Fighting for the Projects | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Fighting for the Projects 

May

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"Hey Cool, you must be excited--you been reading the papers?" It was mid-May, and I had dropped in on a friend of mine who lives in Cheerful Towers, a west-side Chicago Housing Authority high-rise project.

"You know I read the papers. What I s'pose be flyin' off over?"

"Come on, you know--HUD says it wants to take control of the projects away from the CHA. They just said so in court yesterday. And the CHA says it isnt going to let them."

Cool let loose a huge yawn.

"Cool--you're the one who's always telling me how neglected these projects are. I thought you'd be pleased to see that two big government agencies care about them enough to battle over them. I mean, when was the last time anyone fought to run these buildings?"

Cool frowned impatiently. "You ain' never heard of the Disciples and the Vice Lords?"

"That's a bit unfair, isn't it--comparing HUD and the CHA to a couple of drug-dealing street gangs?"

"It be unfair, yes sir--unfair to the gangs," Cool said. "Hey--I don' go for what the gangs be dealin', but least they know how to run their b'ness. I mean, check it out: they got salesmen conveniently located throughout the project; they'll take your order roun'-the-clock; and they deliver on the spot. CHA was dealin', put people on three-month waitin' lists and deliver the goods in six, to the wrong apartment, maybe the wrong project. HUD wouldn' do no better."

Cool suddenly sat up and slapped the wall behind him. A cockroach fell to the floor. Cool has a sixth sense for roaches, an instinct that develops, he says, when you grow up in the projects.

"The gangs were a little p.o.'d," Cool went on, "hear HUD runnin' on 'bout takin' control from CHA. I mean, since when CHA been in control of this place? HUD wan' mess with the peoples in charge, should head straight for the breezeways."

"But aren't you glad to see city officials fighting to keep the projects?" I asked. "They sound so concerned."

"Ain' you the least bit s'picious that jive-ass shit?" Cool said. "I mean, CHA right now s'pose' fix couple hunnert toilets, replace few thou' light bulbs, waste umpteen million roaches. S'pose' fix these buildin's back up, which--what they say in the paper--they need $750 million to do. S'pose stop all these rapists and muggers from rapin' and muggin'. Someone come' long, say, 'I'll do it! I'll do it!' You gonna argue with 'em? Harold shoulda quick shoved the keys in their hands, offered to toss in the CTA and the schools."

"Then why are city officials clinging so desperately to the projects? They sure act like the projects are important to them."

"Oh, they important to 'em, all right. Mean a whole lotta contracts to give out to a whole lotta people--people who 'preciate what a fair, honest city we got now, and the price you gotta pay keep it that way. Hey, don' you read the papers? Don' say FBI is investigatin' some CHA 'ficial for puttin' the hit on contractors?"

"Well, yes. But the official has said that when he asked contractors to consider giving to the mayor's reelection fund, he told them not to even think about the fact that he was in charge of CHA contracts."

"Yeah. And the gangbangers here tell the blue boys, 'Oh, no, off'cer, I wasn't threatenin' him--I was just showin' him what the gun looked like, nex' his head.'"

"Sounds like you side with HUD."

"Ha. That trash HUD talkin' smell 'bout like one our stairwells. All those rats and roaches and leaky toilets CHA don' really wan'--why should HUD wan' 'em, either?"

"My next question."

"Well, they really don'. They don' wan' nothin' to do with these places, don' wan' come near 'em--Washington ain' far 'nough away. They said so in the paper--they ain' gon' fix nothin' themselves--they gon' hire someone else come in run things. Someone who ain' gon' cry, 'These places need the long green' every other day."

"So HUD just wants to hang on to its money?"

"That number one. Number two, HUD don' think it right, all the swindlin' been gon' on. CHA been thievin'. CHA been givin' contracts to friends. CHA milkin' the projects these many years. HUD say that ain' straight. HUD say it their turn."

"So the federal government isn't really committed to the projects, either?"

"Yeah, they c'mitted to 'em. They cut Section Eight, right? They cuttin' the money for housin' poor peoples in differen' neighborhoods, right? They cuttin' money for poor peoples, period. Yeah, they c'mitted to the projects--wan' make it so more folks can wind up here, and stay."

"But Cool, if you had to choose?"

"Really, don' mean shit who wins. Lotta difference it make it be a local or fed, janitor never come 'roun'."

"And who do you think will win?"

