View From The Ground

07/11/05

AREA Please introduce The View From The Ground project and provide some background on how it has functioned.

Jamie

The View grew out of a particular history, a particular set of relationships, a particular place and time. Throughout the 90′s, I was deeply engaged in the life of the Stateway Gardens public housing development. I had several different roles. I developed an   employment program with the aim of drawing men out of the criminal economy into work we described as “grassroots public work”–work that enabled them to be constructively engaged in the place where they lived. For a number of years, I have been advisor to the Stateway resident council. In that role, together with the resident leadership, I negotiated with various public agencies and private interests. I had an office on the ground floor of one of the Stateway high-rises and was present in the development on a daily basis for years. The View emerged out of that ecology of relationships.

Over time, our work evolved in the direction of human rights monitoring. Some of the guys who had been swinging sledgehammers and planting trees shifted their energies to monitoring the police, monitoring the physical conditions at Stateway, monitoring the CHA relocation process.

In 2001, we launched a web publication, The View From The Ground, as a vehicle for this sort of human rights reporting. I am, by profession and vocation, a writer. My wife Patricia Evans is a photographer. We were joined in this collaborative effort by David Eads, at that time a college student with great web skills.The View was aimed initially at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the police, the press and the civic/philanthropic community. We identified a range of actors whose actions had implications for people in public housing. We put a lot of effort into creating the email list for the publication. We were careful not to over-sell what we were doing; it was not going to be a magazine that promised to appear on a regular production schedule we would then be obligated to meet.   We described it as an “occasional publication.” Our aim was to present stories in such a way that, amid all the clutter of the Internet, they would arrest and reward the full attention of the reader. The photography, the writing, and the web graphics worked together to create a sense of immediacy, to bring readers swiftly and deeply into the stories.

Our basic strategy, as reflected in the name of the publication, was to recruit reality on the side of the residents. View articles don’t hector the reader; they aren’t polemical. They are most often straightforward narratives. The narrative posture is to say ‘this is what it looks like from here, from this apartment that burned up six months ago and has not yet been repaired, or from this unsecured vacant unit, or from my position standing across from a man who has just been beaten by the police.’   And the implicit challenge we presented was, ‘we might be wrong, we are fallible like anyone else, but you have to come down here and show us that we are not seeing these things accurately.

AREA How did you assemble this information? How did the View work at its most effective point?

Jamie

The impact of The View exceeded our expectations. We had meager resources.   We were working with our left hand, so to speak, while discharging various other roles and responsibilities. Yet it worked remarkably well. We got lots of response, and the technology enabled us to get through directly to decision-makers involved in the issues we addressed. An example is a story we did on physical conditions at Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes. In Memory of Eric Morse Parts I and II The Eric Morse case, arising out of the notorious incident in which a young boy was pushed out of a window at the Ida B. Wells development, was being litigated at the time. While this case was in progress, with multi-million dollar stakes for the CHA, there were high-rises all over the city with the same sorts of conditions that gave rise to the charge of negligence against the CHA in the Morse case: unsecured vacant units and open windows that had not been boarded-up. Also, at Stateway, there was the issue that the top floor doors that led to the roofs of the high-rises were being left open to facilitate elevator repairs with no regard to the safety of residents. The resident leaders at Stateway raised this issue with the property manager and had received formal, written assurance it had been addressed. On a Sunday in June, 2001, I walked all seven of the two-tiered buildings then occupied at Stateway and checked the doors to the roof. It was like a day spent climbing in the Alps. The report we posted on The View that evening included a photograph of a child playing on the unfenced roof of a 17-story building and closed with these words:

I am writing this on the afternoon of Sunday, June 17. I have just finished walking all of the buildings at Stateway. I found the doors to the roof open at the following addresses . . . a list of 11 of 14 Stateway addresses. It’s a lovely summer afternoon. The Stateway high-rises are alive with the sounds of children playing.

Two days later, the director of operations for CHA was down in our office, taking the head of the property management company to task and threatening to pull their contract   if they did not immediately address the problem. The upshot was that we negotiated an arrangement under which the property management firm would pay several residents to walk the buildings several times a week to monitor conditions. This monitoring regime continued until most the of buildings had been torn down.

Another way in which The View had an impact was as a source–a sort of inner city wire service–for other reporters. My colleagues and I became a point of access for people who wanted to write about public housing. We facilitated dozens by stories by local media and by reporters from national publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe.   Communities such as Stateway have been abandoned by the media as much as they have by other institutions. So when reporters want to do a story, they generally don’t have any relationships on the ground. We tried to help with that problem. The NPR program “On the Media” did a story on the role I played for other reporters.

