Jamie Kalven on the release of the Department of Justice report by Maira Khwaja

On Friday, the Department of Justice released the report on its 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department. It found that the CPD engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Constitution. It attributed this to "systemic deficiencies in training and accountability." Released on the eve of Donald Trump's ascension to the White House, much of the commentary since has focused on the dim prospects for vigorous federal oversight of the city's police department by a DOJ under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Reading the report over the weekend, I found that this unsettling context enhances the power, eloquence and urgency of the document. The report now transcends its legal function as the basis for negotiating a consent decree with the city. Formally known as a "findings letter," it is best seen, under present circumstances, as just that: a letter to Chicagoans reporting on the results of a thorough biopsy of their police department. I urge you to read it in that light.

It is a remarkable document that combines analytic clarity with narrative texture to describe some of the deep-seated institutional pathologies that have contributed to the current crisis of the civil order in our city. As an investigative journalist who has written extensively about police abuse and impunity, I am deeply impressed by the reach of the investigation and the force of the presentation. I will return to it often.

The federal government has now definitively acknowledged what those living in the black and brown neighborhoods most affected by abusive policing have known for generations. And it has described in detail the mechanisms by which that knowledge, expressed in the form of citizen complaints of police abuse, has been disregarded and, in effect, made to disappear. 

At the same time, the report addresses the concerns of police officers. It speaks to the failure of the CPD to invest in its personnel by providing adequate training and necessary resources. It also addresses a major concern of the rank and file: the way clout rather than merit governs promotions. Reforms will only succeed, the authors of the report communicate via their tone and distribution of emphasis, if they meet the needs of demoralized police officers as well as aggrieved citizens.

As we absorb the report, it is important to be clear about critical issues that lie outside its scope. It was never intended to be a comprehensive blueprint for reform. From the start, the scope of the DOJ investigation was limited. Among the areas that are not addressed—or only touched on—are false arrest; police in schools; the operation of the code of silence understood not simply as a peer-to-peer phenomenon but as coercion by supervisory personnel; and the relationship of the CPD to the mayor, the city law office, and the states attorney.

Beyond those issues, Black Lives Matter activists demand that we consider the alternative uses that could be made of the massive resources allocated to the police, inviting us to enlarge our understanding of the necessary conditions for public safety in our communities.

If the DOJ report is to be a living document going forward, we need to study it, build on it and critically engage with it. Whether or not the process of negotiating a consent decree gets traction, the report has altered the political and legal landscape in Chicago. It will be a powerful tool in the hands of the civil rights bar, the Chicago inspector general and other change agents. 

But it is incumbent on us as citizens to see that its recommendations are implemented. If we have learned anything over the last 13 months since the Laquan McDonald implosion, it is that the city's political leadership acts when citizens insist that they do. As our outgoing president has often reminded us, most recently in his farewell address last week, the powers and responsibilities of citizenship are not self-executing. 

It's up to us.

“DOJ report a powerful tool—in the right hands” appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, January 17, 2017

Code of Silence by Maira Khwaja

Today The Intercept published a 20,000-word, four-part investigation titled “Code of Silence.” This consuming project has been for me an extraordinary education regarding the inner workings of the Chicago Police Department.  My principal source—Officer Shannon Spalding—has a rare ability to describe the “code of silence” not as a vague culture but as a set of institutional mechanisms central to the operation of the CPD.  We are all in her debt. For if we are to make the most of the current opening for reform, we must have a clear diagnosis of the underlying pathologies that need to be addressed.  Hence the importance of stories such as the one Shannon has enabled me to tell.

Jamie

October 6, 2016

In praise of a messy police reform process by Jamie Kalven

In December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the City Council in the aftermath of the political implosion precipitated by the Laquan McDonald case. In a remarkable speech, he acknowledged the institutional conditions that give rise to police abuse and committed his administration to a sustained process of reform.

Addressing a shaken city, he evoked a crisis of the civil order that demands we break with business as usual. What is required, he suggested, is that we undertake a process of becoming a different kind of society—one, as he put it, in which a black child would be treated no differently by police than the mayor's own children.

Since uttering those words, the mayor has not always projected effective leadership. Frequent wobbles and pivots often have left him looking reactive and defensive. And he has not been good at telling the story of reform in such a way that the public can clearly see particular moves as elements of a coherent larger strategy.

Yet the city has in fact made significant progress over the last 10 months. The mayor's task force on police accountability proved independent and exceeded expectations with a report that was searching in its diagnosis and detailed in its prescriptions. Civil society groups—religious, legal, grass-roots—have entered vigorously into the process. And the walls of official secrecy that have long impeded effective police reform have continued to crumble.

