As I stood across the Chicago River, capturing this peaceful moment of the Lathrop Homes, I had a strange feeling of returning to Ohio. Lathrop is mostly empty now. The city has been emptying these specific homes for almost as long as I’ve lived in Chicago. I have to borrow U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s words when talking about the projects. “Public housing is more than just a place to live, public housing programs should provide opportunities to residents and their families.”
But how does that apply to me and my experience? I never lived in public housing. I’m the son of two teachers, a comfortable middle class family from the Rust Belt. A simple explanation escapes me but a lot of words and memories rush into my brain. Growing up in Steubenville, OH, a small city on the Ohio River, we were very aware of public housing. Visiting my grandmother, we would pass a development sitting atop the massive hill called Pico Street. “Project Village” was just a five minute drive from my high school and located behind my great-grandmother’s apartment. “Project Village”, the “Ones by the University”, “Pico Projects”, “Lincoln Ave Housing” were all nicknames that existed in my head. Some of them I made up and some were local colloquialisms. Despite seeing them everyday, we approached the projects with a real sense of caution. Drugs, gangs and violence were often present. As a kid, I never entered without an adult. As a teenager, I never entered without a friend.
In 2002, as a young adult, I delivered lunches for the summer programs in all of the different public housing developments. I was on a schedule, having to make my deliveries before lunch time. From 10:30 to noon, I would drive from stop to stop, predicting the little faces that would come running up to me. I always had something lightweight on hand for the children that wanted to help. Some of the bigger kids would help me haul the coolers of food. Physically, I could easily handle everything that I delivered but the kids wanted to lend a hand. I was a smoker at the time, and if I was ahead of schedule, I would often hang out from a distance with one of the smoking adults. We would chat and watch the kids eat. Their art projects would surround them on the picnic tables, and they would smile at me with their mouth full of food, happy to have a turkey sandwich and purple drink.
“Project Village” and the “Pico Projects” were the names that I knew. Ida B. Wells and Cabrini-Green were the names that every Chicagoan knew. It’s a great tragedy that a woman like Ida B. Wells is associated with such a violent and tumultuous chapter in Chicago history. In 1941, they were named in her honor and were initially considered a great success. Throughout the years, they were ignored by the Chicago Housing Authority and the Ida B. Wells Homes became synonymous with violence and drugs. In 1995, five year old Eric Morse was playing on an abandoned 14th floor and pushed out of a window and died. For a first hand account of growing up during this time, I recommend reading, Our America: Life and Death on the Southside of Chicago. By the 2000s, public housing, especially in Chicago, had become a poster child for failed government programs. Despite all of the great potential that a program could deliver, without support from the city and public, the potential floundered.
When I moved to Chicago in 2004, we lived five minutes from the Lathrop Homes, a public housing development on the North Side, and the subject of the photo that I share with you now. At a time when everything seemed big and scary in this new city, these projects made me think of home. Strange? Probably for most, but at a time when all I wanted to do was run away, driving past Lathrop Homes let me pretend that I had returned to Steubenville, driving down Lincoln Avenue, taking the long way to my childhood home.