"Tough call. HUD on top in the firepower--got the money, the badass lawyers. But fightin' head up, CHA got the 'vantage, 'cause they hip to the street-fightin' ways." Cool snickered heartily. "They know all 'bout the strong-arm, the shakedown, and the kickback. Should be one bad jam."

In July, the CHA-HUD war was still raging. Each agency had released reports viciously attacking the other, and each blamed the condition of the projects on the other. There was daily sniping in the press from both sides. HUD was withholding money from the CHA and had its lawyers gathering evidence that would justify a takeover. The CHA had mobilized its own lawyers to prepare a defense.

I stopped by Cool's again, wondering whether the battle was affecting life in the projects.

"Just like when the gangs get in each other's eyes," Cool said, "it be innocen' peoples get thumped. See, HUD say it gon' whup these CHA 'ficials who ain' cooperatin'. So it don' send the dollars here. So CHA don' pay the suppliers, and the suppliers stop comin'. So we without light bulbs. That how HUD whup the CHA--by leavin' us trippin' in the dark.

"CHA so broke now, they cut the janitors--and the waitin' lists got even longer. We on so many waitin' lists, can' keep 'em straight. Got broke-in on two weeks back, so on one list get the lock fixed. Sink is leakin' bad--that another list. Exterminatin', number three. Someone ripped out our mailbox downstairs--four. I call 'em up right now, say, 'Hey, my crib's on fire,' they tell me, 'OK, we'll sign you up.'"

"Well, hang in there, Cool," I said. "Things are going to change, at least if the CHA maintains control. Mayor Washington has big plans for the projects--says he's going to make them 'a role model for the nation.'"

Cool pulled a penny from his pocket and lined it over my shoulder. I heard the bug go splat.

"Mayor aimin' kin' high," said Cool. "Should try for 'livable.'"

"No really--the mayor's going to put an end to cronyism, an end to the corruption."

"Yeah. That what we heard when he gon' for office first time--'no more cronyism in the CHA.' Then he put Renault Robinson up top. I guess Robinson train' for the job by bein' Harold's campaign manager a time. Then Renault blew $7 million our money missin' a deadline, had to quit so the mayor get reelected. So then the mayor put Reverend [B. Herbert] Martin in. Guess he train' for the job by bein' the mayor's pastor. And how 'bout that real estate dude mayor picked for CHA board couple months back? Mayor said then he namin' a 'first-class' board, 'second to none.' Come out the guy bribin' a 'ficial to get tax breaks. Yeah, things really different."

"Well, if the CHA is so corrupt, you should be rooting for HUD to take over."

"Yeah, they so much more honest. Like that one HUD 'ficial in Washington keep sayin' HUD got a 'spons'bility to taxpayers to end CHA's funny b'ness. Then it come out FBI is 'vestigatin' him 'cause two big-buck government contracts in Washington gon' to his woman."

"Well, maybe you're right about HUD. The CHA board members are telling tenants they'd better speak out against the takeover attempt, that living conditions would deteriorate seriously under HUD."

Cool laughed uncontrollably. "Look--I'm gon' run it down for you. Bathroom sink leaks. Toilet backs up. Plaster fallin' off the ceilin' in the bedroom. Halts and stairwells dark, and elevator so slow, best bring a lunch. Never know when you gon' get stuck-up or shot. HUD prob'ly wouldn' make it no better, but how they gon' make it worse--nuke the place?"

The war finally ended, tranquilly, in mid-September. The CHA appointed Jerome Van Gorkom, a retired Republican business executive, its managing director. This satisfied HUD, which then agreed not to proceed with its takeover attempt. Peace has reigned since: though HUD made no commitment to increase funding for the projects, city officials have quieted down about the lack of federal support, and HUD officials are mum about CHA mismanagement.

I visited Cool again recently. He wasn't impressed with the agreement.

"Roun' here we say 'When the gangs start shakin' hands, time to fly home and hide 'neath the covers.'"

"But everyone says that Van Gorkom is a financial wizard. Remember, he helped bail out the schools eight years ago from their worst financial crisis."

"And test scores just shot up then, didn' they?"

"But this is a good compromise for everyone, Reverend Martin says. He called it a 'win-win' agreement."

"Yeah. Everybody get to keep somethin'. HUD get to keep money from us. CHA get to keep power over us."

"And the tenants?"

Cool's foot suddenly knifed the air in front of me, landing with a thump on the floor. He lifted it and pointed at the crumpled roach. "There you go, my man--that what we get to keep."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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