The process has been messy and raucous, free-form and ad hoc, as citizen energies animated by outrage over the Laquan McDonald case have sought to find their footing in the public forum and to establish a robust, inclusive democratic process of policy formation.

That dynamic arrived at a critical juncture this week, as the City Council held hearings on Emanuel's proposed ordinance for replacing the Independent Police Review Authority with a new agency to be called the Civil Office of Police Accountability.

Replacement of IPRA was a central recommendation of the police accountability task force, which called for the creation of a new agency that would investigate police misconduct complaints with rigor, transparency and civilian oversight.

At first, the mayor balked. Then he embraced the recommendation. At the same time, moving on parallel tracks, several citizen groups set to work crafting designs for a new investigative agency. The upshot is that there are four draft ordinances, including the mayor's, that offer legislative blueprints for replacing IPRA.

When the proposed ordinances are arrayed against each other, several open issues emerge. These include whether the agency will have secure funding insulated from political pressures, whether it will have its own independent legal counsel (as opposed to relying on the City Law Office), how transparent it will be and by what mechanisms citizen oversight will be realized.

These issues are not details; they are not loose ends. If not adequately addressed, each has the potential to subvert an otherwise well-designed plan. They demand the full attention of the City Council, lest we repeat the history of IPRA being created by ordinance in 2007 to replace the discredited Office of Professional Standards—a "reform" that proved little more than a change in acronyms.

Assuming the mayor currently has the votes to enact his ordinance, business as usual at this juncture would be for his aldermanic allies to shepherd it through to a vote with as little debate as possible. We must insist on another kind of process—one that allows for a full assessment of the relative merits of different approaches to the open issues.

Only a process that itself exemplifies the qualities we seek to institutionalize—transparency, accountability, rigor—will generate legitimacy for the institutional reforms it yields.

As important as it is that we get the design of the new investigative agency right, this occasion has implications beyond itself. If we are to realize the historic opening for fundamental change born of the Laquan McDonald tragedy, then we must renew our democratic practices. In a very real sense, process is reform.

 

— Jamie Kalven

Youth Police/Project Director Chaclyn Hunt Talks Transparency, Police Accountability and Youth Engagement on Chicago Tonight by Darryl Holliday

Click the image above to watch the full Chicago Tonight video also featuring Jedidiah Brown, a pastor and community activist who founded the Young Leaders Alliance; Aislinn Pulley, a leader and organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago and Chicago Police Department spokesperson Robin Robinson. 

Click the image above to watch the full Chicago Tonight video also featuring Jedidiah Brown, a pastor and community activist who founded the Young Leaders Alliance; Aislinn Pulley, a leader and organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago and Chicago Police Department spokesperson Robin Robinson. 

"In Chicago, the simmering tensions between police and minority communities reached a boiling point after the release of the shooting video of Laquan McDonald last November. So where do law enforcement and the communities they're sworn to serve start to heal and end years – if not decades – of suspicion, antagonism and violence? We look at solutions to end the mistrust and contentious relations between minority communities and law enforcement." –WTTW   

Chaclyn Hunt is an attorney and the director of the Invisible Institute Youth/Police Project, which interviews black youth about their experiences with Chicago police. She coordinated a Youth/Police Conference at the University of Chicago Law School last year to report on youth experience with police.

Earlier this year, Hunt co-authored a working paper on Chicago police practices from the perspective of young black people called, “They Have all the Power: Youth/Police Encounters on Chicago’s South Side.” The paper details the ongoing work of the Youth/Police Project.

Jamie Kalven's Acceptance Remarks for the Ridenhour Courage Prize [+VIDEO] by Darryl Holliday

JAMIE KALVEN:  Thank you, Wes. My first reaction when Randy called to tell me I'd been selected to receive the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize was to recall a Robert Benchley line my father was very fond of. "You must be thinking of the other Mozart." [laughter] My second reaction was at once to be honored and humbled to have my name linked with that of Ron Ridenhour and to find myself in the company of past recipients of the prize.

My third, and enduring, reaction is profound gratitude for this acknowledgement of past work that serves as an inspiration for the work that lies ahead. When I first stood at the site of the Laquan McDonald shooting several weeks after the incident, I couldn't have imagined standing at this podium 16 months later. Nor could I have imagined the extraordinary and mysterious process by which Laquan McDonald's story has become a public narrative that bears comparison with that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till. The story has broken through into the moral imagination, providing an avenue for deeper understanding of systemic conditions that give rise to police abuse and impunity. The crime, the execution of a child on the streets of Chicago, is shocking.

