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Razing The Vertical Ghettos

Randolph Cassell hustles down a dark stairwell that smells of fresh urine and stale whisky. He's a role model at Chicago's squalid Robert Taylor Homes--one of the few residents who have jobs. Cassell, 60, keeps his head down and his mouth shut as he clears away the trash, old mattresses and hypodermic needles littering the 40-year-old housing project. He has to skirt a cluster of young men. "Hey, Randy, where you going?" one of them says with a sneer. They know that their turf is about to disappear: the 22 Taylor Homes high-rises are scheduled to be demolished. But that doesn't stop them from harassing the last generation of beleaguered tenants. Like the rats and roaches, the drug dealers will be here until the walls turn to dust.

That could happen soon. Half a century after the gleaming structures first welcomed Chicago's poor, Mayor Richard M. Daley intends to flatten almost all of his city's 58 "family high-rises"--demolishing the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green and other crime-ridden failures. That's part of an even bolder plan to replace or rehab all 25,000 of Chicago's occupied public-housing units, relocating half of the 131,000 legal tenants and an untold number of squatters. While 80 cities across the country have leveled at least some of their worst public housing in recent years, none has attempted such a complete overhaul. And nobody is more ambitious than Daley, who promises not only to build better housing but to provide support services that beat anything offered by the city's last public-housing landlord--the federal government. "What people want is education, jobs and job training," Daley told NEWSWEEK. "It's a rebuilding of society."

Don't sell Daley short. Five years ago he took near-dictatorial power over his city's sinking public schools. Improvements there help explain why Daley won a remarkable 45 percent of the African-American vote last year, while easily defeating a black mayoral challenger, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. Now Daley will have to show that he can shake up the housing bureaucracy as forcefully. His reforms are taking flak from tenants' groups, who accuse him of a land grab. And there's still tension between his lieutenants and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds public housing. In one scuffle, Daley bypassed HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo with direct appeals to President Clinton--leaving bruises that are still tender.

The high-rises Daley will level weren't always full of danger and decay. Public housing began in smaller buildings as a New Deal attempt to house families--white as well as black--while they saved to buy homes. But after World War II, an influx of Southern blacks pushed demand beyond supply. Chicago began building high-rises, considered at the time "a model for the nation," says Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The idea, he says, was to give poor people many of the same amenities as the better-off tenants of tall apartment buildings. Public housing embodied the "tower in the park" philosophy that the famed architect Le Corbusier had pushed in the 1920s. The lure of modern high-rises attracted top architects like Minoru Yamasaki, who cut his teeth on the 11-story Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis. It was dynamited in 1972--soon after the opening of Yamasaki's best-known structure, the World Trade Center in New York.

In Chicago, though, not all of the motives were so lofty. White aldermen used the high-rises to contain poor blacks in isolated neighborhoods; black pols milked the buildings for thousands of reliable votes. The residents also changed. After the Chicago Housing Authority relaxed its rigid screening of new tenants in the 1950s, two-parent households gave way to single parents struggling to manage larger families. Overcrowded and ill-policed, the buildings became hellholes: janitors extorted sex from young mothers, and children slept in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets.

In 1995, the then HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros staged a takeover of the CHA. But the Feds couldn't reverse all the damage: today, with 30,000 families on a waiting list to get into public housing, 13,000 decrepit units are boarded up--or illegally occupied by squatters and gangs. Last May, Daley took back the agency and vowed to fix it. There was talk that HUD would let the city make big changes--but then relations soured. First, a CHA official embarrassed HUD by showing reporters stocks of air conditioners and other equipment that, he said, the Feds hadn't used to help tenants. In response, a HUD official fired off an angry fax to the CHA: "What kind of bulls--t is this?" A follow-up fax said, "Consider your deal canceled."

HUD had good reason to hang tough, Cuomo says. He rejected early versions of the Chicago plan, he told NEWSWEEK, because they didn't guarantee enough housing for displaced tenants. Others at HUD accuse Daley of giving tenants little say in the reforms. "Daley wanted this to be just like the Chicago schools--'Strong Mayor Saves the Day'," says one source.

Talks between HUD and the CHA stayed chilly until Daley and Rahm Emanuel, a former top White House aide who now sits on the CHA's board, began lobbying the White House. In January, Chicago sources say, Daley told Clinton he'd had enough of HUD's refusal to do things his way. Within days, Cuomo approved a plan both sides could accept--and also agreed to let the city borrow the $1.5 billion cost against future appropriations from Congress. HUD denies that Daley's lobbying influenced Cuomo. There was no dispute on the fate of the high-rises: "These were terrible mistakes," Cuomo says. "They must come down."

Under the plan, Daley will replace the towers with low-rise housing buffered by playgrounds and lawns. HUD insists that the new housing not concentrate poor families, but also include units for working- or middle-class tenants. The city also is likely to flatten several "midrises" of three or more floors, and says it will rehab every CHA property left standing--about 12,000 units.

There will be some bumps along the way. Roughly 65,000 residents will be forced to move twice--first to temporary apartments, then to new units. What's more, Daley's plan will produce fewer units than now exist; the CHA says it cannot afford to replace the 13,000 apartments that are already vacant. Sharon Gist Gilliam, president of the CHA's board, says each legal resident is guaranteed a new CHA apartment or a $600-a-month voucher for housing rented from private landlords (slightly less than the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city). But the new plan won't shrink the long waiting list.

Nor will it be easy to find space for new housing at a time of booming real-estate values. Some tenants, convinced that the mayor wants to push them aside to make room for upscale developers, have taken legal action to halt demolition work at Cabrini Green. "Ain't no shame to this game," fumes Francine Washington, president of a tenants' group at Stateway Gardens. "They want the land!" Daley denies the charge; much of the land, he says, will be rebuilt as housing for the poor.

But many tenants agree with Daley's efforts to eradicate "this legacy of slime," as he calls the high-rises (even though many of the towers went up during the administration of his father, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley). "Since I was born, there's always been shooting," says 12-year-old Alonzo Strong, who has survived growing up at the Robert Taylor Homes. "Big boys be trying to beat you up. You gotta shove back." And nothing shoves harder than a wrecking ball.