T HE ALTGELD GARDENS PUBLIC housing project sat at Chicago’s southernmost edge: two thousand apartments arranged in a series of two-story brick buildings with army-green doors and grimy mock shutters. Everybody in the area referred to Altgeld as “the Gardens” for short, although it wasn’t until later that I considered the irony of the name, its evocation of something fresh and well tended-a sanctified earth.
True, there was a grove of trees just south of the project, and running south and west of that was the Calumet River, where you could sometimes see men flick fishing lines lazily into darkening waters. But the fish that swam those waters were often strangely discolored, with cataract eyes and lumps behind their gills.
People ate their catch only if they had to.
To the east, on the other side of the expressway, was the Lake Calumet landfill, the largest in the Midwest.
And to the north, directly across the street, was the Metropolitan Sanitary District’s sewage treatment plant. The people of Altgeld couldn’t see the plant or the open-air vats that went on for close to a mile; as part of a recent beautification effort, the district maintained a long wall of earth in front of the facility, dotted with hastily planted saplings that refused to grow month after month, like hairs swept across a bald man’s head. But officials could do nothing to hide the smell-a heavy, putrid odor that varied in strength depending on the temperature and the wind’s direction, and seeped through windows no matter how tightly they were shut.
The stench, the toxins, the empty, uninhabited landscape. For close to a century, the few square miles surrounding Altgeld had taken in the offal of scores of factories, the price people had paid for their highwage jobs. Now that the jobs were gone, and those people that could had already left, it seemed only natural to use the land as a dump.
A dump-and a place to house poor blacks. Altgeld may have been unique in its physical isolation, but it shared with the city’s other projects a common history: the dreams of reformers to build decent housing for the poor; the politics that had concentrated such housing away from white neighborhoods, and prevented working families from living there; the use of the Chicago Housing Authority-the CHA-as a patronage trough; the subsequent mismanagement and neglect. It wasn’t as bad as Chicago’s high-rise projects yet, the Robert Taylors and Cabrini Greens, with their ink-black stairwells and urine-stained lobbies and random shootings. Altgeld’s occupancy rate held steady at ninety percent, and if you went inside the apartments, you would more often than not find them well-kept, with small touches-a patterned cloth thrown over torn upholstery, an old calendar left hanging on the wall for its tropical beach scenes-that expressed the lingering idea of home.
Still, everything about the Gardens seemed in a perpetual state of disrepair. Ceilings crumbled. Pipes burst. Toilets backed up. Muddy tire tracks branded the small, brown lawns strewn with empty flower planters-broken, tilted, half buried. The CHA maintenance crews had stopped even pretending that repairs would happen any time soon. So that most children in Altgeld grew up without ever having seen a garden. Children who could see only that things were used up, and that there was a certain pleasure in speeding up the decay.
I took the turn into Altgeld at 131st and came to a stop in front of Our Lady of the Gardens Church, a flat brick building toward the rear of the development. I was there to meet some of our key leaders, to talk about the problems in our organizing effort, and how we might get things back on track. But as I cut off the engine and started reaching for my briefcase, something stopped me short. The view, perhaps; the choking gray sky. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the car seat, feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship.
Over two months had passed since the botched police meeting, and things had gone badly. There had been no marches, no sit-ins, no freedom songs. Just a series of miscues and misunderstandings, tedium and stress. Part of the problem was our base, which-in the city, at least-had never been large: eight Catholic parishes flung across several neighborhoods, all with black congregations but all led by white priests. They were isolated men, these priests, mostly of Polish or Irish descent, men who had entered the seminary in the sixties intending to serve the poor and heal racial wounds but who lacked the zeal of their missionary forefathers; kinder men, perhaps better men, but also softer for their modernity. They had seen their sermons of brotherhood and goodwill trampled under the stampede of white flight, their efforts at recruiting new members met with suspicion by the dark faces-mostly Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal-now surrounding their churches. Marty had convinced them that organizing would break this isolation, that it would not only stop the neighborhoods’ decline but also reenergize their own parishes and rekindle their spirits. That hope had been fragile, though, and by the time I met with them they had already resigned themselves to their disappointments.
“The truth is,” one of the priests told me, “most of us out here are looking to get a transfer. The only reason I’m still around is that nobody’s willing to replace me.”