Jamie Kalven, a journalist and human rights activist, who has long reported on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, is the 2016 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

Equally shocking has been the institutional response to that crime. While the boy was bleeding out on the street, the machinery of denial went into motion. Evidence was destroyed, witnesses were intimidated, police reports were falsified, public information was withheld from the public. And ultimately, a $5 million settlement was entered into by the city with the family of Laquan McDonald on the condition that the now-famous video not be released.

For 13 months, at every level and at every turn, city officials maintained a narrative about the incident they knew to be untrue. The term code of silence evokes something essential; the coerced silence of police officers who don't report misconduct by fellow officers for fear of reprisal. And equally, the silence of abused citizens who believe they have no redress.

Yet, the term is also something of a misnomer. For the larger phenomena is not a matter of silence, it's a matter of narrative control. The code is best seen as a set of tools for enforcing that control. To an extraordinary degree, in the wake of the political upheaval precipitated by the McDonald case, the City of Chicago has lost control of the narrative. [applause] This has created an historic opportunity for real and enduring reform.

As Danielle noted, last week a task force on police accountability appointed by the mayor, issued its report, a sweeping indictment of entrenched racism within the department and a detailed blueprint for reform. The report states, and I'll quote this extraordinary language again, "The police in Chicago have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color." That's from an official body in Chicago.

Racism is foundational. Issues of police accountability are embedded in the great unfinished business of American life, the blood knot of race. If reform is to run true, we must construct a path forward akin to South Africa emerging from apartheid that leads over time to a different kind of society.

It won't be easy. While this may prove to be a transformative moment, there are no transformative remedies. Rather, there are an array of concrete measures, reforms, interventions, none of them transformative in themselves, that may in the aggregate begin to change systems and cultures.

It's yet to be seen whether we'll be able to rise to the occasion. If we are to do so, we must resist the tendency, in itself a form of denial, to rush past diagnosis to prescription. While it's imperative to implement particular reforms as soon as possible, it's also critically important to sustain the process of diagnosis, of truth telling, of public acknowledgement.

The knowledge necessary to fix the system exists within the system, but it's atomized, scattered, divided from itself. In recent years in Chicago, we've broken through official secrecy and established the principle that police misconduct files are public information. We thus have unprecedented access to police disciplinary data. It's equally important, though, to access information on the ground in the communities most affected by abusive policing, and equally to create conditions such that conscientious police officer do not have to risk everything in order to report misconduct by fellow officers.

This process of public acknowledgement is exemplified by the McDonald case. We would not know the name Laquan McDonald were it not for the civic courage of two individuals who must, for the moment, themselves remain unnamed; a whistleblower in law enforcement who reached out with a tip about the case and a civilian witness, who despite his fears of police reprisals, told me what he had seen. I dedicate this unexpected and heartening award to them. Thank you.

Two Invisible Institute Staffers On Deck for FOIAfest 2016 by Darryl Holliday

 

Come learn from more than two dozen journalists and other experts on everything from police misconduct and politicians using private email for public business, to filing a public records request and digging through data. Invisible Institute founder, Jamie Kalven, and producer, Darryl Holliday will be featured on panels:

Jamie Kalven: How independent journalists, attorneys uncovered alleged police misconduct through FOIA at 10a, March 12

Darryl Holliday (via City Bureau): Tackling big stories with limited resources at 3p, March 12

Visit FOIAIllinois.org for a complete schedule and line-up of speakers.

Ticket are on sale now: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fourth-annual-freedom-of-information-fest-tickets-19160206694?aff=ebrowse

  • WHAT: FOIAFest 2016
  • WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sat., March 12
  • WHERE: Loyola University Chicago’s Water Tower campus
  • *Sessions split between Lewis Towers, 820 N. Michigan Ave. (entrance is on Pearson Street) and Corboy Law Center, 25 E. Pearson St. More details to come.

COST: (breakfast and lunch included)

  • $5 for students
  • $15 for Chicago Headline Club members
  • $20 for non-members

FOIAFest is generously supported by the Chicago Headline Club, Loyola University Chicago and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Darryl Holliday Profiles "The New Black Power" in Chicago Magazine by Darryl Holliday

Invisible Institute producer Darryl Holliday profiles Chicago's Black Lives Matter movement through one of its most prominent activist organizations, the Black Youth Project 100. The Chicago magazine piece is featured in the March issue and online here, with artwork from our partner, Illustrated Press.

