Gallery: David Schalliol
A Method of Living
Civilization is a method of living, an attitude of respect for all men.
— Jane Addams, founder of Hull House
As a sociologist interested in visual representation, I have been photographing the sites and projects of the Chicago Housing Authority — the municipal agency that since the late 1930s has directed the planning and development of the city's public housing. I have been focusing especially on its ongoing Plan for Transformation
. Begun in 2000, the Plan is the latest of many efforts — from Hull House in the late 19th century
to the New Deal reforms of the 1930s to the high-rise projects that characterized the postwar years — to provide publicly funded housing for the impoverished. But the record has been mixed at best
, and over the years public perception has shifted, from viewing subsidized housing as a pathway to a better future to condemning it as an almost unmitigated failure.
The Plan for Transformation is premised on the conviction that the mid 20th-century public high-rise developments — Cabrini-Green
, Robert Taylor Homes
, Henry Horner Homes
, etc. — eventually exacerbated the problems they were intended to address. In the past decade more than 100 buildings have been demolished, and the CHA has overseen the construction of mixed-income neighborhoods which consist largely of low-rise housing and comprise both subsidized and market-rate units.
To date the Plan for Transformation's own record is mixed. The townhouse developments that have replaced the high-rise projects have faced persistent challenges, from the crash of the overall housing market to the social tensions of integrating different socioeconomic groups. Some market-rate tenants have found it hard to overcome cultural biases
, e.g., misinterpreting barbecues as drug parties. Some of the displaced public housing residents have found it difficult to meet the eligibility criteria of the mixed-income housing (e.g., screening for income level, criminal records, etc.); maintaining residency has been a struggle for some low-income tenants.
These tensions have been intensified by one of the fundamental aspects of the Plan for Transformation: the CHA is not replacing all of the units that it has torn down. As a result, the city's poorest people continue to struggle to find housing.