AREA Describe your impression of the media landscape in Chicago. Specifically, what is the View’s relationship to that landscape, since a large part of your project is this journalistic work that is different from anything else that is out there?

Jamie

Part of what distinguishes The View from a lot of other stuff on the Internet is that we don’t do media commentary. So much of the discourse in the blogsphere is commentary on commentary. We don’t do that. We do primary reporting from a dimension of American life that is underreported and badly reported. So there is a powerful critique of media implicit in The View, but not voiced by The View.

The problem can be described at a couple of different levels. For one thing, I know lots of reporters who would love to give more coverage to these issues, but they run up against institutional resistance to doing so. That is, I think, an important distinction. But the larger issue is the degree to which these communities have been stigmatized and criminalized and placed beyond the pale. There are such strong structures of perception in place, animated to a large degree by fear, that shape people’s sense of these places they never visit. Even quite good reporting gets assimilated to those structures of perception. The challenge is that you have to clear a place for the story that you want to tell. You have to subvert those structures of perception, in order to create space to tell a story that isn’t the story people already know. If you did a content analysis of what appears in the media, there are just a handful of stories that keep being recycled again and again. The gangbanger astride the world. The baby-having-babies. And so on. This spectrum of stories can include the noble public school teacher, the park district coach, someone like me –an activist on the ground–all of whom can be acknowledged for their qualities, but that’s about it. So you’ve got communities as complex and mysterious and unfathomable as any in the city, but they are reported through this crude lens.

A powerful example is the Eric Morse story–the appalling incident of a five-year-old boy being pushed out of a window by other children at the Ida B. Wells development, and falling to his death. That crime defined that building and the Wells community in people’s imaginations.   Years later, when the building was torn down, the   headlines read as if the demolition was somehow an act of retribution. What gets eclipsed here is every act of kindness and love, nurture and fellow feeling that occurred in that building through generations. It ‘s completely obliterated. If the Morse incident had occurred in Evanston or Lincoln Park, there would certainly have been a perception that this was a terrible crime, but would it have defined the community forever after? This dynamic is so strong,and what drives it is so close to the bone,that it makes it very hard for us to think straight.

The stories we try to tell on The View are inherently difficult to tell, but we have claimed a freedom to experiment with how best to tell these stories. That is a freedom my colleagues and friends in the mainstream media don’t have.

AREA Can you talk about how the View works? How do you and your collaborators determine content?

Jamie

I have written almost everything that has appeared on the View to date. (I hope this will cease to be the case as we move forward.) So a lot of it has to do with my particular angle of vision and passions. Strategically and rhetorically, we try to stay very close to the ground. The typical View story describes in fairly thick narrative detail a set of conditions or a particular situation that nobody in their right mind could possibly defend. We put lots of care into these narratives to make sure we have our facts right and that the presentation is as clear as we can make it. Once readers, including city officials, buy into the proposition that the conditions described, if accurately rendered, are indefensible, you’re launched. It’s quite different from the predictable, stale, tiresome discourse in which you attack at some broad policy level, and then there is counter assertion and back-and-forth, and nothing happens. Here, you start with a situation all agree is deplorable. Then you work up an analytic food chain and ask whether this is a one-time malfunction of an otherwise smoothly working system or does this happen more often? How often does it happen? Is it a matter of tweaking the policy? Is it perhaps a more fundamental problem? Or is it perhaps the predictable product of a set of policies and practices? Now I don’t want to presuppose the answer to those questions, because it will not be the same in every case. But it’s a very different kind of conversation when anchored to the realities on the ground.

There is also a cumulative impact of View stories for people who have read it steadily. My sense, though I’m not speaking as a reader, since I am so close to it, is that the cumulative impact of View stories raises fundamental questions about the essential character of the Plan For Transformation. It does so by building understanding brick by brick rather than by engaging in sweeping polemic and indictment, which in my experience is ineffectual in this context. The central function of the View is to engage people’s moral imaginations–to take them ever deeper into these human situations–while navigating around all the things that limit our perceptions. Not only of our neighbors living in public housing, but of the city itself.

AREA Recently the View was re-launched after a hiatus of two years. Why was there a break and what is the new angle and direction of the View?

Jamie

The hiatus was due to personal reasons, but we used it as an occasion to reconceive The View, both in terms of the technical infrastructure and in terms of the mission. So a lot of work got done over those two years. One of the things that we’ve been contending with is a radically changed landscape. When we started The View, the Stateway community was substantially intact; the relocation process and the demolitions were just beginning to gather momentum.   South State Street used to be described as the largest concentration of public housing and poverty in the country. Extending from 54 th Street to 35 th Street, there were 28 high-rises at the Robert Taylor Homes and 8 at Stateway. Today there are two buildings at Robert Taylor and one at Stateway. And this has happened throughout the city. It’s a stunning transformation–to use the word favored by the CHA–over a period of a few years. So what is The View from the Ground in these circumstances? What does it mean to do what we did and what we aspire to do in this dramatically altered landscape? As we now understand them, our objectives include trying to understand the processes and mechanisms by which people are so effectively disappeared. Another is to report from the places to which people have been disappeared.

