around Chicago in the family car. Nothing he saw on his excursions struck him as more interesting than the clusters of towers that made up public housing projects like Cabrini-Green, Stateway Gardens, and the Robert Taylor Homes. "I didn't even know what their names were at the time," he says. But "you couldn't help but go, 'Whoa!'"

Crowds of people apparently just hanging out on the street, police out in force at the crowd's edges, boarded up windows and evidence of fires. "It was an encounter with what anthropologists call the Other," he says now. "So different from anything I knew, I could only wonder, 'What happened here?'"

That question still dogged him in 1998, when he was back home looking for a dissertation subject after having completed his course work for a PhD in history at Berkeley. Thinking the answer might be found in the records of the Chicago Housing Authority, he started showing up at their offices, asking to go through their files. He says they resisted at first, but when he proposed writing a report for them on the historical value of their archival material, they relented.

Hunt spent six months mucking around in a warehouse at 115th and Halsted, identifying everything that was stashed there—including at least 250 linear feet of files important enough for preservation—and produced a 65-page report for which the CHA paid him $2,350. That became the starting point for his dissertation, "What Went Wrong With Public Housing in Chicago?," which morphed into a book called Blueprint for Disaster, published last month by the University of Chicago Press...

... As working-class families fled the projects, the rents—based on income and earmarked to cover maintenance—fell short. CHA leaders were grossly ineffective at best (Hunt says he found no evidence of scandal). Repairs were deferred, the towers deteriorated, and by the 1980s the CHA was a notorious slumlord. When the crack epidemic of the 1990s hit, many of its buildings fell openly under the control of gangs. Finally, in 1995, the federal government took the bankrupt agency over and cleaned it up, handing it back to the city in 1999. The current Mayor Daley privatized management and began demolishing the towers. His plan calls for replacing them with mixed-income housing that, more often than not, looks a lot like the 19th-century structures that were removed 50 years ago to make way for the high-rises.

So what does Hunt make of all this?

Amid all the unemployment, poverty, and broken families, the institutional racism, political corruption, and bureaucratic incompetence, Hunt believes he's found a relatively simple answer to the question of what went wrong with public housing in Chicago: too many kids. Taking into account all the other influences, he says, that was the single most important factor. The decisions that put multibedroom apartments filled with youngsters into hard-to-access towers were the CHA's blueprint for disaster.

Hunt wants to make it clear that he doesn't blame "families for having lots of kids, or single mothers. The tenants are the victims here," he says. "They wanted what everyone wants: building maintenance, security, and decent schools for their kids—and they fought to make the buildings work." The devil is in "the policy choices." The projects became ungovernable because there weren't enough adults, he says. "This concentration of people under 21 years old was unprecedented in the urban experience."


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