The night of December 9, 2015, was a particularly tense one at the Chicago Police Department headquarters on Michigan and 35th, just south of the Loop. That afternoon, hundreds of protesters had marched up the Magnificent Mile, stopping at intersections to disrupt traffic, as they had several times since the November 24 release of the now-infamous Laquan McDonald video. Earlier in the day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had publicly apologized for the shooting death of the 17-year-old at the hands of a police officer, but that acknowledgment only seemed to fuel the outrage.
Now, as the Chicago Police Board began its monthly public meeting, a standing-room-only crowd filled the first-floor auditorium. The McDonald shooting was top of mind for many on hand. Some in the audience refused to sit quietly, resorting to chants of “Sixteen shots! Stop the cover-up!”

Invisible Institute Wins Knight News Challenge on Data by Darryl Holliday

CHICAGO -- The Invisible Institute, a journalism production company on the South Side of Chicago, has been named one of 17 winners of the Knight News Challenge on Data, which asked for ideas that make data work for individuals and communities. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the nation’s leading funder of journalism and media innovation, awarded the creative nonprofit $400K to continue to develop its Citizens Police Data Project -- the largest interactive database of police misconduct. Knight Foundation made the announcement today at a convening at Civic Hall in New York.

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Chicago After Laquan McDonald: Rebuilding the Trust by Darryl Holliday

Jamie Kalven was on a panel of journalists and policing professionals January 7, 2016, at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. The conversation, “Chicago After Laquan McDonald: Rebuilding the Trust,” included retired St. Louis Chief of Police Daniel Isom, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell and Kate Grossman as moderator.

See the full conversation below:

Chicago's police crisis falls on all of us by Rajiv Sinclair

Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as aldermen speak in favor of the resolution to create a task force looking into police misconduct, at the Chicago City Council on Dec. 9, 2015. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as aldermen speak in favor of the resolution to create a task force looking into police misconduct, at the Chicago City Council on Dec. 9, 2015. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands at the center of a crisis that threatens his administration, his political viability and his legacy.

Revelations about the city's handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald have provoked charges of a cover-up. A rising chorus is calling for the mayor's resignation. The collapse of public confidence is such that his every act and utterance is interpreted in the most negative possible light. And steps he has taken thus far to address the situation — firing the police superintendent and the head of the agency that investigates police shootings, appointing a task force to recommend reforms, embracing federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department and making an impassioned mea culpa speech to the Chicago City Council — have done little to quell public outrage.

Can the mayor rebound, restore a measure of public confidence and effectively address the institutional conditions that enable and shield police misconduct? Speaking as a journalist who has reported extensively on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, repeatedly sued the CPD under the Freedom of Information Act and played a role in bringing the McDonald case to light, I hope the mayor can rise to the challenge.

In 2008, in the midst of the cascading collapse of financial institutions, Emanuel, then President Barack Obama's chief of staff, famously remarked, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Less often quoted is the second part of that remark: The reason you don't want to waste a crisis, he said, is that it presents "the opportunity for us to do things you could not before."

What we are confronting in Chicago are systemic conditions that have long existed. The institutional responses to the killing of Laquan McDonald — the operation of the code of silence, protracted investigation as a form of cover-up, the use of settlements to avoid public and judicial scrutiny, etc. — are not departures from the norm. They are the norm.


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed city council Wednesday, saying he takes responsibility for what happened in regards to the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

The Emanuel administration did not create the dysfunctional culture within the CPD. But having inherited it, the administration accommodated itself to that culture and defended it, culminating in its deplorable handling of the McDonald case. It has a lot to answer for. Yet the political reality remains that, in the absence of a galvanizing crisis, it would have required extraordinary leadership to take on these deep pathologies.

Now the mayor's political survival hinges on making the most of the opportunity "to do things you could not do before" created by the crisis that has engulfed his administration.

In his speech to the City Council on Wednesday, he described this crisis as "a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing — and the even larger issues of truth, justice and race." He admitted that there is a code of silence within the Police Department that must be addressed. Most important, he acknowledged the reality of residents of the city who have reason to distrust the police, and he sounded the theme that police accountability is essential to effective law enforcement.

