Cabrini Blues

Marc PoKempner
Dancing at a house party, Cabrini-Green, Chicago, 1988; photograph by Marc PoKempner from the ‘Changing Chicago’ documentary project

If public housing is the physical manifestation of a hope for social progress, that hope has its own historical twist in the United States. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, white Americans, faced with the prospect of living with African-Americans, opted for segregation. In the southern United States segregation was not only de facto but also de jure. Jim Crow laws, passed by local governments as early as the 1870s and 1880s, mandated the segregation of public facilities, education, and transportation.

When it came to housing, segregation was enforced through racially restrictive covenants—binding legal obligations written into the deed of a property by the seller that barred African-Americans (and other minorities) from buying, leasing, or using it. The practice was common in both the southern and northern United States. Ironically, it was the National Housing Act of 1934—part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—that established housing segregation throughout the country. The newly created Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting Manual expressly identifies “an incompatible racial element” within neighborhoods as a liability and recommends that the social and racial structure of neighborhoods be maintained by restrictions on eligibility for mortgages. It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that such practices were abandoned and housing segregation was definitively banned.*

De facto racial segregation in American cities has continued, however, especially in public housing. Nine of the ten most racially segregated American cities are all located in the North, the “Land of Hope” during the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South between 1915 and 1970. In 2010, the list was topped by Chicago, where a history of racially restrictive covenants had pushed African-Americans almost entirely to what became known as the “Black Belt,” on the city’s South Side. This segregation was reinforced by the public housing program implemented by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), established in 1937. Before World War II, the agency built four projects, of which one was for blacks: the Ida B. Wells Homes, located in Bronzeville, the social center of the Black Belt. Consisting of 1,662 units in a mix of row houses and apartment buildings occupying several city blocks, the Ida B. Wells Homes were the largest public housing project in Chicago at the time, incorporating the existing Madden Park, where the inhabitants of the crowded Black Belt had been enjoying a variety of sports, open-air movies, and musical programs.

The way nature helped African-Americans endure the segregated spaces they inhabited in and around Chicago forms the subject of Brian McCammack’s Landscapes of Hope. The book covers the period between 1915 and 1940, the first phase of the Great Migration, which for African-Americans in the North marked “the transition away from rural agricultural economies and toward modern industrial economies.” If in…

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