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Facts on the Ground

On the morning of January 7, Morton Walker went, as he often does, to the Chicago Bee Branch Public Library at 36th and State Street, across from the Stateway Gardens public housing development. He and a friend, Mike Fuller, were walking on State Street when an unmarked police car driving on the sidewalk approached them. Three plainclothes officers got out and ordered them to put their hands on the car. One officer checked their IDs, while the other two searched Morton and Mike. The officers, Morton later learned, were members of the Special Operations Section of the Chicago Police Department. The one who searched him was named Milton.

Once their names had been run and had cleared, Officer Milton said, “I’m gonna give you guys a pass today, but I don’t want to see you out here no more. Tell your buddies: State Street is closed. There’ll be nobody walking or standing on State Street. From 35th to 39th is off limits.”

Morton thought this might be a security measure, since President Bush was scheduled to appear before the Economic Club of Chicago at the Sheraton Hotel that afternoon to announce his plan for massive tax cuts. Morton asked Officer Milton whether that was why they were clearing the street.

“No, this is from now on,” he replied. “There’ll be no more standing on State Street. Go over to Federal if you want to hang out.”

“There’s nothing over there but a bunch of drug dealers,” Morton told him.

“We’re not concentrating over there,” Milton said. “We’re concentrating on State Street. We’re shutting it down.”

“She knows who are the troublemakers and who are the ones who come in there to get information from the computers or from the library itself.”

When the police released him, Morton proceeded to the library and signed up for a computer. He’s one of the regulars at the Bee Branch. For Morton, who is forty years old and grew up at Stateway, the Bee Branch has provided a setting in which he can continue the education he pursued in prison. He was released from prison in 1999, after serving nine years of a twelve-year sentence for criminal sexual assault. (The Illinois Supreme Court overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial; he accepted a plea bargain and immediate release.) While incarcerated he got his GED. He went on to take college courses in a program offered by Roosevelt University. When he was released from prison, he received his BA degree with the class of 2000. The title of his senior thesis was “Urban Renewal: A Minority Nightmare.”

At the library that day Morton met up with his friend Shawn Baldwin. Shawn, too, is forty and grew up in the neighborhood. Currently homeless, he stays at a nearby shelter. He and Morton became friends over the last few months as they worked side by side at the computer terminals in the library and shared their knowledge of the Internet. “He learned from me, and I learned from him,” Shawn told me. “That’s how we got to know each other.”

Morton and Shawn feel welcome at the Bee Branch. “Everyone knows who we are,” said Shawn. He particularly appreciates the hospitality of the security guard, Miss King. “She knows who are the troublemakers and who are the ones who come in there to get information from the computers or from the library itself.”

One of the attractions of the Bee Branch, according to Shawn, is that “they have Dell computers with Pentium 4 processors.” The two men use the computers to check their e-mail, search for jobs, and explore the Internet. Morton likes to play chess on the computer. Shawn has a passion for the game SimCity.

Morton and Shawn were signed up for computers from 1 to 3 p.m. While waiting his turn at the computer, Morton read newspapers and magazines. It is perhaps a comment on the daily realities of being a black male on the streets of a public housing community that he didn’t mention his encounter with the police to Shawn. “It was nothing to bring out in conversation,” he said.

At ten minutes before 1 p.m., the men stepped outside to share a cigarette—they had one between them—before beginning their computer sessions. As they stood in the doorway of the public library, Officer Milton and his crew drove up on the sidewalk, ordered them to put their hands up against the wall, and handcuffed them.

Morton and Shawn tried to explain that they weren’t allowed to smoke in the library, that they had just stepped outside for a few minutes.

“We got a place where you ain’t gonna be able to smoke,” said one of the officers.

“You didn’t go to the library when you was in school,” Officer Milton taunted them. “What are you doing there now?”

Morton and Shawn were placed in a police van. Three other men were arrested on State Street at the same time. All were middle-aged. The police joked that they had arrested “the gray-haired gang.”

The men were taken to the Second District police station at 51st and Wentworth, where they were held for fifteen hours. Arrested at 1 p.m., they were not released until 4 a.m. While they were held, others charged with relatively serious crimes came through and were released.

“Everyone in the police station knew who we were,” Morton said. “So they must have told them, ‘Let those guys sit for a while.’”

Morton and Shawn were charged with disorderly conduct, which a city ordinance defines as:

[failing] to obey a lawful order of dispersal by a person known by him to be a peace officer under circumstances where three or more persons are committing acts of disorderly conduct in the immediate vicinity, which acts are likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.

The arrest report in Shawn’s case states:

A/Os [arresting officers] observed Shawn Baldwin on several occasions loitering in the 3600 S State street area with several other male black subjects. A/Os did advise subjects to disperse several times to no avail. A/Os placed above offender under attest.

What is striking about this report is that the arresting officer makes no effort to present the offense—the acts “likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm”—as anything more than the presence of black males walking and talking on the street.

What Morton and Shawn didn’t know at this point was that their arrest on the threshold of the public library was not an instance of abusive policing by individual officers. It was the result of an order that had come directly from the highest authority in the city—Mayor Richard M. Daley. It was an application of an official policy of the city known as the “State Street Coverage Initiative.”

Beneath the self-congratulatory hum about “community development,” there is a deep silence about fundamental issues that touch the soul of the democracy.

Beginning the day Morton was arrested, police maintained a continual presence on the street—all three watches, around the clock, seven days a week. The increased police presence was directed not at the drug trade that carries on conspicuously in the open air lobbies of the high-rises but at the presence of community members on the street. Officers assigned to the State Street Coverage Initiative made arrests for loitering and issued tickets for jaywalking within sight of open drug dealing. Officers came into the Bee Branch Library and told the librarians to close the bathrooms. Police cars cruised up and down the street. On January 10, with temperatures in the low twenties and heavy snow falling, I observed five police vehicles within one block: four squad cars with their Mars lights flashing and an unmarked car. Two of the squad cars, side by side and facing in opposite directions, blocked the entrance to the Park District facility, which is one of the three venues for the common life of the community (the Bee Branch and the street itself are the other two).

It was as if martial law had been declared on a block and a half of the South Side. (The siege eventually lifted on March 21, when for the first time in months, there was no visible police presence on the 3700 block of South State Street. I later learned that police personnel had been deployed downtown because of anti-war protests.)

Conversations with police—from administrators to officers on the street—yielded a remarkably consistent account of the origins of the operation: En route to or from a function somewhere on the South Side, Mayor Daley was driven down State Street. From his limousine he saw people hanging out on the street. He did not see any police. Upset, he ordered Police Superintendent Terry Hillard to clean up South State Street. The rationale for the mayor’s directive, as it was understood and filtered down through the ranks, was not to protect neighborhood residents from crime but to make the area attractive to developers.

The City of Chicago is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its public housing. Under the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation,” initiated in 1999, all fifty-three high-rises in fourteen family developments across the city are to be demolished within the next few years—thus far, more than half have been razed—and the sites are to be redeveloped by private developers into “mixed income communities.”

Once the largest concentration of public housing in the nation, the South State Street “corridor” is now a vast expanse of urban prairie in which occasional high-rises stand in lonely isolation like landlocked ships. The twenty-eight high-rises that comprised the Robert Taylor Homes have been reduced to five; only two of the original eight Stateway high-rises remain, and one of them will be closed and demolished by the end of the year.

This restructuring of the city dwarfs the urban renewal of the fifties and sixties. It entails the forced relocation of fourteen thousand families, some of whom will have to move repeatedly. It has profound implications not only for public housing residents but for all Chicagoans. Beneath the self-congratulatory hum about “community development,” there is a deep silence about fundamental issues that touch the soul of the democracy. When HUD approved the Plan for Transformation, it granted a series of waivers from federal regulation that, taken together, give the city substantial local control. With local control comes local accountability. There are, however, few mechanisms in place to hold the city accountable. No elected official consistently speaks on behalf of public housing residents. Press coverage is, at best, intermittent. Academics have shown little interest. Non-profits and philanthropies have been largely ineffectual in deepening public understanding of what is at stake.

The upshot is that the most marginalized, disenfranchised citizens in the city confront great concentrated political and economic power with virtually no mediating structures. Our present discourse about public housing is governed by a crude symbolic equation: CHA high-rises represent assorted urban evils, and the wrecking ball represents “progress.” This is public policy by subtraction. A development such as Stateway Gardens is not seen as a complex community that has evolved in its own ways under conditions of abandonment, but as a failed “project” to be erased. The public rhetoric sings of inclusion. The reality on the ground is a purge.

Several civic organizations have brought a federal lawsuit challenging the Plan for Transformation on the grounds that the relocation process is reinforcing patterns of segregation in the city and that residents undergoing relocation have not been provided with adequate supportive services. The report of an independent monitor, released earlier this year, was sharply critical of the chaotic relocation process, the inadequate services, and what it characterized as a lack of “candor” on the part of the housing authority. The lawsuit and the report accept the framework of the plan but challenge its implementation, raising unavoidable questions about its essential purposes and character. Judged as a strategy for addressing the needs of public housing residents, it has been ineffective. It has, however, been remarkably successful as a strategy for disappearing people, places, and issues.