A line of inquiry that was emerging several years ago when we were publishing The View and has only gotten stronger in the intervening years is the nexus between the so-called War on Drugs, the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, and the redevelopment of the city. A lot of the work I’ve done over the last few years has focused on police misconduct. We have a collaborative initiative with lawyers and law students from the Mandel Legal Clinic at the University of Chicago that we call the Stateway Gardens Civil Rights Project. The Mandel lawyers have brought several federal civil rights suits against the Chicago Police Department. Public housing is fascinating, because it’s a site for so many fundamental issues. Housing is just one of them. To be passionate about public housing is to be concerned about a constellation of issues that are defining issues in American life. Central among those for me–it’s what I wake up in the morning angry about–is the failure to provide minimally decent law enforcement in public housing communities. There has been a complete abandonment of these communities over many years. Abandonment has interacted with the myths and hallucinations of the War on Drugs to suggest that these are wildly criminal places. The upshot of this criminalization of places is to greatly facilitate the redevelopment process. The subtext of the Plan for Transformation is that these developments are unviable because they are disorderly and criminal. They aren’t even communities; they are loose criminal conspiracies. That is far from my experience over the years at Stateway. It greatly exaggerates the power of the gangs and the drug trade. The drug trade is a sweatshop–it’s the worst possible form of employment. Anyone you see visibly dealing drugs is not making any money. Somebody is, but not the guys you see on the street. So you’ve got this set of myths and misperceptions, which are given great cogency by people’s fears. Any public policy you can link to people’s fears for their safety and that of their families, no matter how patently outrageous the policy is, gains great force.

Over the years, we’ve observed and monitored several different crews of gang tactical police officers who have routinely abused residents and violated their rights. The abuses take various forms: living off the drug trade rather than eliminating it,   extorting money, guns, and drugs from drug dealers and then arresting some kid with a joint in his pocket. These rogue officers have operated –continue to operate–with complete impunity, terrorizing their victims for the perverse pleasure of it. We have documented incidents that bear   comparison to Abu Ghraib. This is the ground we are orienting from: the particular injuries to human dignity inflicted in this setting. We are trying to carry forward a narrative inquiry into these patterns. This orientation, I believe, has the potential to open up the discourse about a whole set of issues that are embedded in public housing in Chicago in 2005. The people I have come to know, some of them very well, over my years at Stateway cannot give voice to their experience or express their grievances in the language available to them in the prevailing discourse. They cannot describe fundamental human rights violations in the language of community development.

A parallel is provided by the civil rights movement during the Jim Crow era. My understanding about that struggle is that the fundamental issues were only partly, and maybe secondarily, issues of separate facilities for blacks and whites. Not to minimize those issues, but it’s my impression that the core issues had to do with living under a regime of quasi-official terror. If we’re going to give an account of what is happening to people in abandoned neighborhoods, then we need to acknowledge that they are living under conditions in which they have reason to fear for their safety at the hands of the state–because of conditions of abandonment and because of patterns of abuse by the police.

A motif in the official narrative about public housing and similar neighborhoods is that kids grow up without models of constructive participation in society and so they’re unduly influenced by the figure of the charismatic drug dealer. That seems like a fairly plausible analysis. The only problem is that I’ve ever seen it happen. Sure, there are kids who drift towards the drug trade, mostly because it’s one of the few things going on in their immediate geography. And it’s kind of interesting and kind of transgressive, so it’s got that charge for adolescents. But the idea that these guys standing in the same place all day on street corners and in open air public housing lobbies, doing 12 and 24 hour shifts, are somehow cool, charismatic figures is lost on me. I just haven’t seen it. I have, though, repeatedly had an experience that is central for lots of young people growing up in these settings. I have witnessed the police abuse and beat my friends, gratuitously humiliating them, and I have felt, ‘Shit, if this is the face of authority, then I’m going to go stand with my guys.’ If I feel this as a middle aged white guy from outside the neighborhood, what does a 14-15 year old kid trying to find his legs as a man feel? This dynamic produces outlaws not because people act on base motives or because their characters are undeveloped. It’s actually a healthy response. Not necessarily healthy in where it leads–it can lead to very precarious and dangerous places–but healthy in that it is animated by a sense of justice. So, from what I’ve seen, it’s not so much the charisma of the drug dealer as the ugly face of civil authority that generates the outlaw solidarity on the street. These are, I know, hard stories to tell, but they feel close to the heart of the matter.