Morale was even worse among the laity, black folks like Angela, Shirley, and Mona, the three women I’d met at the rally. They were spirited, good-humored women, those three, women who-without husbands to help-somehow managed to raise sons and daughters, juggle an assortment of part-time jobs and small business schemes, and organize Girl Scout troops, fashion shows, and summer camps for the parade of children that wandered through the church every day. Since none of the three actually lived in Altgeld-they all owned small houses just west of the project-I had asked them once what motivated them to do what they did. Before I could finish the question, they had all rolled their eyes as if on cue.
“Watch out, girl,” Angela told Shirley, causing Mona to chuckle merrily. “Barack’s about to interview you. He’s got that look.”
And Shirley said, “We’re just a bunch of bored middle-aged women, Barack, with nothing better to do with our time. But”-and here Shirley threw a hand onto her bony hip and raised her cigarette to her lips like a
movie star-“if Mr. Right comes along, then watch out! It’s good-bye Altgeld, hello Monte Carlo!”
I hadn’t heard any jokes from them lately, though. All I’d heard were complaints. The women complained that Marty didn’t care about Altgeld. They complained that Marty was arrogant and didn’t listen to their suggestions.
Most of all, they complained about the new job bank that we had announced with such fanfare the night of the rally, but that had turned out to be a bust. As Marty had planned it, a state university out in the suburbs had been assigned to run the program-it was a matter of efficiency, he explained, since the university had the computers already in place. Unfortunately, two months after it was supposed to have started, no one had found work through the program. The computers didn’t work right; the data entry was plagued with errors; people were sent to interview for jobs that didn’t exist. Marty was livid, and at least once a week he would have to drive out to the university, cursing under his breath as he tried to pry answers out of officials who seemed more concerned with next year’s funding cycle. But the women from Altgeld weren’t interested in Marty’s frustrations. All they knew was that $500,000 had gone somewhere, and it wasn’t in their neighborhood. For them, the job bank became yet more evidence that Marty had used them to push a secret agenda, that somehow whites in the suburbs were getting the jobs they’d been promised.
“Marty’s just looking out for his own,” they grumbled.
I had tried my best to mediate the conflict, defending Marty against charges of racism, suggesting to him that he cultivate more tact. Marty told me I was wasting my time. According to him, the only reason Angela and the other leaders in the city were sore was because he’d refused to hire them to run the program. “That’s what ruins a lot of so-called community organizations out here. They start taking government money. They hire big, do-nothing staffs. Pretty soon, they’ve become big patronage operations, with clients to be serviced. Not leaders. Clients. To be serviced.” He spit the words out, as if they were unclean. “Jesus, it makes you sick just thinking about it.”
And then, seeing the still-fretful look on my face, he added, “If you’re going to do this work, Barack, you’ve got to stop worrying about whether people like you. They won’t.”
Patronage, politics, hurt feelings, racial grievances-they were all of a piece to Marty, distractions from his larger purpose, corruptions of a noble cause. He was still trying to bring the union in then, convinced that they would replenish our ranks, deliver our ship to shore. One day in late September, he had asked Angela and me to join him at a meeting with union officials from LTV Steel, one of the few remaining steel operations in the city. It had taken Marty over a month to set up the meeting, and he was brimming with energy that day, talking at a rapid clip about the company, the union, and new phases in the organizing campaign.
Eventually the president of the local-a young, handsome Irishman who’d been recently elected on a promise of reform-entered the hall, along with two husky black men, the union treasurer and vice-president. After the introductions, we all sat down and Marty made his pitch. The corporation was preparing to get out of the steelmaking business, he said, and wage concessions would only prolong the agony. If the union wanted to preserve jobs, it had to take some new, bold steps. Sit down with the churches and develop a plan for a worker buyout. Negotiate with the city for concessionary utility and tax rates during the transition. Pressure the banks to provide loans that could be used to invest in the new technology needed to make the plant competitive again.Throughout the monologue, the union officials shifted uneasily in their chairs. Finally the president stood up and told Marty that his ideas merited further study but that right now the union had to focus on making an immediate decision about management’s offer. In the parking lot afterward, Marty looked stunned.