restricted access 2. The Many Harms of Staying Here
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71 2 The Many Harms of Staying Here Wreckage “This is a good case for dropping a nuclear bomb.” In April 2002, the voice of a man named Donald Kimball on the radio introduced me to the Governor Henry Horner Homes housing complex. In halting tones, Kimball told an audience of Chicago’s public radio listeners that he felt “almost ashamed” that this “harsh” statement had once popped into his head whenever he drove past Horner.1 Eleven years earlier, a group of Horner residents had hired him to assess the physicalconditionoftheirbuildings .Asaforensicsengineer,thatis,anengineerwhoworkswithobsoletestructures ,Kimballcouldinvestigate the causes of Horner’s decline and make recommendations about what might be done to staunch it. He could also prepare a report detailing his findings, which residents would need to get a legal motion centered on Horner’s decay off the ground. But as the radio narrator explained,this “nattilydressed,silver-haired,bedrockRepublican”— translation, a conservative, middle-aged white man from suburban Chicago—tookthejobwithmuchhesitation.“Youblamethepeople who live there for those conditions,” Kimball mused. “Look what they’vedonetotheirneighborhood.Whydon’ttheytakecareofit?”2 Then Kimball went inside. He saw things that he “didn’t even know existed”: planks residents had laid out to traverse the inches of raw sewage backing up into their apartments; trash chutes clogged because their liners had corroded; lye that someone had poured down hallways to kill the swarming maggots. This decay and residents’ attempts to fend it off moved Kimball so much that he soon disavowed his “harsh” ideas. He threw himself into the job. It would preoccupy him for the next two decades. The residents transitioning out of Horner whom I began meeting the following spring knew that widespread assumptions about 72 THE MANY HARMS OF STAYING HERE their irresponsibility still cast long shadows across their new homes inWesthavenandtheirliveswithinthem.Manyguardedtheirhouseholds from the eyes of management officials, social service agents, journalists, and researchers. However, Westhaven’s leaseholders threw open their doors to anyone in a position to document faulty conditions in their homes, myself included. At the time, most apartments had been built brand-new or had been renovated within the preceding six years. They did not, to my untrained eyes, appear to be in serious decline. Even so, over the next several years I came to expect that whenever a transitioning Horner resident asked to borrow my digital camera (word of it got around), the next day we would be just as likely to be downloading, printing, and photocopying images of water stains and mold lines creeping across new walls and ceilings as snapshots from a child’s birthday party. Such sensitivity to decay reverberated beyond Westhaven. I learned this one afternoon in the spring of 2006 when I stopped by a friend’s apartment several miles west of Westhaven. MarthawasbornandraisedatHornerbuthad“voucheredout”in themid-1990sasitsdemolitiongotunderway.Thatis,shehadforgone Horner replacement housing for a Section 8 voucher that allowed her to find subsidized housing on the private rental market. When I met her in 2003, she was in her forties and living with her teenage daughter in a private rental. Because she worked near Westhaven and had so many friends living there, her social life continued to revolve around the area. I had met her through these friends. After lunch we paused in the stairwell, and Martha reached to pull the apartment’s front door closed behind us. That door hung in a frame that pitched to the right, so it fell open, again and again. Martha eventually managed to coax the door shut while muttering through the list of repairs that her landlord had still not made. As she pointed to a loosening light fixture and stamped on softening floorboards, she vowed that she would “open” her apartment for “everyone to see.” “I’ll put it on Good Morning America,” Martha insisted, “and ABC.” By the time Kimball ventured into Horner in 1991, widespread censure of welfare recipients had been brewing for decades. In Chicago, that censure became especially animated around the city’s decaying housing projects. Many had opened in the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, local news outlets were already criticizing the vandalism, violence, and declining conditions in practically brand-new buildings .3 By the 1980s, the buildings loomed over expanses of balding lawns and cracking asphalt, while metal grates and smoke-ringed 73 THE MANY HARMS OF STAYING HERE windows pockmarked their once-sleek exteriors. The sight of such rapid decay left many passersby wondering what—and more pointedly who—was to blame. Many, like Kimball...