The mayor's description of deep, systemic problems within the CPD is in sharp contrast to his statement on Nov. 23 that only "one individual needs to be held accountable" in the Laquan McDonald case, Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot him. And Emanuel's acknowledgment of the code of silence directly contradicts the arguments by city lawyers who sought unsuccessfully in 2012 to have a federal judge vacate a jury verdict that included the finding that a code of silence exists within the CPD.

Only through his actions in coming days can the mayor give full credence to his words and demonstrate that he has truly broken with the past. The public and press must demand on a daily basis that he live up to those words. At the same time, it is important to recognize that we are all implicated in these conditions. The problems do not exist apart from us — from a press too often satisfied to publish the police blotter, from a passive City Council, from a citizenry conditioned to tolerate the intolerable.

We thus find ourselves in Chicago in the early stages of something akin to a truth and reconciliation process. A necessary condition for realizing this historic opportunity is public acknowledgment of the realities. Mayor Emanuel's challenge is to facilitate such an accounting and at the same time to withstand public outrage at what is revealed.

While federal intervention is welcome, it is important that it not pre-empt this unfolding political and social dynamic. For what is ultimately at stake at this pivotal moment in our history is a precious opportunity to progress from a society that tolerates apartheid justice toward one that guarantees equal treatment under the law.

— Jamie Kalven
December 10th, 2015
Chicago Tribune Op-ed

Jamie Kalven at the Chicago Urban League by Darryl Holliday

Jamie Kalven spoke at the Chicago Urban League for “Truth and Justice for All: Advancing Police and Community Accountability” panel, which examined the need for improved policing practices by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) following the deaths of Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. 


On December 9, the Chicago Urban League (CUL) brought together leading voices on social justice and legal issues for a critical discussion on how to reform the CPD and why reform is necessary. Kalven was joined by the following speakers:

Lorenzo Davis, former Chicago Police Department investigator
Craig Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law, The University of Chicago, and Founder, Civil Rights Accountability Project  
Trina Reynolds, Black Youth Project 100
Shari Runner, Interim President & CEO, Chicago Urban League
Paul Strauss, Co-Director of Litigation for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Director of the CLC’s Employment Opportunities Project
Rufus Williams, President and CEO of BBF Family Services

Invisible Institute Wins Sidney Award by Darryl Holliday

We're happy to announce that the Invisible Institute has won the December 2015 Sidney Award for the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), an interactive database of 56,000 complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago police officers.

The Sidney is awarded monthly to an outstanding piece of journalism that appeared in the prior month and includes past winners such as The New York TimesProPublicaBuzzFeed and many others.

Many thanks to The Sidney Hillman Foundation — we'll eagerly await our bottle of union-made wine.


The Right to the City by Invisible Institute

The symbolic launch of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, the City’s sweeping overhaul of its public housing, took place on December 12, 1998, more than a year before it was formalized as policy and christened with its Orwellian name. On that day, amid pomp and circumstance, the city demolished four vacant public housing high-rises by imploding them. 

The event received massive attention. As the day approached, media coverage was akin to that for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or the Chicago Marathon. On the eve of the implosion, the Chicago Tribune published an article that provided a schedule, a map of the “spectator area,” and a diagram showing how the buildings had been wired with explosives. The article included an interview with a demolition specialist who explained that the explosives were placed and timed so the structure would fall straight down, with each floor landing like a pancake on those below. “We do not blow buildings up,” he said. “We let gravity tear buildings down.” 

Whatever the technical complexities involved in the implosions, the reporter had no doubt about their meaning. They “will serve,” he wrote, “as a symbolic funeral” for the Chicago Housing Authority’s “policy of warehousing the poor in high-rises.” The Tribune editorial page underscored the point, hailing the event as “a televised tribute to the repeal of old mistakes and the laying of new foundations.” 

Known as the Lakefront Properties, the doomed buildings were located on the South Side at the edge of Lake Shore Drive. Each was 16 stories tall and contained 150 apartments. The plan was to replace them with a “mixed income community.” 

The implosion was scheduled to begin shortly after 8:00 am. The day was bright and clear; unseasonably mild for mid-December, with a brisk wind from the west. 

The best vantage point was a sliver of parkland along the lakefront east of the Drive directly across from the buildings. People approached this spot from the north and from the south. 

The first building to be demolished at Stateway Gardens with the downtown Chicago skyline in the background.  PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS 

The first building to be demolished at Stateway Gardens with the downtown Chicago skyline in the background. 

PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS 

They came on foot, having left their cars some distance away, for there was little parking nearby. Many had cameras 

and camcorders. Some had children in tow or on their shoulders. Estimated to be about 1,200, the crowd was largely composed of spectators from elsewhere in the city and the suburbs, most of them white, who would never have come to this part of the South Side under normal circumstances. Mixed among them were some former residents: people for whom the buildings had been home. 