In the vestibule of the Chicago Bee Branch Library, a painting extends from wall to wall over the entrance. It evokes a busy street scene during the heyday of the Black Metropolis. Looking closely at the painting, it is apparent that it represents the two-block stretch of South State Street on the other side of the library door. Central to the cityscape is the library itself, a pale green Art Deco building that was then the office of the Chicago Bee, one of two newspapers serving the African-American community in Chicago. Also prominent in the painting is the other surviving landmark on the street, the Overton Hygienic Building, a block to the north, which originally housed a cosmetics company. Between these two anchors, there is a shoe repair shop, a men’s clothing store, a cleaner, a “general merchandise” store, a restaurant and bar, a cab stand, a women’s clothing store, a meat and poultry shop, a hat shop, a produce store, and a newsstand. The street is crowded with people walking, shopping, talking, and enjoying the day. A moving truck and men with pushcarts make their way through the human traffic. Full of color and movement, the painting offers a vision of urban vitality and neighborly conviviality: the pleasures of the street.

Today, when you step out of the library on to State Street, you encounter a scene strikingly different from the bright animation of the painting. On the east side of the street, amid boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots, are a handful of small businesses—a laundromat, a pool hall, a sandwich shop, a liquor store, a grocery store. On the west side of the street, the two surviving Stateway Gardens high-rises—a ten-story building on State and a seventeen-story building on Federal—stand alone in the open space created by the razing of their neighbors.

Senior police personnel told me they hoped citizens would complain about the operation.

It always amazes me to encounter analyses of this or that aspect of inner city life—family dynamics, drug use, street gangs, or whatever—in which the catastrophic impact of the disappearance of work is not mentioned. Before the catastrophe, the land on which Stateway stands was the most densely populated area of the city, the heart of the old Black Metropolis, “the promised land” to which Southern blacks came for jobs and found jobs. I once heard Congressman Danny Davis remark that when he first came to the city, “You could wake up in the morning, roll over in bed, think job, and you’d have a job.”

Today unemployment at Stateway is estimated at roughly 90 percent. This figure is deceptive, in that it does not reflect the economy of hustle in which many labor—an economy that includes not only the drug dealer but also the junk man, the alley mechanic, the peddler, the woman doing hair weaves, the man selling nachos from his apartment, or the street-corner entrepreneurs selling “loose squares” (single cigarettes.) But it does suggest the extent of the catastrophe that struck this part of the South Side.

And now “transformation” is in progress. High-rise ghettoes of concentrated public housing built in the fifties and sixties within the boundaries of the old “Black Belt” are being replaced by an invisible ghetto of vulnerable, inadequately housed families conveniently relocated outside our field of vision. This process of land clearance and dispersal has been facilitated by the criminalization of places such as Stateway Gardens. Decades of mass incarceration for nonviolent drug-related crimes, coupled with the logic of guilt by association embodied in HUD eviction policies, have had the effect of criminalizing entire communities. We are conditioned to see the residents of such places not as prospective neighbors in a restructured city but as a violent population that must be removed from the land before it can be “settled.” Because the excluded are described as “criminals” rather than “blacks,” it is possible to hide from ourselves the character and antecedents of what we are doing.

Against this background, the State Street Coverage Initiative can be seen, in its way, as a defining moment—a glimpse into the inner workings of the machinery of disappearance. The high-rises on State Street have almost all been razed, but on a two block stretch in this post-apocalyptic landscape people for whom there is no place in our glorious civic renaissance congregate. And so Mayor Daley ordered his superintendent of police to disappear them. Their crime? Being black and poor and visible.

Not surprisingly, this operation has caused considerable disaffection within the Police Department. The only officer I talked with who was positive about it was a crossing guard who, I suspect, welcomed having company at her lonely post. Senior police personnel told me they hoped citizens would complain about the operation. An officer in the Public Housing Section described it as “overkill.” It’s not a matter of law enforcement, he said, it’s a matter of “pleasing the boss”—the mayor. Another said that the State Street operation undermined the efforts he and his colleagues have been making to build positive relationships with residents.

Although Morton Walker no longer lives at Stateway, it remains part of him. He lives further south now with a woman he knew as a child at Stateway. The building where he used to live—3517 South Federal—was razed last year, but his identity remains grounded at Stateway.

“We’re territorial,” he told me. “I come back to people I know. Old friends. This is my home.”

What, I wonder, would Mayor Daley see, as his limousine rolled by, if he were to look out at Morton talking with a friend in front of the Bee Branch Library? Would he see a citizen of this City of Neighborhoods—a Chicagoan passionately attached to his roots? Would he see a devoted patron of the Chicago Public Library system?

“It tears you up,” Morton told me after his arrest. “I’ve been walking these streets for forty years. Now this happens. I don’t get to protect myself by saying, ‘I’m from here.’ ‘So what? It’s time for you to leave.’ With all this crashing down, I don’t even think its safe to come back any more.”

A week and a half after Morton was arrested, Pete Haywood was standing on State Street by the Stateway Gardens management office. A lifetime resident of Stateway, Pete is a member of the resident council and was most recently employed by the property management firm. A police car containing three white officers drove up.

“What are you doing standing there?” one of the officers asked.

Before Pete could respond, the officers continued.

“Don’t you know?” he said. “This ain’t CHA no more. It’s the white man’s land now. You can’t stand there.”