When people ask me exactly what it is I do at Stateway Gardens, I tend to evade the question. My work involves multiple roles; my effectiveness, such as it is, arises out of interactions between those roles. Temperamentally, I prefer to disappear into the work rather than stand astride it. There is also, I suppose, a sense in which my reticence is strategic. An artist friend talks of “managing your invisibility”—or is it “visibility”? In either case, the formulation resonates for me. But the time has now come to take the question on directly.
The day began with the monthly meeting of the Stateway Gardens Working Group, which is charged with responsibility for guiding the process of redevelopment at Stateway. It is composed of representatives of the resident council, the CHA and other city agencies, a couple of oversight groups, and neighborhood institutions such as the Chicago White Sox and Illinois Institute of Technology.
I participate in the working group in my role as advisor to the Stateway resident council. I don’t care much about titles, but this one means a great deal to me. The president of the council, Francine Washington, and I have collaborated for years—strategizing, agitating, negotiating. Now we are centrally involved in the redevelopment process—trying to cut the best possible deal for residents. We are deeply invested in this process. At the same time, we take nothing for granted. “It’s not a plan for transformation,” Francine has said. “It’s a struggle for transformation.”
The working group has been meeting for over a year and a half. Sustained negotiations have proved a vehicle for building strong working relationships—and friendships. Howard Stanback of the development team and I sometimes joke that we talk more with each other from day to day than with our respective spouses.
The first item on the agenda at the working group meeting was the “community supportive services” plan for Stateway. Together with a CHA representative, I gave a progress report describing the programs we presently have in place and our fund-raising efforts. Other members of the group reported on the relocation process and on various aspects of the development plan.
Francine was in good form today. She kept bringing the discussion back to the immediate demands of the relocation process. “We care about the future,” she said, “but we’ve got to get through the rest of the day.”
As the meeting broke up, David Baker, vice president of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which borders Stateway to the north, pulled me aside to seek my advice about what to communicate to IIT students about the gunfire that has occurred intermittently at Stateway in recent weeks. I told him that the shooting—mostly late at night—had primarily been between the two buildings that are in the process of being closed and that it has, for the moment, ceased.
After the meeting, I went back to my office to confer over the phone with David Eads, a student at North Park University who more than anyone is responsible for the design and technical elegance of The View From The Ground Web site.
While I was talking with David, Alex Kotlowitz dropped by unannounced. A fellow writer and friend, Alex is the author of the most widely read and influential book on conditions in Chicago public housing, There Are No Children Here. He has been following this “Diary” in Slate. We talked, as we often have, about how difficult it is to report out of places such as Stateway. How is one to subvert negative stereotypes without defending the indefensible? How is one to create the context necessary in order to tell even the simplest story?
“That’s why,” Alex said, “I ended up writing about kids.” He left me with an interesting question: “If people who love my book and empathize with the boys were to meet them now as black men in the inner city, how would they respond?” He is skeptical that they would have much empathy for them.
My final meeting of the day was with Kate Walz of the National Center on Poverty Law and an intern from Northwestern University who is working with her. We are co-conspirators in an effort to reform the way the CHA administers the one-strike eviction policy. We strategized about how best to educate the public—and particularly the organized bar—about one-strike, in view of the fact that one’s rudimentary notions of fairness become a barrier to understanding how unjust the workings of this law are in a significant number of cases.
When I got home, I went for a run on the lakefront. As I often do, I ran past the spot on the lakefront running path where 14 years ago this Saturday my wife Patsy was beaten and sexually assaulted by a man about whom we know nothing except that he was black and cruel. I wrote about the aftermath of the assault in our lives in Working With Available Light: A Family’s World After Violence. But I have never written about it in relation to my work at Stateway. Writing this diary has been for me a process of excavating my motivations for the work that I do. It has delivered me to bedrock themes of violence and nonviolence to which I will return tomorrow in my final entry.
The day ended on a joyous note. Patsy and I had a late drink with Charlotte Pierce-Baker and Houston Baker, dear friends who teach at Duke and are in town to visit the University of Illinois-Chicago where they are entertaining job offers. We met several years ago when Charlotte’s book Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape and Working With Available Light were published within a few months of each other. Brought together by rape and literature, we became close friends.
Charlotte is enchanting. Tenderhearted and tough-minded, her beauty is deepened by my knowledge of the violence she has survived and of the dormant multiple sclerosis she carries in her body like a riddle. Her laugh is among my favorite sounds.
Houston is extroverted and gracious. He is also splendidly undomesticated. I’m reminded of a remark someone once made about the anthropologist Gregory Bateson: He is like a Bedouin camped out in the dominant culture. Powerfully present and unaccommodated.
When the four of us are together, we enter a zone—I almost said a zone beyond race and gender, but that’s not what I mean. Such differences are present and recognized, but they don’t constrain the movement of thought, feeling, and conversation. It was deeply consoling to spend a couple of hours with them at the end of a long day.
Driving home on Lake Shore Drive, past the spot on the lakefront where Patsy was assaulted, past other places unknown to me that are hallowed by the violence that occurred there, I feel, as I always do when I’ve been with Charlotte and Houston, that I’ve visited the future—a future where, because realities of violence are acknowledged, everything that needs to be said between people can be said.