The dominant note of the gathering was celebratory. It was hard to place at first. A pilgrimage? A sporting event? It occurred to me later that what it most resembled was a public execution. 

In preparation for the implosion, agile Bobcat bulldozers had pushed down the interior walls of the high-rises. The eviscerated structures had then been wired with explosives. A big yellow banner reading “Brandenburg Demolition” was strung across the front of one of the buildings. 

Carefully choreographed by the City, the meaning of the spectacle was encapsulated in a simple equation:

public housing high-rises = multiple urban ills
ergo: demolition = progress

The press was present in force, with cameras poised and at the ready to broadcast that message far and wide. 

A viewing stand had been erected for dignitaries. They included HUD officials, local politicians and representatives of Chicago philanthropy. In a brief ceremony, several spoke of the significance of the event. 

“This is the beginning of a new era,” said a HUD spokesperson. 

“We look forward,” declared a MacArthur Foundation executive, “to a triumphant future.” 

The crowd chanted a countdown—“three, two, one, zero!”—and the explosives were detonated. The noise was surprisingly loud. 

Ten seconds passed. Three buildings gave way and collapsed,
then a few seconds later the fourth. Their structural integrity was undone in an instant, yet the materials that composed them hung suspended in the air like someone mortally wounded who stays on his feet for a bewildered moment before falling to the ground. Then it was over. The buildings were gone. 

The crowd cheered.

“Now you see it, now you don’t,” a man said to his companion. For most looking on, it was pure spectacle. But for some the moment was colored by grief.
“All them memories over there,” a woman standing beside me said quietly. “They took it all away.”
Then something unexpected happened. A thick cloud of dust rose from the ground back up into the air as if attempting to reconstitute the ghost buildings. After a minute or so, it was carried east by the wind and enveloped the crowd. The coarse particles darkened the sky and reduced visibility to a few feet. They fell on everyone, covering their clothes, penetrating into every exposed opening. People coughed and rubbed their eyes. They scrambled to shield their children and protect their cameras. Some ran for cover. 

After the bright rhetoric and dawn-of-a-new-day symbolism, the dark cloud descending equally and without distinction on policymakers, spectators and former residents was as startling—as implicating—as being splattered with blood. Drifting out over the city, the windblown particles of what had once been a community foreshadowed a future in which the disappearing act we had just witnessed would have consequences. 

Resident Pat Evans and her son on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS

Resident Pat Evans and her son on the grounds of Stateway Gardens.
PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS

 

“TRANSFORMATION” 

Seventeen years later, that future has arrived. During the intervening years, the sight of public housing high-rises being demolished, though never again imploded, became common in Chicago. In a remarkably short span of time, the archipelago of high-rise developments that had constituted a city within the city disappeared. The Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, the Cabrini-Green Homes, Rockwell Gardens, the Ida B. Wells Homes, the Harold Ickes Homes—these and other developments were not simply demolished; they were erased. And almost overnight, it seemed, the land where they had stood reverted to urban prairie. 

Today some 350 acres once inhabited by the poorest, most vulnerable residents of the city stand vacant.[1] Such mixed-income developments as have been built on former public housing sites are, for the most part, strangely un-urban—even anti-urban—places, and relations within them between market-rate and public housing residents are often toxic. The headlong implementation of the Plan has also had consequences for the fragile neighborhoods to which displaced public housing tenants were relocated, causing collateral damage to local institutions and almost surely contributing to spikes in the homicide rate. 

Whatever else might be said about the Plan for Transformation, one thing is beyond question: the disappearing of places and people really works. To the extent the communities obliterated by the Plan can be said to survive, they are preserved in the memories, griefs and stories of those for whom they were home. They will never, however, be reconstituted as living places. They are utterly gone. 

It is hard not to accept and accommodate to the altered facts on the ground. Yet the implications of doing so are profound. For that which has been disappeared remains powerfully present. The phenomenon is akin to black holes. Invisible to the eye, they can be detected by the ways their gravitational fields distort the visible world. 

I witnessed this extraordinary process—this “transformation”— from beginning to end, on the ground in one of the communities “transformed”: the Stateway Gardens development, where I worked for more than a decade as an organizer and tenant advocate. The attachment to place I observed among Stateway residents was unusually strong. This was due in no small part, I suspect, to the fact that it was a place for those for whom, within the American caste system, there was no other place. 

