American Murder Mystery

Why is crime rising in so many American cities? The answer implicates one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades.
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VIDEO: Phyllis Betts explains why the major politicians are ignoring rising crime in Memphis

Betts’s office is filled with books about knocking down the projects, an effort considered by fellow housing experts to be their great contribution to the civil-rights movement. The work grew out of a long history of white resistance to blacks’ moving out of what used to be called the ghetto. During much of the 20th century, white people used bombs and mobs to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. In 1949 in Chicago, a rumor that a black family was moving onto a white block prompted a riot that grew to 10,000 people in four days. “Americans had been treating blacks seeking housing outside the ghetto not much better than … [the] cook treated the dog who sought a crust of bread,” wrote the ACLU lawyer and fair-housing advocate Alexander Polikoff in his book Waiting for Gautreaux.

Polikoff is a hero to Betts and many of her colleagues. In August 1966, he filed two related class-action suits against the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on behalf of a woman named Dorothy Gautreaux and other tenants. Gautreaux wanted to leave the ghetto, but the CHA offered housing only in neighborhoods just like hers. Polikoff became notorious in the Chicago suburbs; one community group, he wrote, awarded him a gold-plated pooper-scooper “to clean up all the shit” he wanted to bring into the neighborhood. A decade later, he argued the case before the Supreme Court and won. Legal scholars today often compare the case’s significance to that of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

In 1976, letters went out to 200 randomly selected families among the 44,000 living in Chicago public housing, asking whether they wanted to move out to the suburbs. A counselor went around the projects explaining the new Section8 program, in which tenants would pay 25percent of their income for rent and the government would pay the rest, up to a certain limit. Many residents seemed dubious. They asked how far away these places were, how they would get there, whether the white people would let them in.

But the counselors persevered and eventually got people excited about the idea. The flyers they mailed out featured a few stanzas of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed.”

I am not hungry for berries
I am not hungry for bread
But hungry hungry for a house
Where at night a man in bed
May never hear the plaster
Stir as if in pain.
May never hear the roaches
Falling like fat rain.

(This was a risky decision. One later stanza, omitted from the flyers, reads:

By the time he had hurt his fourth white man
Rudolph Reed was dead.
His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse
“Nigger—” his neighbors said.)

Starting in 1977, in what became known as the Gautreaux program, hundreds of families relocated to suburban neighborhoods—most of them about 25miles from the ghetto, with very low poverty rates and good public schools. The authorities had screened the families carefully, inspecting their apartments and checking for good credit histories. They didn’t offer the vouchers to families with more than five children, or to those that were indifferent to leaving the projects. They were looking for families “seeking a healthy environment, good schools and an opportunity to live in a safe and decent home.”

A well-known Gautreaux study, released in 1991, showed spectacular results. The sociologist James Rosenbaum at Northwestern University had followed 114 families who had moved to the suburbs, although only 68 were still cooperating by the time he released the study. Compared to former public-housing residents who’d stayed within the city, the suburban dwellers were four times as likely to finish high school, twice as likely to attend college, and more likely to be employed. Newsweek called the program “stunning” and said the project renewed “one’s faith in the struggle.” In a glowing segment, a 60 Minutes reporter asked one Gautreaux boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I haven’t really made up my mind,” the boy said. “Construction worker, architect, anesthesiologist.” Another child’s mother declared it “the end of poverty” for her family.

In 1992, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis from the Cabrini-Green project was walking to school, holding his mother’s hand, when a stray bullet killed him. The hand-holding detail seemed to stir the city in a way that none of the other murder stories coming out of the high-rises ever had. “Tear down the high rises,” demanded an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, while that boy’s image “burns in our civic memory.”

HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was receptive to the idea. He spent a few nights in Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor Homes and subsequently spoke about “these enclaves of poverty,” where “drug dealers control the stairwells, where children can’t go outside to play, where mothers put their infants to bed in bathtubs.” If people could see beyond the graffitied hallways of these projects, they could get above that way of life, argued the researchers, and learn to live like their middle-class brothers and sisters. Cisneros floated the idea of knocking down the projects and moving the residents out into the metro area.

The federal government encouraged the demolitions with a $6.3billion program to redevelop the old project sites, called HOPE VI, or “Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.” The program was launched in the same spirit as Bill Clinton’s national service initiative—communities working together to “rebuild lives.” One Chicago housing official mused about “architects and lawyers and bus drivers and people on welfare living together.” Wrecking balls began hitting the Chicago high-rises in the mid-1990s. Within a few years, tens of thousands of public-housing residents all over the country were leaving their apartments. In place of the projects, new developments arose, with fanciful names like “Jazz on the Boulevard” or “Centennial Place.” In Memphis, the Hurt Village project was razed to make way for “Uptown Square,” which the local developer Henry Turley declared would be proof that you could turn the inner city into a “nice place for poor people” to live. Robert Lipscomb, the dynamic director of the Memphis Housing Authority, announced, “Memphis is on the move.”

memphis housing project
NEW RESIDENT: Leslie Shaw outside her Springdale Creek apartment in North Memphis

When the Dixie Homes housing project was demolished, in 2006, a group of residents moved to a place called Springdale Creek Apartments in North Memphis, on Doug Barnes’s beat. They were not handpicked, nor part of any study, and nobody told them to move to a low-poverty neighborhood. Like tens of thousands of others, they moved because they had to, into a place they could afford. Springdale Creek is not fancy, but the complex tries to enforce its own quiet order. A sliding black gate separates the row of brick buildings from busy Jackson Avenue, where kids hang out by the KFC. Leslie Shaw was sold when she heard the phrase gated community mentioned by the building manager.

