Crisis on Federal Street (1987)


Public Housing `Crisis` Worth Look

January 06, 1987|By Clifford Terry, TV/radio critic.


The 15 members of the Nash family–presided over by a single mother–live in a six-room apartment. They receive welfare and food stamps. All but one of the children have dropped out of school. The future is discussed in hesitant, not hopeful, terms.

For 13 years, the Nashes have been residents of the Robert Taylor Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority project five miles south of the Loop that is made up of 95 acres, 3,543 families and a median family income that is about half that of the American family of four living at the poverty level. The most ambitious housing project in the country when it was built in the early `60s, Taylor is now, collectively, the poorest neighborhood in the country.

The egregious failure of the governmental dream–and the plight of individuals like the Nashes–are examined in “Crisis on Federal Street“ (9 p.m. Tuesday on WTTW-Ch. 11), an hour-long WTTW production that will be shown nationally on PBS.

Produced and directed by Rose Economou, the documentary–which, says host Hodding Carter III, is a look at “a people at war with each other, with themselves and with the society around them“–examines the failure of the federal public-housing and public-aid programs that date back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and deals with such topics as the generational welfare cycle, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, the breakdown of the family and rapes in the elevators.

There are shots of the scramble at the local currency exchange on the day welfare checks arrive, and there are interviews with those who live in the Taylor Homes, as well as ubiquitous urbanologist Pierre DeVise, DuSable High School principal Judith Steinhagen and various social workers, law-

enforcement officers and health-department staffers.

Dr. Gail Christopher, director of a social-service program, talks about the psychological isolation of the projects, and how many of its residents have never even been downtown. Devereaux Bowly, author of “The Poorhouse,“ a history of Chicago`s public housing, says the CHA`s determination to build Robert Taylor and other projects as a means to constrain the black population in as small a geographic area as possible is one of “the single-worst public policy decisions that`s been made in the history of the city.“

Discussing the chronic unemployment in the project, Prof. William Wilson, head of the sociology department at the University of Chicago, says that the young men in the Taylor homes don`t even know to look in newspapers for jobs. Political scientist Charles Murray (whose book, “Losing Ground,“ proposes that government welfare should be abolished) declares, “An act of Congress couldn`t change the Robert Taylor Homes. Nobody in this country can make the Robert Taylor Homes and its population a happy, healthy, productive part of America.“

Obviously, the subject of the disgrace of public housing has been done many times over by TV stations, newspapers and magazines, and this documentary –while solid and lucid–adds little that is fresh. Discussion of possible remedies is fleeting and the writing generally uninspired (The Homes are “a burial ground of hope,“ and fear “is a way of life here“), while the introduction of intermittent subheads (“Crime,“ “Education“) seems annoyingly stilted and archaic.

Still, it is worth a look as a constant reminder of the troubling underside of an affluent society. As host Carter puts it, “There`s no cure at all if we try to keep the American versions of South African homelands out of sight and out of mind.“

For those television viewers who wish to do exactly that, of course, they may always switch the dial Tuesday night and tune into “Jack and Mike“–

which, as we all know, informs the nation on a weekly basis about how the real Chicago lives.

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