College of LAS « Illinois


Lessons in the Dust

Amid the ruins of Chicago’s public housing history, one thing the Windy City did right may improve the future.

Cabrini Green

More than a decade has passed since Chicago’s Plan for Transformation began altering the city’s landscape, with wrecking balls knocking down hulking, crime-ridden public housing projects such as Cabrini Green in favor of mixed-income housing. The legacy of such places is far from finished, however.

Built largely during the 1950s and 1960s to provide affordable housing, the projects were criticized as the products of housing discrimination even before they deteriorated. The accusation led to the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, one of the largest housing desegregation programs in U.S. history.

As a result of an order by the U.S. Supreme Court, between 1976 and 1998, Chicago and the U.S. government moved more than 7,100 screened and willing African American families from the projects to new city and suburban neighborhoods. The effort was called a success, but researchers—including one in LAS—are still examining the program, as similar, more recent relocation efforts have been less effective in keeping families out of poor and segregated neighborhoods.

Prior to studying Gautreaux, LAS professor Ruby Mendenhall worked as an occupational therapist treating developmentally disabled children from Chicago’s notorious housing projects. Many babies she saw were weak and underweight, she says, because mothers often watered down the baby formula to make it last longer.

“Sometimes parents living in public housing wouldn’t put their kids down on the floor because of the rats and roaches, so then they weren’t crawling and walking, or going through the usual developmental milestones,” says the assistant professor of sociology and African American studies.

She enrolled in graduate school at Northwestern University in 1998, and there she learned of Gautreaux and met some of the first people who studied the program. They included sociologist James Rosenbaum, who, in 1991, had released widely reported findings that indicated children who moved from the city to the suburbs were more likely to attend college, to work, and to receive higher pay.

Ruby Mendenhall

Gautreaux was called a story of “intergenerational success,” and similar efforts followed. As opposed to the original Gautreaux program, however, subsequent programs such as the nationwide Moving to Opportunity (MTO) and a second phase of Gautreaux (in 2002), had mixed results.

Families in Gautreaux’s second phase, for example, were more likely to move back to their old neighborhoods, according to a Northwestern publication commemorating Gautreaux. And, while MTO improved the mental health of mothers who moved, the mothers did not experience higher employment rates nor less welfare than those who stayed behind. Rosenbaum noted, however, that MTO families moved an average of only 10 miles from their old neighborhoods, sometimes not even requiring children to change schools. The first Gautreaux families moved an average of 25 miles.

Also, in 2008, The Atlantic Monthly magazine cited criminologists who said that, in mid-sized cities such as Memphis, Tenn., where public housing projects had been closed down, crime soared in areas where the people were relocated.

When Mendenhall learned of Gautreaux in graduate school, she saw it as encapsulating many of her interests, and she began pursuing the topic. One of her early research projects stemmed from a desire to better understand why Gautreaux initially succeeded. Prior studies relied heavily upon statistics, but she and colleague Micere Keels (then a doctoral student) interviewed 25 of the original Gautreaux families extensively.

“There were a lot of stories about being called the n-word and just making it very clear they weren’t wanted” initially in their new neighborhoods, she says, adding that the hostility was overcome often by Gautreaux families initiating friendly exchanges. Relocated families saw less crime than in their old neighborhoods, and received counseling and housing search assistance, which Mendenhall also cites for their success.

Furthermore, Mendenhall’s studies have shown that black women placed in integrated or predominantly white neighborhoods that had higher levels of resources spend more time employed than do women in black, highly segregated, and poorer neighborhoods.

Phillip Bowman, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan (and former professor at U of I), served as Mendenhall’s faculty advisor at Northwestern and calls her work on Gautreaux among the most innovative of any he’s seen. She blended statistical data with interviews, he says, adding weight to her findings.

Since arriving at LAS in 2006, Mendenhall has continued studying how key historic events and policies affect individuals’ development, how social networks provided Gautreaux participants with job information, and the effect neighborhood resources and segregation have upon economic status. Neighborhoods, she believes, hold solutions to—and causes of—poverty.

“People say if you [compare neighbhorhoods of equal income], race shouldn’t matter,” Mendenhall says. “But race still matters, and it’s affecting opportunities.”

By Dave Evensen
Spring 2009