At some level and with some caveats, I’m inclined to accept the universal defense of police departments confronted with charges of misconduct–and governments confronted with charges of state torture–that ‘there are a few bad apples in every barrel.’ Okay, let’s accept that for the purpose of argument. Some advocates, and some police, estimate that something on the order of 5% of a big city police force like Chicago’s is really corrupt and brutal. In one sense, that is a small number. On the other hand, in absolute numbers it’s rather large.   And there is no reason to assume the 5% are evenly distributed across the department. A large number of them might end up assigned to a particular section such as public housing. The crux is that we have to confront how much damage a handful of violent actors can do. One crew of rogue cops can alienate whole regions of the city from civic authority. They can affect hundreds and hundreds of families. And they can corrupt the larger institutions of the city to the extent that their misconduct is tolerated and their crimes are covered up, not properly investigated, and go unpunished.

This is a different kind of analysis, but a really critical one. Through The View, we are trying to build a readership and a conversation about these issues. In response to the extended serialized article we are publishing now–”Kicking The Pigeon”–some readers have said, ‘this is terrible and really wrong, I am really unsettled by this, what can we do?’ The answer is a complicated one, because there is a sense in which we already know what to do. There are dozens of sensible policy recommendations for ensuring police accountability that have been developed over the years. We know the desperate need of poor people for legal representation, so that issues like this get addressed. But in the absence of popular support–in the absence of a broad base of citizens who are becoming informed and are prepared to engage these issues as opposed to living in a twilight zone in between knowing and not knowing about them, nothing is going to happen. We have seen the tremendous power, both nationally and internationally, that critical and engaged readers can exercise via the Internet.   What we are trying to do at the local level is to recruit that sort of engagement. A lot of things would become possible if people would take this issue on, if they would give it priority because they have come to feel that they are complicit to the extent that they don’t actively resist. In reporting and presenting these stories, we are doing the best work we are capable of. Now we need to mobilize the power of readers.

We know what needs to be done. That’s what’s so strange about our political life. Paul Farmer, an innovative doctor who has brilliantly framed public health issues as matters of basic human rights, says somewhere that liberals believe human right violations are accidents as opposed to patterns arising out of what he calls ‘the pathologies of power.’ I would add that liberals tend to believe that fundamental issues of social justice require policy innovation as opposed to moral vigor and political will. With respect to the fundamental issues in American life, it’s not policy innovation that’s going to feed people or give them medical care or allow them to live lives unshadowed by fear, it’s political will and civic courage. It’s deciding that these conditions are intolerable and that if one is not actively resisting them, one is complicit. The question for all of us–for The View, for AREA and its readers–is how to break through. This is a question for artists as much as it’s a question for political organizers or human rights activists. How do you break through to people? And the particular challenge we face now is that the city is being reshaped in ways that make certain fundamental issues harder to see. So we are all the more dependent on artists and activists to keep those issues visible.

AREA You mentioned earlier that you would like to see The View develop into something where there are other contributors and other collaborators. What do you think coordination with other media projects, affiliations, or networks would look like and how would they work?

Jamie

I am not altogether sure, but I’m open to exploring those possibilities.   As we have relaunched The View, we don’t see it defined strictly in terms of public housing. There are a set of issues that we first engaged in the context of public housing that have life beyond that context. We are no longer defining The View strictly in terms of the South Side. It is now potentially a citywide publication in terms of where we would find and follow stories. And I think we have established a certain style and standard, for better or worse, for approaching these questions and issues. There is a certain persona and profile of The View in terms of the care we take in doing stories. We are eager to report from elsewhere and work with people elsewhere in the city who are engaging similar issues. We don’t want to surrender the sort of authority that comes from being close to the ground–you know, ‘ I am standing here, knee deep in this cesspool, and you have to come down here and tell me that the cesspool isn’t here.’ We know what our themes are and our style of inquiry, and if we can find allies who are drawn to The View because that is what they want to do themselves–I can imagine various kinds of collaborative undertakings. We intend to maintain high standards in terms of the quality of the reporting. We may fail to reach those standards, but we will consistently apply them. People tend to think of ‘grassroots’ reporting as only semi-competent journalism or in the vein of ‘isn’t that sweet, people are the same everywhere’ sort of thing. We aspire to do reporting of the same quality for The View as we do for national publications. We will be fierce about maintaining those standards. But we are definitely looking for allies and coconspirators who share those standards and aspirations. That’s a standing invitation.