Early in my immersion in Stateway, I learned from public health researcher and advocate Mindy Fullilove to reject the inevitable characterization of impoverished inner-city communities as “isolated.”[2] These communities are not isolated, she argues; they are abandoned. It was an important lesson—a critical distinction. Isolation suggests the poor and disfavored somehow moved away from the rest of the society. Abandonment, by contrast, asserts relationships and forms of accountability. 

Yet to an extraordinary degree, conditions that should be the basis for calling various public and private institutions to account are evoked by those very institutions to advance their agendas. They make a massive ongoing investment in maintaining a narrative that absolves them of responsibility and blames residents for the condition of their neighborhood. 

Among Gandhi’s greatest intellectual contributions is his insistence on the nexus between falsehood and violence: the former is necessarily enforced by the latter. In the case of Chicago’s public housing “transformation,” it was inevitable, given the character of the official narrative, that the process of demolition and forced relocation would do violence to the identities of residents. 

Human beings are adaptive. Under conditions of abandonment, they find ways to survive, to create meaning and beauty, 

to be at home in the world. So it was at Stateway and other high-rise public housing communities. It was my great good fortune to come to understand, not as an abstraction but as a daily reality, that Stateway Gardens—and by extension other public housing developments— were the sites of communities as complex and unfathomable, embracing as wide a spectrum of human variety, as any other. 

Basketball tournament organized by young men at Stateway Gardens. PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS

Basketball tournament organized by young men at Stateway Gardens.
PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS

I have written extensively about the afterlife of violence. [3] A central motif that emerges from the accounts of those who have suffered torture, rape and other violent assaults is the image of being torn out of the world, of having their connections—the relationships and attachments that give meaning to their lives—severed. Such is the nature, if not the degree, of the violence inflicted on Chicago public housing residents in the name of “new beginnings.” 

Imagine having the known world, the world by which you know yourself, destroyed. Then imagine being told that this trauma was inflicted for your own good and that your grief over the loss is pathological. 

That perverse logic was essential to the ideological underpinnings of the Plan. Central among them: anything is better than this. In the late 1990s, after allowing conditions in high-rise public housing to deteriorate over generations, the City suddenly announced that those conditions were intolerable. This apparent moral awakening did not take the form of confronting the mass of discreet practical problems arising from longstanding patterns of incompetence, inattention, corruption and racism. Rather, the city declared monolithic systems failure. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand produced the opposite of accountability. It effectively gave the political and economic interests that had built the high-rise developments carte blanche to profit from tearing it down. 

Only the most robust democratic discourse could have withstood that powerful confluence of interests. Yet there was no such discourse. Housing policy experts and urban planners, civic leaders and philanthropists, journalists and editorial writers—none provided critical perspectives commensurate with the scale and implications of the Plan for Transformation. The silence of preservationists was particularly striking, in view of the fact that the Plan was comparable in its impact to the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 60s that provoked the birth of their movement. [4] 

The Chicago experience thus presents a question with implications that extend beyond Chicago: what responsibilities do preservationists bear to abandoned places and to populations threatened with invisibility? Does historic preservation have any relevance to the experiences and priorities of those who struggle to remain visible in our cities and our democracy? 

Children at Stateway compete with one another, doing flips on to a discarded mattress.  PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS 

Children at Stateway compete with one another, doing flips on to a discarded mattress. 
PHOTO BY PATRICIA EVANS 

 

IMAGINING AN ALTERNATIVE

A thought experiment: what qualities would have been required for the preservation movement to play a constructive role in Chicago’s urban drama? What would a movement equipped to address current and future threats to other abandoned communities look like? 

For one thing, the central focus of such a movement would be on places rather than buildings. It would recognize that places are dynamic and hence that it is necessary to think in ecological terms about the mesh of relationships that support their vitality, adapt- ability and resilience—qualities that such a movement would, above all, be dedicated to preserving and enhancing. 

Paradoxically, such an orientation requires that preservationists look past the built environment—past an abandoned public housing high-rise, say—in order to discern the relational ecology essential to the character of the place for those living there. Such an approach requires an ethnographic openness to the variety of ways human beings adapt to particular circumstances. It is a matter of asking what supports life in this place—and equally, what stunts life—without allowing moralistic judgments to immediately preempt the inquiry. (One of the most counterproductive and insulting aspects of the Plan for Transformation has been the confident ease with which it ascribes underclass deviance as measured against the gold standard of middle-class norms, as opposed to recognizing cultural difference.) 

