The civic officials who manage Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project call the place “a living nightmare.” Shootings, burglaries and assaults are daily occurrences in the besieged North Side neighborhood of beige brick town-houses and redbrick highrises. Most cabdrivers refuse to answer calls from addresses there. Other Chicagoans routinely detour for blocks rather than drive through the area. Those who have no choice deal with the fear as best they can. Tenants like 28-year-old Jacqueline Russell, a mother of five, confront the insolence and threats of murderous drug gangs daily, braving dimly lit and grimy hallways covered with graffiti in order to reach cramped apartments. “At night,” Russell told Maclean’s, “we just have to walk on fate.” The low point came early on the morning of Oct. 13: a sniper shot and killed sevenyear-old Dantrell Davis as he walked with his mother to the neighborhood school. It was a grim reminder of the magnitude of the problem facing president-elect Bill Clinton as he prepares to grapple with the problems of America’s crumbling inner cities.
Weapons: The incident also illustrated some of the methods that Clinton may use in trying to improve conditions in the cities. Two weeks after the Chicago shooting, scores of representatives from local, state and federal agencies descended on the Cabrini-Green project’s 86 buildings.
With FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers looking on,
Chicago Housing Authority staff, responding to Davis’s death, drastically stepped up the pace of a year-old program of security sweeps. Housing Authority officials checked apartments in four Cabrini-Green apartment towers for unauthorized tenants, drugs and guns, evicting any offenders. Maintenance crews installed highsecurity entrances equipped with metal detectors and turnstiles to keep the weapons out of the buildings. “I’m all for it,” said Russell’s husband, Benjamin, a 31-year-old window washer. “We need to clean this up.”
The need is desperate and shockingly widespread in America’s cities. Despite the sobering April riots in Los Angeles that left 58 people dead, Republican administration officials have done little to stop the decline of inner cities. The result is evident in most of the
country’s large centres: grim streetscapes of boarded-up, burned-out or abandoned businesses; entire blocks reduced to rubble, some left abandoned so long that trees sprout from mounds of broken brick and concrete; whole neighborhoods, like Cabrini-Green, where outsiders fear to tread.
In a sweeping and unusually detailed campaign statement of policy goals last summer,
Clinton and his running mate, Senator Al Gore, promised to attack the blight in America’s cities with everything from a reinforced police presence and welfare reform to a new network of neighborhood development banks. Many of their proposals drew on attempts already underway to address the particularly savage problems in Chicago. With the election now over, the third-largest U.S. city becomes a pivotal test case for Clinton’s readiness to match campaign rhetoric with action.
Nowhere, certainly, are the ills of urban America more depressingly visible than in the Windy City. Single foster-mother Saundra Bell knows well why other Chicago residents avoid
her area. Bell shares a one-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of a Cabrini-Green highrise with her six-month-old nephew. She adopted him after his mother, a drug addict, became unable to care for him. She said that she, too, is afraid of “the gang-bangers downstairs with the drugs and the shooting.” Until the recent round of Housing Authority sweeps, she said, violence was nearly constant in the building.
Said Bell: “They fight over turf. Every night after ten o’clock till two or three in the morning—that’s when they get finished.” Promises: After the shock that followed Dantrell Davis’s mid-October murder, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley Jr. promised a counterattack on the epidemic of violence at the city’s 19 public-housing projects, home to almost 90,000 people. In addition to the sweeps, planned measures include sealing off four of the most dilapidated highrises at Cabrini-Green. And there were promises to provide better recreation facilities for project residents. Tenants like Bell welcomed the increased security promised by the sweeps, but many remained
skeptical of the mayor’s commitment to longterm improvement in the projects. Said Bell: “I’m afraid after this election’s over, they’re going to forget about us again.”
Clinton and Gore may indeed have raised expectations that they will find difficult to fulfil. In a book co-written by the two Democrats, they proposed to copy the Chicago Housing Authority’s Operation Clean Sweep security initiative as part of a “new partnership to rebuild America’s cities.” With the stated goal of “Putting People First,” as the book’s title boasts, the Democrats proposed hiring 100,000 additional police officers and reforming the welfare system. As well, they called for the creation of national networks of neighborhood banks dedicated to local economic development and of so-called boot camps designed to “instill discipline, boost self-esteem and teach respect for law” among nonviolent young offenders. Several of those proposals have their roots in initiatives already at work in Chicago and surrounding Cook County.
