CHAos Creates Change
In late May, a group of Chicago artists hijacked an advertising campaign sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to promote its Plan for Transformation, the nation’s largest program to redevelop (read: destroy) public housing. Using extra-legal means, the artists converted the housing authority’s “CHAnge” poster and advertising campaign to “CHAos.” The artists see their version of the PR as a more honest perspective.
The CHA’s Plan for Transformation, now at its midpoint, has been controversial from its start. Under the 10-year, $1.6 billion effort, the CHA has demolished dozens of public housing buildings throughout Chicago, and more buildings are slated to fall despite continuing protest by public housing residents. The Plan’s effects are dramatically visible: along State Street from 35th to 51st Street only three high-rise buildings remain where a few years ago there stood 30. The corridor is essentially emptied, its former residents expelled to other marginalized ghettos like Englewood, Roseland and South Shore, or made homeless.
Most of the displaced are given federally subsidized Section 8 rent vouchers to use on private housing market. But Section 8 vouchers provide no guarantee of finding housing. And the neighborhoods where landlords will take Section 8 usually lack social services and employment opportunities. A recent Chicago Tribune investigation, for example, found that four in ten buildings used by Section 8 holders fail inspections, leaving voucher holders in unsafe housing.
So what happens to the land that the CHA has so recently and ruthlessly cleared of population? It is handed over to private developers who promise to build “mixed income communities.” But strict return criteria—drug tests, no felony convictions, work requirements, no lease violations—mean that the number of public housing residents actually able to return to new housing will be limited. The net effect of the Plan is less housing for the poor, more profits for developers.
Many public housing residents saw the Plan as a land grab from the start. But CHA pushed the Plan aggressively, with backing from much of the city’s corporate and civic elite. In the fall of 2004, CHA launched a major advertising campaign, buying $600,000 of ad space in bus shelters and elsewhere in the public transit system and throughout the print media. Designed pro-bono by the Chicago-based Leo Burnett agency, each ad features a resident, face impassive and determined, who looks to the horizon and explains the positive changes wrought by the Plan.
In one, a senior citizen says she feels “just like the buildings—all brand new.” In another, Maria Mendoza, assistant manager at the Bridgeport Homes says, “Everything is new, even my outlook.” Resident Charles Pinkston says in another ad that “public housing is coming to a point I hoped it would—full circle.”
But what a difference a few letters make. On May 27 and 28, CHAos—the artistic response to the advertisements—went up at prominent spots throughout Chicago. Instead of a resident looking out from the ads, Chicagoans read about the Mayor, the head of CHA and other powerbrokers implementing the Plan for Transformation. In front of City Hall, CHAos group members disguised in maintenance worker vests and work pants open up privately owned bus shelters in the middle of the day to install ads. The process was repeated at other shelters and on the public transportation system without a hitch. No one confronted the group during public distribution, except for an occasional curious question from a passenger on the El.
“CHAnge was trying to close the chapter, seal the deal, end dialogue around public housing. There’s kind of an acknowledgement that public housing went wrong but now the Plan for Transformation is correcting it,” says Joe, the nom de guerre of one of the principal organizers behind CHAos.
“We tried to be as honest as possible about what these people’s interests in the Plan for Transformation are,” said Phillip, another member of CHAos. “Ostensibly, the CHAnge campaign was about residents who were benefiting from the Plan. We took that at face value and talked about who was actually going to benefit.”
The group did extensive political and historical research for the project, which took three months and involved talking to public housing residents, lawyers, and housing advocates. Instead of residents, the CHAos ads featured a top-five powerbroker list, consisting of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, CHA CEO Terry Peterson, two private housing developers, and Alfonso Jackson, the federal H.U.D. secretary. The ads featuring these characters are blunt. The Mayor Daley poster asks, “Are tourists more important than the poor?” Terry Peterson wonders, “Do Money and Politics Mix?” referring to news reports that the Chicago ward where Peterson formerly ruled as alderman has netted some $250,000 in contributions from CHA contractors in spite of the fact that no CHA buildings are located there. Next to a headshot of Daniel Levin, CEO of the Habitat Co., one of CHA’s private property managers at developments like Cabrini-Green, the ad asks “Do you like forcing people out of their homes?” In the testimony space on the Levin ad, the CHAos group says that “Time after time, [Habitat] has used legal rulings and court proceedings to prevent public housing residents from moving into the new ‘mixed income’ buildings in their old neighborhoods.”
“This information is publicly available and all of our sources can be sourced and cited. Anyone can find them if they do hours and hours of research like we did,” says Shelia a key player in CHAos. “But none of this information has been presented in this particular fashion. It’s our hope CHAos serve as a public resource for talking about these transformations that are happening.”
CHAos didn’t just challenge the city’s policies, it also challenged and exposed the city’s role as propagandist, as a cultural producer. “One of the ways the city exercises power is as a conceptual artist,” explains CHAos supporter Jamie Kalven. “A derelict, half-vacant public housing high rise with burned out windows—that’s a statement. A wrecking ball hitting that high-rise is a statement. The vacant lot left by the demolition—a blank slate awaiting ‘development’—is a statement. The city is using the built environment to make a statement.” And in response to the CHA’s campaign, CHAos launched an equally visible counter-statement.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University professor and a leading chronicler of Chicago public housing, argues that CHAos implicated the middle classes as well as the power elite, and that made it especially controversial. According to Venkatesh, “White liberals get very upset where there’s talk of: A) a conspiracy of institutions; and B) that the institutions of government are acting consistently against people’s interests. They block that out because it’s an uncomfortable thought that institutions don’t serve people.”
Not only does the CHA produce “conceptual art,” but it also has the fragile ego of an artist. The CHA is not at all happy with the CHAos campaign. New CHAnge ads have already been placed in bus shelters. Chuck Levesque, deputy general counsel of CHA, calls the CHAos campaign “churlish” and said the agency is considering a “panoply” of actions. To this date, none have been taken. And in a particularly fragrant response, the CHA has accused the CHAos artists of being “unfair to residents” and of “hurting families” who are undergoing relocation. It’s a response that would be hilarious if the CHA’s own brutal campaign of displacement were not so serious.
MICAH MAIDENBERG is a freelance writer who lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.