My father was a housing authority executive director during much of the 1970s and 1980s. He was fairly well known, having established one or two of the main housing authority directors’ professional associations, and having developed the shared risk pool insurance system which reduced the cost of running public housing projects buy tens of percent. Jimmy Carter offered him the HUD directorship, but he asked to be relieved of that request but reconsidered when Carter was re-elected. Which he wasn’t, else we may have spent a few years in Washington.
Anyway, it was not terribly unlikely for Joe (that was his name) to be asked to give the keynote address at a major housing authority meeting in Chicago one year. And, since dad was also a good Democrat (until later in his life) and well connected to the Albany Machine, the mayor of Chicago knew him well and was warm in his welcome to the Windy City. In fact, the Mayor personally drove (well, was driven, in his limo) over to the hotel my father was staying in, before the noon-time keynote, to surprise him, get a drink or something, and drive him personally to the meeting.
When the Mayor arrived at the hotel, however, he found that my father was gone.
There was no response on the phone in his room, and the two or three colleagues who around had no idea where he was. A check at the desk revealed that Joe had been seen leaving the hotel about four hours earlier, after having some breakfast. The Mayor’s security detail inquired at the front door, expecting to find out that he had gone shopping in a nearby mall or something, but were startled to learn that my father had asked for a cab to Cabrini-Green, the Chicago housing complex famous in those days for being the murder center of the country, as well as a hotbed of racial tension, and run by gangs. The doormen knew he was going to Cabrini-Green because there had been a kerfuffle when Joe told the cab guy about his destination. It took some work to get someone to drive him to near Cabrini-Green, to a point from which my father would be required to walk.
It was assumed by the police and the mayor that a white man wearing a suit walking around Cabrini-Green would not survive very long, and the fact that he had not been heard from for the entire morning did not bode well. A call was put in and patrol cars were sent to the area and a search begun. No trace was found of my father, as though he had disappeared into thin air. Or, perhaps, he was mugged, beaten up, murdered, cut into little pieces and cannibalized by one of the horrid gangs that operated in the area.
Keeping in constant touch with the chief of police, who was by now personally directing the search and rescue operation in America’s Worst Ghetto, the mayor went to the conference hotel because that was the original plan and it was not clear what else to do. And, of course, at five minutes before noon, my father walked through the hotel lobby and into the conference hall, ready to take the stage after the mayor’s introduction. He was unscathed.
He told the audience that he had not prepared a speech for that day. Instead, he told them, he decided that since he was in Chicago, one of America’s greatest cities, he’d stop by a randomly chosen housing project and see what great things were being done there. He also told them that his preference was to speak directly to the people, so he went to the housing project unannounced and simply introduced himself to several residents, visited them in their homes, walked around the projects with some of them, and found out how things were going.
And now, armed with direct knowledge of how things were in a particular housing project in America’s Greatest City, he was ready to make a report.
And he did. And I have a feeling that there were people in the audience who were mortified, and a lot more that were amused. I don’t know the details of what his speech contained, but he did make reference, when he told me about it later, to “telling it like it is” and not caring much about how happy or unhappy the people in the room might have been to hear the truth. Which was delivered, I’m sure, with biting humor and wafting poignancy.
And now, we have this:
Only two families remain in the last standing high rise in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex and they could move out as soon as Tuesday.
The move marks the end of an era in Chicago’s troubled public housing history, as the Chicago Housing Authority has been gradually moving residents out and tearing down the high rises at Cabrini and other public housing developments in the city.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley praised the end of what he called a troubled era of public housing policy that warehoused large concentrations of poor people.
“It destroyed families,” he said. “It moved people from rural communities into high rises. They had no supportive services and it completely failed.”