The county sheriff’s office, for one, has enlisted Marine Corps instructors to train the staff for a boot camp that it plans to open within 18 months to accommodate up to 1,200 first offenders at a time.
Activism: The proposal to establish neighborhood development banks in economically strapped communities has even deeper roots in Chicago. The prototype for the idea, Clinton said during the campaign, is an unconventional institution housed in an undistinguished three-storey building 15 km south of Cabrini-Green. For almost 19 years, the South Shore Bank has operated profitably on a hybrid philosophy of social activism and fiduciary caution.
It accepts deposits like any other commercial bank, but lends money to people that most other banks would refuse as bad credit risks.
The bank’s unusual practices reflect goals that 10 investors, several of them churches and private philanthropies, set for it when they took over the faltering institution in 1973. In contrast to what executive vice-president Mary Houghton described as “profit-maximizing banks, which gravitate to the largest possible deal in the highest-profit environment,” the South Shore Bank’s business mandate specifies that its goals include the economic development of the 80,000 people who live in the neighborhood it serves. Most of the bank’s
lending—it had $160 million in loans outstanding at the end of last year—has been to borrowers in the largely African-American community who, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, are twice as likely as white applicants to be turned down for mortgages by more traditional banks.
The bank’s neighborhood has benefited visibly. In striking contrast to the rubble-strewn vacant lots of some other poor Chicago neighborhoods, the treed streets surrounding the
South Shore Bank are lined with well-kept threeand four-storey brick apartments, many of them refurbished with funds borrowed from the bank. Just down the street, a tidy shopping mall, also built with bank investment, anchors the area’s retail businesses. Said Peter Payne, a former insurance company manager, who sought help from the bank to buy and rehabilitate several area apartment buildings: “Other banks were looking for reasons not to do something. At South Shore, they were looking for reasons to do something.”
Clinton’s interest in the bank’s unusual philosophy dates back eight years when Jan Piercy, a former college roommate of his wife,
Hillary, paid a Thanksgiving visit to the Arkansas governor’s mansion. Piercy, who had worked on development problems in Bangladesh and Thailand, was weighing a job offer from the South Shore Bank. Coincidentally, the bank had developed a plan to try to replicate its Chicago success in rural Arkansas. Piercy helped enlist the Clintons’ aid, and in 1988 a holding company modelled on the South Shore Bank acquired the Elk Hom Bank of Arkadelphia, a small town about 100 km southwest of Little Rock. Hillary Clinton became a director.
Difficulties: The Elk Horn Bank’s uneven record, however, underscores the difficulties that Clinton’s administration faces as it seeks to solve America’s urban problems. Although the bank has prospered, president George Surgeon acknowledges that some of its attempts to match the South Shore Bank’s successes “just didn’t translate well.” In particular, the new bank has failed to find many qualified takers for the “micro-loans,” as Surgeon describes them, that it wants to make to budding, small-scale rural entrepreneurs.
Other difficulties await the Democrats should they attempt to enact their ambitious program for urban revival. The most obvious is money: many of their promises are certain to be costly. Complicating the political equation for Clinton is the fact that much of the money that must be spent to rescue the largely black inner cities must be raised from mostly white suburban taxpayers. Many analysts say that the white majority is not particulalry willing to pay for programs directed mainly at members of the minority race. Said Chicago-based oral historian and author, Studs Terkel, who published a book earlier this year examining Americans’ attitudes a. to race: “The white people haven’t a 2 clue, not a clue, as to how black people Ï feel.
Ç At the same time, little of what I Clinton has proposed is likely to show g results in time to benefit his adminisx tration when it seeks a second term in 1996. Said Houghton of her bank’s successful efforts in south Chicago: “These are all long-term programs. There are not four-year or even eight-year paybacks.” That may be one reason that Clinton was silent on most of his urban-policy proposals when, a week before the election, he outlined his priorities for a first term. Of the policies set out in “Putting People First” for aiding America’s cities, only the law-and-order proposal to establish boot camps for juvenile offenders found a place on Clinton’s list of urgent policies. To skeptics, those concerns point to continuing neglect for America’s most troubled communities.
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