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After the Projects

Laurie Stern

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Michael Whitehead
(Michael Whitehead)

The Ida B. Wells housing projects on Chicago's South Side opened in 1941, when housing segregation was still legal. By the '70s and' 80s, Wells was caught up in the violence and squalor that became synonymous with Chicago public housing. Michael Whitehead's six-story building was no exception. Stephen Smith of American RadioWorks reports.

After the Projects
(American RadioWorks)

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Until a few months ago, the only home Michael Whitehead ever knew was in the Ida. B. Wells housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Drug dealers staked out every corner of his building.

"Red Bull, Red Bull, USDA, USDA…" Each dealer hawks his own brand from his own corner. USDA and Red Bull are brand names for crack or heroin. There's another popular brand. "Obama blow is working, Obama blow is working," one dealer shouts.

"Just like the other day, I come out my apt, guy laying on the floor, hollering, screaming, still got the needle in his arm," says Michael Whitehead. "You get sick of seeing it, but what can you do?"

What Michael must do is move. Chicago is in the middle of a massive mission to empty the old housing projects like the one where Michael lives. It's part of a nationwide trend. But moving can be a problem for people who've never lived outside the projects, never had to pay rent or sign up tor utilities.

Sandy Roberts is part of an army of social workers deployed by the government to move Chicago public housing residents to the private sector. A tiny 60ish woman with gray dreadlocks, Sandy picks Michael up from his sister's apartment. She and her colleagues at Housing Choice Partners have been given three months to get everyone out of Ida. B. Wells. Including Michael Whitehead.

In her boxy gray Toyota Scion, Sandy tries to reassure Michael about how much rent he'll have to pay. "Your voucher should say how much rent you're paying according to income, Sandy says. "Did you look at your voucher sheet?" Michael tells her there's too much paperwork to know what means what.

Michael's been told he had several options for new places to live. He decided to take what's called a section 8 voucher. He'll find a private apartment. The government will pay his new landlord most of his rent, and Michael will be responsible for utilities. He's never looked for an apartment before; that's why he's getting help.

"I don't want to go somewhere and have problems," Michael tells Sandy. "Like with the light bill or whatever."

"One of the good things is you can control your lights," she says. So if you feel you're using too much, you can turn them off…"

"But I wouldn't know that until the first bill comes."

"I don't think you have much to worry about."

Michael has never paid a light bill. Michael moved to these projects when he was nine. Now he's 57.

"I've worked all my life," he says. "It's not that I'm scared to work or don't want to work it's not happenin' for me yet."

Michael's been unemployed for several years - since a construction accident left him blind in one eye. He lives on about $300 per month from the government. He pays no rent at Wells. Sandy shows him an apartment and drives him back to Ida B. Wells, past boarded up buildings to the one where he lives. She's proud to say Housing Choice Partners has emptied two of the buildings next to Michael's. He says, with contempt, "they were drug infested." She's shocked by the blatant drug dealing in front of his.

Despite the problems there are things Michael will miss about living at Wells We gave Michael a camera and a tape recorder while he was waiting to move. He took the gear all over the neighborhood.

"I'm headed to 39th and Cottage Grove where I hang out with the old-timers, sit out play cards, tell a few jokes, tell a few lies," his recording begins.

Michael has his regular card table in the park and a guy he plays chess with almost every day. The friends reminisce about the old times when kids still played in the playground. Now there are no kids - just a lot of needles lying around.

"That's the worst thing you can do with them needles," his friend says. "You can be through with them - dispose of them the correct way."

"You got kids out here now, they didn't grow up like how we did," Michael adds.

"I had a uncle used to shoot up but he was respectful back in the day," the friend says. "He broke the tips off."

"Smoking crack, doin' blow in front of kids, you shouldn't be doin none of that - be respectful, man." Michael says.

Michael and his friends say a long time ago, people were proud to live at Chicago's Ida B. Wells projects. Michael remembers when neighbors mowed the lawn here and kept up their apartments. But drugs took hold in the late '70s and early '80s just as blue-collar jobs were disappearing. The drug-dealers became the breadwinners. Kids sold drugs to their parents. The gangsters made the rules. But they won't be working out of Wells any more. At summer's end, all the buildings were boarded up - including Michael's, and all the residents were gone.

Michael found an apartment 30 blocks south of Wells. "I been here a month and two days," he says. He stands at the door of his building. He's smiling. It's a three-story brownstone with a security entrance and a fenced backyard.

"So far it been great," he says. "I like the building because it's clean all the time. No people standing around in front, that's a big difference from where I came from."

One flight up, Michael's kitchen and bathroom have modern fixtures. The Chicago Housing Authority gave him $200 to help with the move - he spent it on a microwave, a set of dishes and some minutes for his cell phone. He'll pay $20 a month rent - which leaves him $80 plus food stamps to live on for the month. But he's still worried about utilities.

"Only thing I can see is hurtin' me is it all depends on what this light bill's gonna be," he says. Other than that, yeah, I can make it. "

That was back in August - we spoke with Michael again this month. He had good news. He went on an installment plan to help with his electricity bill. He likes his new place, but it's still not quite home. Home is still 39th Street and Cottage Grove where he still goes as often as he can to see his friends.

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This story is part of The Real Face of Poverty, an American RadioWorks series supported in part by the Northwest Area Foundation.

  • Music Bridge:
    A Boat of Courage
    Artist: Michio Kurihara
    CD: Sunset Notes (20/20/20)

Comments

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  • By david lee davis

    From las vegas, NV, 06/30/2014

    I am a 49 year old black man who was born and raised in the idea b wells projects of Chicago and I miss the wells so much. It was a place where good families and the best of friends could be made. I now live in a place where people are born actors and born actresses are. There will never be another idea b wells or Chicago. No place could ever compare.

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