restricted access “Toward a Better Life”
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67 “Toward a Better Life” On a summer afternoon in 2006, I stood at a security desk in the lobby of 626 West Jackson Boulevard. The building served then as the Chicago Housing Authority’s headquarters. This was before the CHA downsized and moved to an even smaller building. I was there to attend a “development working group meeting.” The lawyers who represented residents transitioning out of the Governor Henry Horner housing complex had started taking me along to these meetings so that I could learn how residents negotiated Horner’s ongoing redevelopment with developers, CHA officials, and their legal representatives . As I waited for the sticker that would admit me to the building’s interiors, I caught something glittering out of the corner of my eye. The sunlight that flooded the lobby was bouncing across the chunky tiles of a mosaic that hung high on the wall above the glass security doors. I craned my neck for a better look. The mosaic showed the official seal of the Chicago Housing Authority:twohandsclaspedoverausterebuildingsliningaroadthat disappears into a sunlit horizon and, suspended amid the rays of that sun, the date 1937 (see Plate 2). That year marks the founding of the CHAasamunicipalcorporationtaskedwithbuilding,operating,and maintainingpublichousinginthecity.Italsomarksthepassageofthe U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which established a national public housing program. I had seen versions of the seal before, emblazoned on everything from old correspondence at the CHA’s shrinking archive to the small white pickup trucks that made up what was left of its maintenancefleet .YetIhadneverseenitrenderedlargeorincolor.Fromthe looksofthebuildingsitdepicted,itprobablydatedfromthelate1950s or early 1960s, the years when the CHA moved to high-rise construction . This rendering threw into sharp relief the aspirations animating Chicago’s public housing program at that time: this program would, in no uncertain terms, improve the lives of Chicagoans, especially its African American citizens. 68 SYMPATHY The mosaic did not reveal much about the figures it depicted. Yet their clothing and the color of their hands (one brown, one white) suggested that these two figures were men who hailed from different economic and racial backgrounds. If Shirtsleeves made a living with his brown hands, the Suit probably did not. The mosaic also suggested that despite these apparent differences, these figures’ agreementoverhousing wouldmove themandtheircityad meliōrem vitam, “toward a better life.” One interpretation of the mosaic might situate it within the hierarchies of difference that have long structured the way the U.S. welfare state distributes its protections to its citizens. This was in fact the interpretation that ran through my head as I scrambled for the best vantage point from which to photograph the mosaic. It might be simply put as follows: the image depicts a domestic good, shelter, butthosefiguresmostoftenassociatedwithdomesticcontextsinthe United States (namely, women and children) are nowhere in sight. Their protection would be mediated through men. What is more, the fact that the mosaic marks its figures racially underscores just how much a role racial categorizations would play into the kind of subsidized housing to which one had access. I repositioned a small chair to get the height I needed for a photograph. But before I could congratulate myself for achieving these interpretive and physical feats, a middle-aged white man dressed in the coveralls of a maintenance worker emerged with a stepladder to interrupt both. Tom, as I will call him, unfolded the ladder just below the mosaic. He helped me onto it, and we got to speaking about the seal. I noted that the CHANGE logo seemed to have replaced the seal as the public face of the CHA. He nodded. “You used to see the old seal on business cards,” he observed. “Now all anyone sees is ‘CHANGE.’” I asked him which one he preferred. Pointing to the mosaic, he remarked , “This old seal’s just better. . . . It shows more of what we do, what we’re about. Buildings, and the people in those buildings.” Tom paused to help me balance while I snapped my camera. “With [the CHANGE campaign] does anyone know what we’re about?” Tom helped me reconsider the perspective that I had brought to my own research by flipping the perspective of the mosaic. He directed my attention to the buildings once tasked with leading their inhabitants toward better lives, instead of to the hands superimposed over them. As I worked through my research materials, I came to see that Tom was not alone. My interlocutors on the West Side, most especially those transitioning out of public housing, were much more likely to...