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From ‘Good Times’ to ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

One of the high rises of Cabrini Green, before Chicago demolished the public housing project. Photo: David Hilowitz

My job has some perks, and one of them is getting to talk with interesting people. In late August (after deadline for this paper), I will have the privilege of interviewing Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, the director and star, respectively, of the independent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The film is based on Talbot’s and Fails’s lives growing up in San Francisco, where much has changed over the past few decades.

I did not grow up in this city. So when I hear about the impact of demographic changes or urban renewal developments of the past, it educates me about a world of which I was not a part.

Speaking of urban renewal, another perk of a journalist’s job came my way back in 2005 — Oct. 26, 2005, to be exact. It was during a conference on affordable housing that my then-employer held in downtown Chicago. We had two featured luncheon speakers: Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Congress for the New Urbanism chief John Norquist.

It was a date to remember for a number of reasons, a couple of them involving Daley. He is, like I am, a White Sox fan, and immediately following our luncheon he was due to fly down to Houston for Game 4 of the World Series, in which the Sox would complete their sweep of the Astros. That’s of note only because I did not have high expectations that Daley would give a very interesting speech. I expected something along the lines of “Thanks for coming to our great city. We love housing, we’re working hard to make more housing, enjoy your time here. I’m off to catch a plane.”

But Daley surprised me. He is not known as an eloquent speaker, but he gave quite an impassioned speech about that city’s ongoing revamping of its infamous public housing projects, which included the violence-plagued Cabrini Green. (If you are old enough to remember the Good Times TV series of the 1970s, then you know a bit about Cabrini Green, which was the model for the apartment building in which the Evans family lived.) The city was tearing down its high-rise public housing and replacing it with scattered-site, mixed-income housing. It was a multi-year, multibillion dollar effort, and it was not without its critics, more on which in a moment.

But Daley was the warmup speaker for our keynoter, Norquist. Norquist himself had been a longtime big-city mayor, leading Milwaukee from 1988 until 2003, when he left to head up an organization devoted to new urbanism, which promotes walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and environmentally friendly urban planning.

And he gave one impressive presentation, the focus of which was how urban planners had messed up in the 20th century, all in the name of supposedly improving the problematic housing of the past. So, for example, you might have a neighborhood built by German immigrants, who lived in apartments above their stores. As their businesses grew and the families prospered, they bought larger homes in another neighborhood, renting out the apartments above their stores to the next wave of immigrants, from Poland or Japan or Kenya or wherever. Those residents then get settled and build their lives, some of them renting the store space or even buying the building itself, and the cycle goes on and on, an organic changing of peoples.

But, Norquist noted, city planners became enamored with single-purpose neighborhoods and zoning. This section of the city will be businesses, that section will be housing, that other section will be warehouses, etc. The result was not only the destruction of functioning neighborhoods, but the destruction of the economic housing ladder that families and newcomers climbed as their life situations developed.

There was more to his speech than that, such as a takedown of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, but the part that resonated the most was the insight into how well-intentioned attempts to “rationalize” cities so often made them worse because they removed the arrangements that made them work in the first place.

On a later trip to the Windy City to report on progress in its public housing redevelopment, I picked up a newsletter put out by activists in one of the large projects. As I recall, the newsletter was produced mostly by and for the moms in the projects, and it gave an interesting look at how they tried to support each other in very challenging circumstances.

One story in the newsletter stood out. It predicted that as residents were dispersed from their concentrated homes in the high-rises to scattered housing throughout the city, a worrying side effect was going to occur: Young men who were in gangs, sometimes just to survive, were now going to be moved into neighborhoods run by other gangs, sometimes rival gangs. This would at the least put some of the men’s lives in danger; at worst, it could lead to deadly turf battles — something I wonder about as I read about the city’s attempts to get a handle on its gun violence over the past decade.

If you have seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco, then you know it tells a different tale, but one that also shows how families and racial groups can be devastated economically and emotionally by changes to a city’s housing systems and stock.

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