Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tenancy culture studies: Barack Obama's 'Dreams from My Father'

Congratulations to former tenants advocate Barack Obama on his second inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America.


In his own words, President Obama's prior career was as a 'community organiser' in the public housing estates and other poor neighbourhoods of southside Chicago in the early 1980s. (An unusual sort of prior career for a world leader, but not entirely unprecedented: Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of Britain 1945-51 and architect of the welfare state, started out as a social worker in the slums of East London in the early years of the twentieth century.)

Obama's own words about his experiences are recorded in his thoughtful, well-crafted memoir, 'Dreams from My Father', first published in 1996.  He sets the scene:

The Altgeld Gardens public housing project sat at Chicago's southernmost edge: two thousand apartments arranged in a series of two-storey brick buiuldings with army-green doors and grimy mock shutters. Everybody in the area referred to Altgeld as 'the Gardens' for short, although it wasn't until later that I considered the irony of the name, its evocation of something fresh and well tended – a sanctified earth.
True, there was a grove of trees just south of the project, and running south and west of that was the Calumet River, where you could sometimes see men flicking fishing lines into darkening waters. But the fish that swan those waters were often strangely discoloured, with cataract eyes and lumps behind their gills. People ate their catch only if they had to.
To the east, on the other side of the expressway, was the Lake Calumet landfill, the largest in the Midwest.
And  to the north, directly across the street, was the Metropolitan Sanitary District's sewage treatment plant. The people of Altgeld couldn't see the plant or the open-air vats that went on for close to a mile; as part of a recent beautification effort, the district maintained a long wall of earth in front of the facility, dotted with hastily planted saplings that refused to grow month after month, like hairs swept across a bald man's head. But officials could do nothing to hide the smell – a heavy putrid odour that varied in strength depending on the temperature and the wind's direction, and seeped through windows no matter how tightly they were shut.
The stench, the toxins, the empty, uninhabitated landscape. For close to a century, the few square miles surrounding Altgeld had taken the offal of scores of factories, the price people had paid for their high-wage jobs. Now that the jobs were gone, and those people that could had already left, it seemed only natural to use the land as a dump.
A dump – and a place to house poor blacks. Altgeld may have been unique in its physical location, but it shared with the city's other projects a common history: the dreams of reformers to build decent housing for the poor; the politics that had concentrated such housing away from white neighbourhoods, and prevented working families from living there; the use of the Chicago Housing Authority – the CHA – as a patronage trough; the subsequent mismanagement and neglect. It wasn't as bad as Chicago's high-rise projects yet, the Robert Taylors and the Cabrini Greens, with their ink-black stairwells and urine-stained lobbies and random shootings. Altgeld's occupancy rate held steady at ninety percent, and if you went inside the apartments, you would more often than not find them well-kept, with small touches – a patterned cloth thrown over torn upholstery, an old calendar left hanging on the wall for its tropical beach scenes – that expressed the lingering idea of home.

Public housing tenants and workers in New South Wales might see similarities between Altgeld and public housing estates here: parallel trajectories from promise to disappointment; planning failures that always put these places behind the eight-ball; present states of isolation and neglect. We should be careful, however, not to overdo it. Part of the problem of places like Altgeld is the historical legacy of the racial segregation of American cities, first written legally into the fabric of cities by racially restrictive covenants in property, then economically by the phenomenon of 'white-flight'. As divided as our own towns and cities are, and as sorry as a lot of our history of race relations is, there's no direct parallel to the historical legacy in American cities. Nor has there been here anything quite like the American culture of patronage and spoils in the administration of housing and other services.

What's really recognisable in Obama's account of community work is its human face, and its emotional inner life.

He describes insightfully the continuing search of workers and residents for a common interest that motivates and sustains community organisation – and for their own individual way through the various contending motivators and ideologies for meaningful work. For the young Obama, the civil rights movement and the ambitions of his own absent father are shifting lodestars; he also recounts what he learned of the motivations of some of the residents he worked with:

I remember, for instance, sitting in Mrs Crenshaw's kitchen one afternoon, gulping down the burnt cookies she liked to force on me every time I stopped by. It was getting late, the purpose of my visit had begun to blur in my head, and almost as an afterthought I decided to ask why she still participated in the PTA [Parents and Teachers Association] so long after her own children had grown. Scooting her chair closer to mine, she started to tell me about growing up in Tennessee, how she's been forced to stop her own education because her family could afford to send only one child to college, a brother who would later die in World War II. Both she and her husband had spent years working in a factory, she said, just to see to it that their own son never had to stop his education – a son who had gone on to get a law degree from Yale.
A simple enough story to understand, I thought: the generational sacrifice, the vindication of a family's faith. Only, when I asked Mrs Crenshaw what her son was doing these days, she went on to tell me that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years earlier and that he now spent his days reading newspapers in his room, afraid to leave the house. As she spoke, her voice never wavered; it was the voice of someone who has forced a larger meaning out of tragedy.

Obama also observes the pitfalls of burnout, cynicism and petty jealousies in community organisations and service providers; the struggle of residents' hidden strengths and skills against lack of education and lack of confidence; and the importance of the occasional flash of inspiration or victory. He tells the story of working with a group of young parents from Altgeld who were concerned about asbestos in their buildings. After getting the brush-off from the management at Altgeld, they took themselves and their children to the CHA's head office. Under the gaze of the assembled local media, they got a meeting with the director's assistant.

Without a word from me, the parents found out that no tests had been done and obtained a promise that testing would start by the end of the day. They negotiated a meeting with the director, collected a handful of business cards, and thanked Mrs Broadnax [the director's assistant] for her time. The date of the meeting was announced to the press before we crammed back into the elevator to meet our bus. Out on the street, Linda insisted that I treat everybody, including the driver, to caramel popcorn. As the bus rolled away, I tried to conduct an evaluation, pointing out the importance of preparation, how everyone worked as a team.
'Did you see that woman's face when she saw the cameras?'
'What about her acting all nice to the kids? Just trying to cozy up to us so we wouldn't ask no questions.'
'Wasn't Sadie terrific? You did us proud, Sadie.'
'I got to call my cousin to make sure she gets her VCR set up. We gonna be on TV.'
I tried to stop everyone from talking at once, but Mona tugged on my shirt. 'Give it up, Barack. Here.' She handed me a bag of popcorn. 'Eat.' I took a seat beside her. Mr Lucas hoisted the children up onto his lap for a view of Buckingham Fountain. As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake, calm and turquoise now, I tried to recall a more contented moment.
I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way. It was the sort of change that's important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way (wealth, security, fame) but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on, beyond the immediate exhilaration, beyond my subsequent disappointments, to retrieve that thing that you once, ever so briefly, held in your hand. That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.

There's more to the story of the campaign, and Obama is honest enough not to give it an altogether happy ending.

Looking again to our own social housing neighbourhoods, the difficulties, disappointments and rewards of tenants organising to get the services they and their neighbours need are documented, in very different language, in a new briefing paper by Shelter NSW, 'We Look After Our Neighbours Here' (download in pdf here).' In their different ways, both it and Obama's memoir are well worth a read for the student of housing and community work.

And let's hope, too, that the leader of the world's greatest economic and military power still sometimes thinks back to his bus trip with the public housing tenants from Altgeld.

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