Walking In the Project: Situation Hopeless But Not Critical

The other night a buddy of mine from Chicago called and we talked about ride-alongs I’d done a few years back with the Chicago Housing Police, then the guys who policed the big housing projects in the city. Those were interesting times, perhaps worth a column.

Everyone has heard of Cabrini-Greene, but Chicago has other high-rise projects, among them the Robert Taylor Homes. These are big apartment blocks in bleak sections of the city. They are inhabited almost entirely by blacks. As in other big cities, poor blacks live in huge, isolated regions of the city that whites never see.

Housing projects are universally grim. Some of the big ones have their own schools built into them. Academic standards border on the nonexistent. Some projects have police stations in them. Robert Taylor does. The surrounding neighborhoods are not much better than the projects. Most of the residents in the projects are on welfare.

The result is that the inhabitants have almost no contact, except through television, with the greater society. The kids seldom see a white face in the flesh. Nor do they learn Standard English. Since few people work, the children do not regard having a job as part of life.

I went to these places on various occasions with cops of various stripes. Cops traveled in pairs. They wore ballistic vests, and weren’t comfortable in the parking lots. The reason is that gangbangers ruled the projects. Sometimes one gang controlled one apartment tower, and another gang controlled the next one over. They would use rifles to fire at each other across the intervening spaces.

Once we went into the storage room of the police station in the building. The cops confiscate a lot of drugs and a lot of guns. The room was armored and heavily locked. Inside were bins full of nine-millimeter pistols, others of Tec-9s, a drum-fed Thompson, a Remington 700 heavy-barreled sniping rifle, a Chinese AK. The place was an arsenal. There were several hunting crossbows. And I saw a Galil. How it got from Israel to Robert Taylor, I don’t know.

The bangers have a lot of firepower.

Law enforcement is tricky in the projects. People aren’t supposed to have guns in their apartments. Many do, chiefly the bangers. If the cops run sweep searches to find guns, constitutional problems arise. If they don’t, the residents shoot each other. Take your choice. Last I heard, option two was the de facto standard.

The entrances to buildings have guards whose job is to keep out people who don’t live there, as for example gangbangers from other buildings. This is a good idea in principle because the gangs will take over a building, terrorize the residents, and use their apartments for drug-dealing. The problem is that, depending on the jurisdiction (these places exist across the country), the guards are often unarmed or alone.

When a dozen bangers, clearly armed, appear and say that they want to go in, the guard usually decides that a more-or-less minimum-wage job isn’t worth his life. The bad guys go in. Thus guards are a nice feel-good idea, and not much more.

The parking lots usually have lots of cars-welfare is better than it used to be-and some of them are Mercedes and suchlike. Most drug-dealers don’t make a lot of money. They’re dime-rockers who spend all day on the corner to sell a few bags. The higher-ups make a good living.

The interiors of the buildings are often trashed-out and reek of garbage. I haven’t been inside any units at Robert Taylor, but, if they follow the pattern in other projects, some are well kept and a lot aren’t. There isn’t much about living in these concrete termite nests that conduces to interest in maintenance. It isn’t a lack of time, but maybe having too much time. People who have nothing to do with their lives lose interest.

I’m not sure that people understand that the projects represent a sizable part of America. They have been pretty much forgotten by society. I have no idea what to do about them. Anything that might work is politically incorrect, and nothing that is politically correct will work.

Anyway, nobody any longer worries about such things. It seems that the country has decided to bear the costs of these barren enclaves, to leave the projects in their isolation, going nowhere but bothering no one on the outside. Welfare serves as bread, television as circuses, and the country thinks about other things. It works, for now.

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