In order to discern what is valued by members of a given community, preservationists must be prepared to set aside their expertise with respect to the architecturally and historically significant and seek local knowledge. Not an easy dance to do, but necessary. For the true experts with respect to the qualities of a place are those living there. This is necessarily immersive work, a matter of putting aside preconceptions, exercising active curiosity, and listening deeply. The effort may seem disproportionate, but there are certain things that can only be learned on the ground. 

The practice of preservation, as I am envisioning it, would recognize that the fate of places and communities is, first of all, determined in the semantic realm. This is one of the lessons bequeathed by the Chicago experience. Power does not impose itself nakedly. It requires ideological justification to facilitate its ends. That the official narrative is patently false, even absurd, doesn’t matter so long as it is uncontested. What is required is not our belief but our acquiescence. 

This dynamic gives rise to a sphere of potential resistance where preservationists might play an effective role as disinterested advocates of vital communities, challenging the disconnect between the official narrative and observable realities on the ground, and insisting on diagnostic clarity. As Vaclav Havel observed in another context, “a world of appearances trying to pass for reality” is vulnerable to any act that makes visible an alternative. “It is utterly unimportant,” he writes, “how large a space that alternative occupies: its power does not consist in its physical attributes but in the light it casts.” [5] 

Returning to the Chicago experience, not only was the official narrative defamatory of residents, not only did it necessitate an assault on their identities, it was also stupefying. It stifled creativity and hobbled adaptability. The fiction of monolithic systems failure— a failed experiment—necessitated the immensely wasteful destruction of a huge inventory of housing, a significant portion of which could have been reconfigured and rehabbed. The fiction that conditions in the developments were due to a design flaw—the high-rises themselves were to blame rather than gross negligence by the city-as-landlord—precluded the construction of any high-rises in redevelopment projects, even when conditions were optimal and more affordable housing could have thereby been created. Above all, the fiction that public housing communities were bad places— that anything was better than this—blinded those driving the process to resources within the communities that could have been drawn upon in a process of genuine renewal. 

The work of challenging the “world of appearances trying to pass for reality” is thus of great practical importance. To the extent that it is successful, it opens up space for creativity and innovation. The preservation movement I am positing would vigorously inhabit that space. Its respect for and curiosity about the webs of meaning, patterns of usage, and strata of memory grounded in a particular place would almost surely yield design innovations and creative repurposing of familiar structures and materials. Most important,
this quality of attention would contribute to more humane processes of development that honor memory and grief, thereby enabling community members to remain moored in the midst of change. 
 

RECASTING PRESERVATION’S ROLE

Is such a paradigm shift possible? George Orwell once observed that sometimes one’s “first duty” is “the restatement of the obvious.” In that spirit: the built environment testifies to past and current injustices. In abandoned communities, failures of democracy are manifest not only in disenfranchisement and patterns of violence arising from powerlessness but also in injuries to place that reflect and reinforce the social status of those living there. Those physical conditions are as essential to enforcing structures of inequality and exclusion as the disparities in policing that have commanded so much attention in the post-Ferguson era. 

Viewed in such a light, the central assumption of the preservation movement—that attachment to place is a fundamental human need—is a demanding principle. It can be recast, in the idiom of the international human rights movement, as the right to the city. And it dictates that the movement directly engage the ways structural inequalities in our society are expressed, reinforced and hidden by the built environment. Could it be that a robust, inclusive future for this movement, so easily caricatured as elitist, turns on embracing the radical nature of its underlying premises and following where they lead? 

 

[1]  This inventory will soon be reduced—not by construction of new housing but by deals the housing authority has entered into with big box stores and sports facilities hungry for large parcels of land.

[2]  For a description of Fullilove’s current work, see Robert Sullivan, “The Town Shrink,” New York Times Magazine, June 23, 2015.

[3]  See Jamie Kalven, Working With Available Light: A Family’s World After Violence (W. W. Norton, 1999).

[4]  Two exceptions serve to sharpen the point. First, preservationists have supported the effort to establish a National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. Second, they successfully challenged plans to demolish the Lathrop Homes, the last major redevelopment project in the Chicago Housing Authority’s portfolio, arguing that its architecture and landscaping are historically significant. Both are instances, however welcome, of traditional preservation advocacy. What preservationists did not do is engage the realities on the ground as perceived and experienced by residents. Nor did they contribute to a process by which the things residents valued about their places and wanted to preserve were acknowledged and given weight.

[5]  Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990 (Vintage, 1992).