Cold War Echoes

by  

The last battle of the Cold War is being fought in the neighborhoods of Chicago. Echoing the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the victorious forces of freedom are tearing down the last bastion of failed New Deal and Great Society pseudo-Socialist programs – the city’s infamous public housing high-rises.

Lost in the general acclaim for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s $1.5 billion redevelopment effort, however, is that the tens of thousands of low-income families who will be displaced by this effort will likely end up in circumstances even worse than those they are leaving behind.

Europeans who clamored over the wreckage of the Berlin Wall 10 years ago have settled into the realities of the post-Cold War world. Permanent welfare-state programs for post-Communist citizens are considered the necessary investment to integrate the next generation.

In Chicago, however, Americans are just beginning to understand that demolishing barriers to human dignity is not as easy as simply taking down walls.

The Chicago Housing Authority developments were built as federally funded, racially segregated Socialist mini-cities in an architectural style that is common from Budapest to Beijing. The developments continue to bear a popular moniker – the Projects – that reflects the spirit of social experimentation shared with their Communist counterparts. Mayor Daley’s “Plan for Transformation,” in turn, reflects the zeal and ambition that has characterized all of those crusaders who are spreading the gospel of free markets. All of those infamous CHA high-rises are scheduled to come down in the next five years.

Daley pressured previous U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo to provide the regulatory waivers and funding that he claimed would be enough to raze the high-rises and build new, mixed-income communities in their place. The plan would afford every ‘lease-compliant’ resident – some 25,000 families and senior households – a temporary home in the private market while their new community sprang from the dust of their demolished structures. The plan depends on fragile economics and a tense housing market. Shortly after the plan’s debut, Chicago Housing Authority officials announced that the plan will be extended to 10 years and will require additional funding from a bond issue.

Community groups, affordable housing developers, the business community, advocates for the homeless, private foundations and academics have expressed concern that the wholesale redevelopment of public housing communities will have major, uncharted effects on the metropolitan area.

Public housing residents and their advocates are worrying aloud that public housing redevelopment will re-segregate low-income African Americans in outlying city neighborhoods and decaying first-ring suburbs without appropriate social services. These advocates say the agency is using selective lease enforcement and other tactics to force residents out of the public housing system altogether.

Affordable housing developers have stated publicly that the “Plan for Transformation” may be $1 billion short, even if fully funded. Even the private, politically connected developers that are leering at juicy tracts of public housing land ripe for redevelopment – without pointing out that the mayor’s brother was former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign chairman – are questioning whether the Mayor can still guarantee federal dollars.

The prospects of federal funding for Daley’s “Plan for Transformation” have dimmed significantly with the installation of President George W. Bush and his team of Cold Warriors.

New U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Mel Martinez is a Florida Cuban American who first received national attention when he took Elian Gonzalez to Disney World as part of the campaign to wrest the child from Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro. Just days after Martinez took over, HUD officials took a swipe at the quasi-Socialist public housing program; they delayed publication of the applications for the HOPE VI program, the major source of funding for redevelopment projects around the country over the past two decades.

In Chicago, the applications’ delay throws into doubt some $105 million in redevelopment grants for three critical CHA communities – Rockwell Gardens, Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. Awkwardly, CHA already was in the final stages of deciding on developers and plans for the three developments which house approximately 2,000 families.

That means that if CHA officials go ahead with demolishing the buildings in these developments – as they have indicated – the buildings will come down and residents will move out without a real guarantee they can come back.

Few will miss the out-of-control drug dealing or the urine-soaked elevators. The true loss of this particular failure is that Chicago’s public housing families, overwhelmingly made up of single African American women with young children, are headed for those few, outlying, impoverished neighborhoods where apartments are still available.

Residents of the “Projects” learned over the course of generations to negotiate a shifting and self-contradictory web of federal and state programs to eke out a subsistence life for themselves and their children.

For food, housing and cash, public housing residents depended on incomes from state and federal welfare, food and housing programs. Each program was buffeted unpredictably by liberal and conservative legislative trends and court decrees, altering conditions in ways that could be devastating for these families.

The legislative whims have meant that residents sometimes have had to lie about their employment and other times boast about it. The nuclear family has at times been encouraged and other times grounds for eviction. Residents sometimes were rewarded for large families and other times penalized. All along, Chicago Democrats of every hue and ideology failed to provide adequate social services, police protection and even basic utilities.

The experiences of American public housing residents mirror those of other post-Communist societies. Just 10 years ago, a newly unified Germany enthusiastically – but naively – assumed that the destruction of the Berlin Wall would uncork the flow of Western ways and produce an affluent lifestyle among the East Germans.

But today, many East Germans are mired in unemployment, poverty and desperation. Millions of adult East Germans have discovered they, their schools, factories and social service institutions all are ill-equipped for a modern economy. The physical symbol of the Red Menace has been supplanted but the people the wall kept in are foundering.

The German nation decided to extend to the East their generous unemployment insurance, universally accessible, quality health care and other welfare state programs.

But Americans have not yet decided to accept the consequences of our victory in the Cold War. Rather than shore up our housing, education and health care systems for all Americans, we have collectively elected to abandon our poorest citizens to an unregulated, even hostile marketplace.

Chicago’s public housing residents will remember that Daley Democrats and Bush Republicans broke their promise of replacement housing over a political feud. More to the point, residents understand that housing for the poor has not figured on anyone’s political radar screen for some time.

The nation will continue to wonder, meanwhile, why our best intentions seem unable to produce a better life for our most vulnerable citizens. Unfortunately, our best intentions operate from incorrect assumptions that people are as easily recycled as concrete is turned to dust.

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