The posthumous Pulitzer Prize awarded last week to Ida B. Wells honors the best aspects of journalism. Wells’s unfathomably courageous crusade against lynching, even as a reporter in the Deep South, will now receive the greater recognition which the Mississippi native so richly deserves.
At the same time, it is worth reflecting on the misguided recognition which Wells previously received and which continues to bear bitter fruit: the infamous Chicago public housing project named for her. Wells, without her consent (for she had already died at the time it was constructed) became associated with public housing, which has proven itself a means of deliberate government racial segregation, the denial of the opportunity for financial asset accumulation to African Americans, and frighteningly oppressive living conditions, the legacy of which persists today. The same counter-productive program has, furthermore, borrowed the names of any number of African American heroes for its dubious cause.
The 1,662-unit Ida B. Wells Homes were built by the Public Works Administration in Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood and opened in 1941, eight years after Wells’s death. In keeping with federal regulation mandating that public housing not alter the residential racial composition of its neighborhoods, the Wells homes were reserved for African Americans. Progressives (led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke at the opening of a similar project in Detroit) were convinced they were doing African Americans a favor: replacing substandard neighborhoods with safe and sanitary housing that would stay that way.
It did not.
It’s worth noting, first, that the very concept of government-owned and managed housing was a blow to black upward mobility of the sort Wells favored through her work with the NAACP and as a newspaper editor. Census data show that, in the Chicago neighborhoods demolished to make way for public housing, some 32% of residential structures were owner-occupied. The neighborhood was served, as well, by a great many black-owned businesses. But public housing wiped all that away — by definition, the percentage of owner-occupancy in the projects was zero. Nor were stores included in the progressive, Le Corbusier-influenced vision.
The combination of government ownership and management, and a collapse of the original idea that the rents of low-income tenants could support the physical maintenance of the project, led the Wells homes to become synonymous with some of the most squalid and dangerous living conditions in the United States. They became the headquarters of the violent Black P. Stone Rangers gang; a hub for cocaine distribution; and the subject of a series of affecting documentary films about their abject living conditions (notably Frederick Wiseman’s Public Housing). It may not have been lynching, but horrible deaths were commonplace at the Wells homes — including the incident of a five-year-old pushed out a 14-story window after he refused to steal candy for older youths.
Between 2002 and 2011, the Ida B. Wells Homes were demolished — and replaced by yet another chimeric idea. “Mixed-income” housing meant, like the original public housing, to use improved physical conditions to uplift the poor. The Wells Homes’ successor, Oakwood Shores, was, like many such projects, predicated on the idea that it was public housing’s “concentration of poverty” that was its main problem.
But if one examines the Yelp reviews of the rental units in Oakwood Shores, one cannot help but conclude that public management itself (for Oakwood Shores is still a Chicago Housing Authority property) is problematic. Management, says one review, is “useless and not friendly.” “They are the worst,” says another review. “They nickel and dime their tenants and don’t fix anything in a timely manner. I would never recommend them to anyone.”
It is sad, in that light, that groups are seeking funds to build a memorial to Wells at the new project.
Just as sad is the fact that so much poorly maintained public housing is named for prominent black Americans. In New York, home to the nation’s largest public authorities, there are projects named for Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, the latter of whom is the author of the famous anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing, with lyrics such as the following: “Sing a Song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a Song, full of the hope that the present has brought us.” The Johnson homes, like those named for Hughes and Douglas, remain as segregated as when they were built.
Wells herself wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” In that spirit, we need to admit that the demolition of black neighborhoods, and the replacement of these neighborhoods with ill-conceived public housing, disproportionately harmed African Americans — and was no way to honor Ida B. Wells. It would be far better to honor her with a statue on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile — in front of the Tribune Tower.
This piece first appeared at the Washington Examiner
Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr