A Thought, Deserving of More Time Than I Will Give It Here

The timing of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ discovery of Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto is opportune, since I just re-read the book about a month ago. (The first time was in high school, for a research paper on the history of segregation in Chicago that was my first academic investigation into what appears to be my future career. Memories!) The book is an absolute tour de force, and one of those histories that fundamentally changes your understanding of how things came to be the way they are. That is to say, if you haven’t read it, you must.

One of the main themes–perhaps theme Number One–is white territoriality, both from a sort of traditionalist community-integrity sense and a capitalist economic-efficiency sense. (Or, in other words, a territoriality that spans the white class structure.) TNC picks out a passage that highlights what that territoriality looks like from the black side of the equation:

Unable to do anything to alter the plans that shaped their lives, Chicago’s blacks responded viscerally, charging the planners with conspiracy and reviving an old strain of nativism in response to their ethnic antagonists. The dimensions of the conspiracy varied. Some believed the “plan” was to drive all blacks out of the area between 12th and 63rd streets; others stretched the territory to be “reclaimed” by whites down to 67th. The same new governmental agencies and powers that frightened white ethnics similarly affected blacks – only the latter saw no communists or subversives. “Land-grabbing” realtors, bankers, businessmen. and institutions provided explanation enough.

There were as many reasons for the perceived conspiracy as there were villains: Blacks were to be pushed out of their desirable inner-city locations and herded to the outskirts of the city or to undesirable suburbs such as Robbins to make way for Loop workers (there was at least some truth to this – not all conspiracies were fantasies); the dispersal of black population was designed to dilute that community’s political strength; the use of eminent domain was intended to reduce black property owners to tenancy.
All of which leads me to say that one of my reactions to re-reading Hirsch’s book was to reconsider how I feel about the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, under which virtually all of the public housing in the city has been torn down to make way for mixed-income developments. (Or, as the case may be in this post-2008 market, vacant land.) The standard liberal line here, or so it seems, is that the Plan was fundamentally necessary to end a spectacularly failed policy of warehousing the poor, even if it has been inequitably carried out, so that many if not most people displaced by redevelopment haven’t seen their former public units replaced with new ones. That had pretty much been my opinion, too, and it may still turn out to be the right one; but considered in the greater context of Chicago’s long war over potentially valuable land, it’s very hard not to feel the ground shifting under your feet, so to speak. Is this not, actually, just another state-sponsored exile of the poor? Might doing nothing have been more just? Or, more compellingly, might there have been other options? Recently I saw a link to an article about the transformation of New York’s public housing; I need to go back and read that.
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