“High Rise Stories” Continue in Eastern Iowa

David Smithers says the message of "High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing" extends to Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The murder rate for 2014 in Cedar Rapids is not statistically significant, but the six or so killings so far have attracted much online attention.  A very good friend of mine also happens to be of Tea Party political persuasion.  She is a good person, but she has many racist friends.

Those friends say much the same that can be heard in Eastern Iowa in places like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.  Cedar Rapids, a majority white industrial city, and Iowa City, a very white college town, have experienced what some people characterize as an “infestation” of Black Section 8 housing voucher “gang-bangers” from Chicago.

My friend was sharing two neighborhood unity/ anti-violence events in the low income Wellington Heights area on her Facebook timeline.  This is in light of the series of murders in Cedar Rapids. A number of unsettling comments appeared shortly after.

Noah states: “why?  If a hard working person cant [sic] afford kids/cable TV/a new vehicle/ a big flat screen TV/ a cell phone/ food/rent or utilities, well its [sic]  just ‘sucks being you’.  Its not ‘lack of compassion’, its reality, if you don’t think you should do anything to EARN what you have, you shouldn’t be handed it on a silver platter.  And by the way, a ‘food stamp card’ isn’t a fucking paycheck, moocher fucks”

Films states: “She was on the Iowa City Council for years.  Karen Kubby.  She opened up the door to allow everyone with food stamps, section A [sic], etc with out no rehabilitation preparation.  IN THE BEGINNING IOWANS VOTED BECAUSE, IT WAS ABOUT THE MONEY.  Do your research please IT’S REALLY NOT THAT HARD…Everyone has to live, the question is who is willing to work.”

Becker states: “They should be allowed to live free…With out my tax money.”

And Gatewood says: “It’s not our job to ask them what they want…. fuck what they want…they know right from wrong…and they live where and how they want.  They are right where they WANT to be, or they wouldn’t be there…. c’mon, my fiancé is a nurse and last night they tried to siphon gas from her car while she was at work…fucking pathetic”

Displaced people are not just a present in such places as war torn Syria or Palestine.  It is a long standing occurrence in the United States.  Persons displaced from post-Katrina New Orleans live, many years later, far afield throughout the United States.

The Chicago displacement, probably in very low numbers outside of metropolitan Chicago, is seemingly being commented upon in my friends’ Facebook timeline.

What is the real story?  Reading the novelistic stories through the voices of real people who lived in the now demolished high rise public housing projects and examining the informative appendices of High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing1, compiled and edited by Audrey Petty, will help to put a human face on people living under class and race oppression.

One of the founding advisors of the Voice of Witness series is the late oral historian Studs Terkel.  As he well knew, people tell their own stories better than anyone else does.

Blacks were restricted from eighty five percent of Chicago by law and covenant, an imprint that lingers to the present day. When public housing was proposed, white aldermen made sure they were built only in already established black neighborhoods.

Working within restrictive federal financial guidelines and the current architectural prejudice of the day, the high rises, surrounded by plenty of green space, were thought to be the best way for people in public housing to live.  The high rises turned out to be the only politically feasible plan for low income people, especially low income blacks who were shunned by large sections of the white community.  The negative consequences for children, the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 people who once lived in the projects, were not at first evident.

Unlike ground floor residences with private backyards, the distance between mother / father and playing children in high rise residences was probably a key element of a generational time bomb of ever decreasing life chances.  Moreover, the buildings lacked maintenance of such things as elevators and control of vermin.

In the insecure warehousing of the poor, there was a sense of community and good memories.  But prison, death and loss are a constant theme, as were the malign relationship with the cops.  The agenda of the police and emergency personnel was something other than the security and civil rights of the project residents; help would never come, but police and gang related terrorism often did.

Beginning in 1966, three decades of litigation contesting that Chicago Public Housing (CHA) violated civil rights resulted in an overall Pyrrhic victory.  The high rises have come down.  But the solution of mixed income housing has only been partly achieved for less than 25,000 “eligible” former CHA households.  The so-called Plan for Transformation is more one of abandonment of most people in need of quality public housing.

Even those who have been placed in mixed income housing lack civil and human rights compared to those who own their units, such as second amendment rights and lack of family reunion with those who’ve committed felonies. Moreover, the middle income unit owning residents watch the CHA clients with cameras and treat them with prejudicial avoidance.

To those who observe white fascist behavior and thought projected against poor people of color, perhaps those people who have fled a long distance from the demolition of the Chicago high rises will recognize many of the oral histories related in the book.

However, the appendices, including the time line which was read over three Anti-Capitalist Radio episodes2, should be read.  On balance, the situations of many former high rise residents have deteriorated.  The Plan for Transformation is the same old geographic segregation.  The same holds true in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City.


Originally published in The Red Vine.



1. High Rise Stories, 2013 McSweeney’s Publishing.

2. Episodes 50, 51 and 52. Also discussed was the socialist policy on fighting crime by fighting poverty.


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