The stigma attached to public housing and its residents has plunged them deep into the mire of neglect, violence and environmental hazards, driving the only quality housing for low-income families and individuals to the brink of extinction.
That was the view of Cheryl Johnson, 54, executive director of People for Community Recovery and a long-time resident of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex on the far Southeast Side of Chicago. She said people of public housing are often perceived as being government-dependent, poverty-stricken, uneducated, uncivilized and hopeless and it is all because they are African Americans.
“The residents of public housing have been 99 percent African Americans and the areas surrounding public housing have always been like the isolated, forgotten area,” Johnson said.
Johnson was among the four panelists who discussed racial disparities and imminent housing issues in Chicago during a speed dating forum Tuesday evening at Columbia College Chicago, hosted by Public Narrative, a non-profit organization that promotes key community news.
Before 30 or so journalists and students, Maria Krysan, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, described that residential segregation is in fact the structural linchpin of persistent racial and ethnic inequality in the U.S., and the segregation is the most prominent in the city of Chicago, one of the most diverse yet segregated cities, along with Atlanta and Milwaukee.
“Despite changing attitudes and preferences of racial groups for diverse neighborhoods, the stubborn pattern of segregation continues to persist,” said Krysan, who asserted that perceptions people hold about communities, finances and fear of being discriminated against or causing hostility all come into play when they are searching for housing. “Where you live impacts the kind of healthcare you get, your exposure to environmental hazards, what kind of jobs you can get and schools you go to and your likelihood of being victimized by crime. All of those kind of things are hinged on where you live.”
The Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, that is home to about 5,000 African Americans, is an exemplary of the reality in which discrimination and inequality are fostered by the racial makeup of the area.
A sustainable community up until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the neighborhood soon became “an environmental graveyard,” where pollutants and other carcinogenic substances were billowing out from numerous newly-built industrial facilities including manufacturing plants, steel mills, landfills and waste dumps, causing a number of deaths from cancer and other diseases. Public accommodations including schools and grocery stores have shuttered their doors and public transportation system slashed its services. Currently, there is only one bus that takes residents out north.
“One thing that is clear is that the practice of where they site facilities is discriminatory because they are predominantly built in African American and Hispanic communities,” Johnson said referring to four motor companies, which are one of the biggest pollutants in the neighborhood.
In addition to environmental hazards, there has been a spike in crime, that is often not investigated by police or covered by local media, according to Johnson.
“We get none of that because of where we live and because we are an African American community,” Johnson said. “So it just got swept under the rug like nothing happened.”
Panelists of the evening uniformly agreed that the media should highlight the importance of integration and dispel the prevailing misconceptions that perpetuate segregation in an effort to shift Chicago into a more inclusive, integrated city.
Marisa Novara, director of housing and community development at the Metropolitan Planning Council, said some communities like Oak Park and Evanston out of 77 communities in Chicago have already been deliberate and proactive in their integration, and others should follow their lead.
“There has been organizations and elected officials who have been purposeful about it,” Novara said. “The media should capture… how is this working for them as a selling point and as something that’s proven to be positive for them and how are they actually, logistically doing it.”
Johnson said positive reporting of the neighborhood such as accomplished people that come out of Altgeld Gardens could help improve the living situation in the neighborhood and win the fight for the right of public housing to exist.
“We shouldn’t allow skin colors to define who we are because we are all just human beings,” Johnson said. “We are all the same.”