Did the public housing transformation destroy Chicago's black voter base?

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When you write about public housing, you meet some interesting characters.

One of the most interesting was Tyrone Galtney--a former Robert Taylor resident who self-published a book on his political conspiracy theories on the Plan for Transformation.

Galtney has one unshakable belief: Chicago's massive demolition and rebuilding of its public housing stock was orchestrated to get rid of the block of black voters that kept Mayor Richard M. Daley from winning the 1983 mayoral election against Harold Washington.

Ever since, Galtney says, "Lil' Richie," as he calls the mayor, has been gunning for the communities that voted him down--mainly, areas around public housing.

When I first read and wrote about Galtney's book, I was a little skeptical. But now, looking at the census data for Chicago's neighborhoods, I'm starting to wonder: Could he be right?

In general, the city's black population is in decline. It fell 11 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the Chicago News Cooperative. It's happening all across the city, but I wondered--if I looked at the community areas where public housing used to be, would I see a significant difference?

In all, Chicago's black population lost about 99,000 people in that time period. How many of those people came from communities that lost a significant amount of public housing? A lot. About a third, or 31,702 black people who left the city between 2000 and 2009 were from public housing areas.

Not all of these communities had huge declines, however. A few stand out. Grand Boulevard, where the former Robert Taylor Homes, lost almost 7,000 black people in the past nine years. Since most of the land it occupied still sits empty, its easy to see how the community has changed.

The Douglas community area--home of the former Ida B. Wells complex--was another with a steep decline. Douglas lost almost 6,000 black people in those years. With the end of Cabrini-Green in the news, it's no wonder that the Near North Side makes the list, losing 3,915 of its black population.

Riverdale, home to Altgeld Gardens, lost almost 46 percent of its black population, the largest decline citywide. As most of the development still sits empty, waiting to be rehabbed, it easy to see why.

A 2007 Chicago Reporter investigation fleshed out this decline in voting power. In 2000, quite a lot of Chicago's public housing residents were registered to vote--22,000 of them. But by 2007, only 37 percent of those people were still registered to vote in Cook County. It may be because they moved elsewhere or maybe because they lost the active political community that surrounded them. But this loss means that poor folks, and their political will, are now spread across the landscape and may have a harder time electing someone who represents their interests, rather than the interests of their well-to-do neighbors.

Back when Galtney's book came out, I wrote a short piece on it. Chicago Housing Authority officials chose not to comment, and when I called the mayor's office, I think the spokesman there told me it was "preposterous." And, since Galtney was also a person who regularly told me I better watch my back because if I kept writing about public housing, the mayor might sic his goons on me, I guess I wasn't so sure myself.

But looking at the numbers, it's hard to dispute one thing. Whether or not the mayor was gunning to break up solid black voting blocks that may not have supported him, a lot of those tightly knit, heavily populated communities have been dispersed. Some to other parts of the city, some to the suburbs and others scattered elsewhere.

Unless the mayor writes a tell-all memoir on his feelings on public housing, we may never know his motivations, but the numbers don't lie. The dynamics of these communities have changed. Some say for better, some say for worse, but the shift is undeniable.

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  • Two questions:
    Do you think it was a good idea for the city to tear down substandard public housing units, esp the high rises?

    Is it possible to tear down so many units of housing without dispersing the former residents?

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