Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"the projects"

We've been talking about gentrification for a while now. And talking, and talking and talking. And talking. One of the biggest aspects of our discussions of the so-called "evils" of gentrification is displacement. That's a big, vague, scholarly word. All this time I have been wondering, what is displacement? What is displaced? Who is displaced? And where? This entire time I have just had this vague idea that displacement was the main reason why gentrification is "evil," why I should RESIST gentrification and why I should not plan to move into Wicker Park post-graduation.

But this past week I have finally had the opportunity to put a face to this vague, scholarly term that is displacement.

On Thursday we went to Cabrini-Green, one of the most [in?]famous housing projects in America. It is the poster-child, if you will, of the terrible inner city projects of the 1970s. The name Cabrini-Green conjures up all of the negative implications of the government-subsidized housing projects of the 1970s, the shootings, the drugs, the dilapidated housing - in sum, exactly what the term "the projects" has come to entail. The city of Chicago has been in the process of tearing down most of the high rises that had become the tell-tale signs of the "bad" areas of town - the projects.

(Somehow, in my 21 years of saturation in American life, I had escaped this apparently ubiquitous image of the urban "projects." I don't know if this was because I am a white, suburban, middle-class female who has lived her life in a relatively self-absorbed, locally-focused bubble, or because I spent many years outside of the US...or if I was just generally ignorant of the troubles of the urban poor precisely because I am a white, middle-class suburban girl whose life is not in any way affected by the plight of the projects and so therefore I would have no reason to know. If this is in fact the case - then I myself am the poster child for the ignorant, self-absorbed white person who cares little for the displaced, regardless of whether or not I am cognizant of such issues. And it is precisely this that is in fact the problem of this whole issue - my life is pretty cushy and so therefore I look out for myself and those around me (i.e. those like me) and everyone else, well they can fend for themselves. Of course this is (I mean was?) not my explicit train of thought but it is apparently what should logically be inferred, if I were to examine my life in a forward-thinking sociological kind of way.)

Regardless of how familiar I was with Cabrini Green, it was extremely enlightening to visit. We also visited the Icke housing projects on the South side of Chicago - directly south of Cermak. I am not quite sure if this experience was quite as enlightening. In terms of an educational and observational visit then yes, it was extremely worthwhile. But that is precisely why I am not quite sure exactly how worthwhile the visit was. Is it worth it to walk past these projects, with people sitting outside chatting and going about their daily business (whatever that might be), in a horde (yes HORDE) of white people, stopping to talk about the projects and the educational tidbits to enhance our field trip experience, and ultimately using these people and their home as we would, essentially, a zoo? Simple specimens to be examined in order to benefit and enhance our $30,000 a year education? To fuel our vague, sociological, scholarly, somewhat abstract discussions that we hold over coffee and on our couches in our school-funded gentrified apartment building?

All I could think about as we were walking past the buildings is how uncomfortable I felt. How uncomfortable I felt because I was white - both because I was in a neighborhood that is 95% African American, and because I was in a horde of other white students which solidified my position as one of "them." One of "those people," those white people coming to stare at my life, my poverty, my broken home...

Of course I can't place these words into any of the mouths of the people there. But that is what I would have felt had I been in that position - and that is what made the situation one of the most uncomfortable situations I have experienced so far in the city.

Perhaps I felt so uncomfortable because I felt so guilty - guilty that my life was better, my life was not as hopeless as theirs seems. Maybe I felt uncomfortable because there are racial elements involved that I have only grazed the surface of in the past month. But all of this discomfort, while it was undesirable at the time and is certainly undesirable in the future, MUST be used to help me better understand the issues and complications of the urban social landscape. Must help me to break beyond my naive bubble and face my own guilt, embrace my own lifestyle but at the same time recognizing the displacement that occurs. Recognizing that other people have been screwed over by the system that has allowed me to buy new fall clothes when I want, to eat out when I want, to get a $30,000/year education when I want, and to be able to escape an unpleasant situation simply by hopping in the van and driving home.

I know that visiting "the projects" is not a comfortable situation for anyone, the viewers and the viewees alike. But at the moment it is one of the only logical ways to help students, and me, really see the negative consequences of gentrification - and finally put a face to its evils.

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