Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing (review)
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Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing. By D. Bradford Hunt. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. x, 380. $35.00 cloth; $22.50 paper)

From 1968 to 1970, I was a teacher intern at two public elementary schools on the South Side of Chicago. Most of my pupils lived in Ida B. Wells Homes, a garden apartment public-housing complex that opened in 1941, or in neighboring Clarence Darrow Homes, a high-rise project for large families, that opened in 1961. Both housed low-income African American families, but even a casual observer could recognize that the quality of maintenance and the tenor of life in the Wells complex were better than in Darrow Homes. Although periodic gang murders and other criminal activity were common, what particularly impressed me was the fear so many of my Darrow pupils experienced and the extent to which the classroom performance and behavior of an older child in a large family shaped teacher expectations of siblings who followed them.

As a young liberal who arrived in Chicago weeks after the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I attributed [End Page 226] these disparate conditions to the inhuman scale of Darrow Homes and the tenant-income guidelines of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), all reinforced by a rigid pattern of residential segregation, so effectively explained by historian Arnold Hirsch in Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (1983). I had little reason to alter my judgment over the decades that followed, nor was I surprised when I visited the neighborhood in 2005 to find that Darrow Homes and the adjacent school had been demolished and that the Wells complex was being transformed through the federally funded HOPE VI program. But after reading Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing, Roosevelt University historian D. Bradford Hunt’s penetrating history of public housing in the Windy City, I realized that the sources of the conditions and the changes I had witnessed were far more complex and nuanced than I had previously understood.

Building upon a large array of secondary literature on public housing, Hunt mined CHA records and other primary sources in search of an answer to the question: “How did a well-intentioned New Deal program designed to clear the nation’s urban slums and build decent housing for low-income families become, in a relatively short period of time, a devastating urban policy failure” (p. 6)? His cogently written volume produced four broad, interrelated conclusions: First, he rejects the notion that public housing was subverted by conservative real-estate interests and argues instead that the market-failure ideology advanced by progressives constrained the boundaries of public housing in fear of competing with the private housing market. Second, income-based rents concentrated poverty by creating economic incentives that encouraged the very poor to remain in public housing and the upwardly mobile working poor to leave, thus severing the link between rental income and project expenses, undermining the fiscal health of the CHA, and eroding managerial discipline. Third, reliance on Modernist high-rise complexes that concentrated apartments for families with large numbers of children created catastrophic youth-to-adult densities that promoted social disorder. Finally, both Congress and the federal bureaucracy failed to challenge local site-selection [End Page 227] policies that promoted racial segregation, favored high-rise structures, and permitted administrative inertia that perpetuated managerial incompetence and poor maintenance. The ultimate outcome was a failure so massive as to prompt Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “Plan for Transformation,” which employed Section 8 and the HOPE VI funds to replace most of the high-rise projects with mixed-income complexes based on the “New Urbanist” model.

While Hunt focuses on Chicago, his discussion of U.S. v. Certain Lands in the City of Louisville (U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, 1937), which denied the federal government the right to condemn land for slum clearance, and the HOPE VI program, through which Louisville has transformed several of its New Deal-era public-housing complexes, should be of special interest to readers interested in the history of the urban communities of...