Issue #138, November/December 2004


Book Review

Paradise Lost

Review by Mitch Kahn

You can order this book through Shelterforce’s Online Bookstore

When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago, by J.S. Fuerst. University of Illinois Press. 2004. 264 pp. $20 (paperback).


When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) released its “Plan for Transformation” in January 2000, it was a public acknowledgment of its abject failure to provide safe, habitable and well-managed housing for the 38,000 households residing in the city’s public housing. By its own admission 25,000 units were in need of substantial rehabilitation, and the plan called for the demolition of 18,000 units, mostly in high-rise complexes like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. These projects, like many in other cities, had become the poster children for the media’s discussion of rampant drug abuse, gang violence, dysfunctional family life, the evils of welfare and the bureaucratic incompetence of public social welfare programs. It was no surprise that the CHA decided to relinquish its housing construction and management responsibilities to private entities completely, a decision welcomed by Chicago’s real estate and political establishments. In spite of the plan’s optimistic tone, it signaled a sad ending for those who knew the history and early accomplishments of the Chicago Housing Authority.

In a new book, When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago, J.S. Fuerst humanizes the history of Chicago public housing by presenting transcripts of nearly 140 people who lived or worked there during the past 60 years. A professor of urban studies and advocate for efficient, affordable, resident-centered, publicly owned and controlled housing, Fuerst maintains that public housing can work well under an enlightened management with sufficient resources.

Chicago’s first public housing projects opened in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression. The first three projects – Trumbull Park, Julia Lathrop and Jane Addams Homes – were located in white, working-class neighborhoods and were built to address the housing needs of unemployed white workers. Little attention had been given to the deplorable housing problems facing African Americans living in Chicago’s segregated South Side. But Elizabeth Wood, the CHA’s first director, who served from 1934 to 1954, and her staff ultimately became public housing pioneers with their vision of an integrated and inclusionary public housing system. They were politically progressive and skillful in walking the political tightrope in Chicago’s racially strained environment. Wood’s guiding principles for managing public housing were careful tenant selection, strict enforcement of rules, swift eviction of problem tenants and the promotion of community-building activities. She thought that public housing should include green zones and extensive cultural and recreation programs. Wood and her staff hired managers who shared this vision, like Oscar C. Brown, Sr., who grew up in a Mississippi sharecropping family and later received a law degree from Howard University. Brown was the first manager of the predominately black Ida B. Wells complex when it opened in 1941. And Muriel Chadwick, who began as a clerk under Elizabeth Wood and worked her way up to become Deputy Comptroller, and CHA’s first black executive. Of her experience, Chadwick remarked, “CHA, it was a family. You didn’t have administrative over here and maintenance over there…and there was a feeling among employees that the idea of public service really meant something.” There was a genuine esprit de corps among Wood’s staff and they were able to transmit it to the residents.

In the 1940s and 1950s, residents viewed public housing as a path to upward mobility. The lowest-income people and those living in the worst slums were given priority in the new projects, but they were carefully screened for substance abuse and criminal records. All had to pass a housekeeping “home visit.” The majority of households were two-parent families. Female-headed households constituted less than 30 percent. The tenants were poor, but most were employed. It was the first time many of the tenants had experienced racial integration, and they reported that racial harmony in the projects was the norm.

Wood wanted to expand integrated public housing to more areas in the city. But racial politics led a drastic revision of CHA housing policy. In 1953, the placement of a black family in the Trumbull Park Homes led to a violent uprising by white residents in the neighborhood. The incident provided an opportunity for Chicago’s segregationist politicians to put an end to Wood’s efforts. She was fired the following year along with many of her key staff members.

During the same time, urban renewal and highway construction projects caused the displacement of thousands of African Americans. Pressure to integrate the city’s white neighborhoods was mounting. The politicians’ response was containment – in the form of high-density, high-rise buildings in black neighborhoods, like the Robert Taylor Homes, which housed 27,000 people. The Cabrini Homes, extolled by residents for its village-like atmosphere, was expanded into the high-rise Cabrini-Green project, housing 25,000 people.

But many of Fuerst’s respondents said that it was not the high-rises that were the problem; it was the mismanagement and lack of services and support. Wood’s tenant selection regulations were replaced by a first-come, first-served policy. The projects became inhabited by the poorest of the poor, who were becoming increasingly unemployed and dependent on the insufficient social and community amenities. Management became neglectful of basic maintenance and often failed to enforce rules. Later attempts to experiment with tenant management were riddled with similar problems. Fuerst interviewed tenants who have lived in public housing for 40 years and who have, over the years, fought to make it better. Most were critical of the current mass demolition of public housing, the creation of scattered-site projects that isolate racial minorities and the new mixed-income gentrification developments. They all argued for a return to the original policies.

When Public Housing Was Paradise concludes with a discussion of the current dilemmas and policy alternatives available for a rebirth of public housing, and of issues raised by his interviewees, including housing design, race, geographic location and the importance of integrating sports, social clubs and church life into public housing. And while Fuerst points to some successful public-private partnerships that have worked in public housing (like the Long Grove House in Chicago), he does so only to illustrate that their management practices mirror those of the early CHA.

Fuerst argues for the rehabilitation of old buildings and the construction of new public housing, instead of subsidizing private developers to build mixed-income complexes that largely benefit non-poor residents. He knows that he is running against the political tide, but he is unfazed about being labeled a utopian dreamer. His book is a masterful work of social history that brings to light the dynamics that made the first three decades of Chicago public housing a successful enterprise, and reveals the common sense social policies that could make it so again.

Mitch Kahn is professor of social work at Ramapo College of New Jersey.