When Shaw saw the newly painted white walls, “so fresh and clean,” with no old smudges from somebody else’s kids, she decided to give away all her furniture. “I didn’t want to move in here with any garbage from Dixie,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘Might as well start over.’” She bought a new brown velour couch and a matching loveseat. She bought a washer and dryer, and a dresser for her 8-year-old grandson, Gerrell, who lives with her. The only thing she kept was a bookshelf, to hold the paperbacks coming monthly from the book club she’d decided to join.

Shaw is 11 years crack-free and, at 47, eager to take advantage of every free program that comes her way—a leadership class, Windows Vista training, a citizen police course, a writing workshop. What drove her—“I got to be honest with you”—was proving her middle-class sisters and brother, “who didn’t think I’d get above it,” wrong. Just after she moved in, one sister came over and said, “This is nice. I thought they would put you back in the projects or something.”

VIDEO: Leslie Shaw discusses the ineffectiveness of security guards

I visited Shaw in February, about a year and a half after she’d moved in. The view outside her first-floor window was still pretty nice—no junk littered the front lawn and few apartments stood vacant. But slowly, she told me, Springdale Creek has started to feel less like a suburban paradise and more like Dixie Homes. Neighborhood boys often kick open the gate or break the keypad. Many nights they just randomly press phone numbers until someone lets them in. The gate’s main use seems to be as a sort of low-thrills ride for younger kids whose parents aren’t paying attention. They hang from the gate as it slides open; a few have gotten their fingers caught and had to be taken to the emergency room.

When Shaw recounts all the bad things that have happened at Springdale Creek, she does it matter-of-factly (even as a grandma, she says, “I can jump those boys if I have to”). Car thefts were common at first—Shaw’s neighbor Laura Evans is one of about 10 victims in the past two years. Thieves have relieved the apartment management company of some of its computers, extra refrigerators, and spare stoves. A few Dixie boys—sons of one of Shaw’s friends—were suspected of breaking the windows in vacant apartments. Last year, somebody hit a pregnant woman in the head with a brick. In the summer, a neighborhood kid chased his girlfriend’s car, shooting at her as she drove toward the gate; the cops, who are called in regularly for one reason or another, collected the spent shells on the grass. “You know, you move from one place to another and you bring the element with you,” said Evans, who stopped by Shaw’s apartment while I was there. “You got some trying to make it just like the projects.”

In the afternoon, I visited an older resident from Dixie Homes who lives across the way from Shaw. Her apartment was dark, blinds drawn, and everyone was watching Maury Povich. A few minutes after I arrived, we heard a pounding at the door, and a neighbor rushed in, shouting.

“They just jumped my grandson! That’s my grandson!”

This was 64-year-old Nadine Clark, who’d left Dixie before it got knocked down. Clark was wearing her navy peacoat, but she had forgotten to put in her teeth. From her pocket she pulled a .38-caliber pistol, which was the only thing that glinted in the room besides the TV.

“There’s 10 of them! And I’m gonna go fuck them up! That’s my grandson! They took him away in an ambulance!”

Nobody in the house got excited. They kept their eyes on Maury Povich, where the audience was booing a kid who looked just like the thug who’d shot up his girlfriend’s car. “She’ll calm down,” someone said, and after a few minutes, Clark left. I drove down to Northside High, a few blocks away, where the grandson had gotten beaten up. TV crews and local reporters were already gathered outside the school, and a news chopper hovered overhead. There had been two school shootings in the neighborhood that month, and any fresh incidents made big news.

Clark’s grandson is named Unique, although everyone calls him Neek. Outside school that day, Neek had been a victim of one of the many strange dynamics of the new urban suburbia. Neek is tall and quiet and doesn’t rush to change out of his white polo shirt and blue khakis after school. He spends most of his afternoons in the house, watching TV or doing his homework.

Neek’s middle-class habits have made him, unwittingly, a perfect target for homegrown gangs. Gang leaders, cut loose from the housing projects, have adapted their recruiting efforts and operations to their new setting. Lately, they’ve been going after “smart, intelligent, go-to-college-looking kid[s], without gold teeth and medallions,” said Sergeant Lambert Ross, an investigator with the Memphis Police. Clean-cut kids serve the same function as American recruits for al-Qaeda: they become the respectable front men. If a gang member gets pulled over with guns or drugs, he can hand them to the college boy, who has no prior record. The college boy, raised outside the projects, might be dreaming of being the next 50 Cent, or might be too intimidated not to join. Ross told me that his latest batch of arrests involved several kids from two-car-garage families.

Neek generally stayed away from gang types, so some older kids beat him with bats. No one is sure whether a gun was fired. As these things go, he got off easy. He was treated at the emergency room and went back to school after a few days.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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