Facing the reality of deprivation


It took Barack Obama time to learn how to be an effective community organiser in Altgeld, a severely disadvantaged social housing scheme in Chicago’s Far South Side. Eventually, he cracked it, however, and stayed long enough to see how activism could empower local people to demand better conditions for them and their families . . . and make their case to authority with confidence and determination, as is clear from this extract from his memoir, Dreams From My Father

THE ALTGELD Gardens public housing project sat at Chicago’s southernmost edge: 2,000 apartments arranged in a series of two-storey brick buildings with army-green doors and grimy mock shutters. Everybody in this area referred to Altgeld as “the Gardens” for short, although it wasn’t until later that I considered the irony of the name, its evocation of something fresh and well tended – a sanctified earth.

True, there was a grove of trees just south of the project, and running south and west of that was the Calumet river, where you could sometimes see men flick fishing lines lazily into darkening waters. But the fish that swam those waters were often strangely discoloured, with cataract eyes and lumps behind their gills. People ate their catch only if they had to.

To the east, on the other side of the expressway, was the Lake Calumet landfill, the largest in the Midwest.

And to the north, directly across the street, was the Metropolitan Sanitary District’s sewage treatment plant. The people of Altgeld couldn’t see the plant or the open-air vats that went on for close to a mile; as part of a recent beautification effort, the district maintained a long wall of earth in front of the facility, dotted with hastily planted saplings that refused to grow month after month, like hairs swept across a bald man’s head. But officials could do nothing to hide the smell – a heavy, putrid odour that varied in strength depending on the temperature and the wind’s direction, and seeped through windows no matter how tightly they were shut.

The stench, the toxins, the empty, uninhabited landscape. For close to a century, the few square miles surrounding Altgeld had taken in the offal of scores of factories, the price people had paid for their high-wage jobs. Now that the jobs were gone, and those people that could had already left, it seemed only natural to use that land as a dump.

A dump – and a place to house poor blacks. Altgeld may have been unique in its physical isolation, but it shared with the city’s other projects a common history: the dreams of reformers to build decent housing for the poor; the politics that had concentrated such housing away from white neighbourhoods, and prevented working families from living there; the use of Chicago Housing Authority – the CHA – as a patronage trough; the subsequent mismanagement and neglect.

It wasn’t as bad as Chicago’s high-rise projects yet, the Robert Taylors [a Chicago high-rise housing project named after a local black activist] and Cabrini Greens [a high-rise project on the city’s northside], with their ink-black stairwells and urine-stained lobbies and random shootings. Altgeld’s occupancy rate held steady at 90 per cent, and if you went inside the apartments, you would more often than not find them well-kept, with small touches – a patterned cloth thrown over torn upholstery, an old calendar left hanging on the wall for its tropical beach scenes – that expressed the lingering idea of home.

Still, everything about the Gardens seemed in a perpetual state of disrepair. Ceilings crumbled. Pipes burst. Toilets backed up. Muddy tire tracks branded the small, brown lawns strewn with empty flower planters – broken, tilted, half-buried.

The CHA maintenance crews had stopped even pretending that repairs would happen at any time soon. So that most children in Altgeld grew up without ever having seen a garden. Children who could see only that things were used up and that there was a certain pleasure in speeding up the decay. . .

[Editor’s note: Obama’s work as an organiser involved trying to assist local activists, many of whom were Altgeld residents but had little experience of politics or how the city’s political system worked. They included a woman named Angela and a man, Rafiq al-Shabazz, a black Muslim, Nation of Islam follower who began life as plain Wally Thompson. On one occasion, Obama, Angela and Rafiq were chatting with Mr Foster, the former president of Altgeld’s Chamber of Commerce, in his office “located on the second floor of what looked like a pawnshop”, as Obama put it. . .]

. . . Before we left, Angela asked about the possibility of part-time work for the youth in Altgeld. Mr Foster looked up at her like she was crazy.

“Every merchant around here turns down 30 applications a day,” he said. “Adults. Senior citizens. Experienced workers willing to take whatever they can get. I’m sorry.”

As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly-coloured sweaters, two ageing white mannequins now painted black in the window.

The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her. The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.

I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Roseland [another housing project], Rafiq and Mr Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things.

The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled 50 pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.

It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate. I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr Foster, in their own ways, so bitter.

For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?

Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet river, joining the ranks of wage labour to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue.

I imagined those same Indonesian workers 10, 20 years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And the bitter discovery that their markets had vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such crafts, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interest, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanisation and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America.

And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.

We drove in silence to our final meeting, with the administrator of a local branch of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training or MET, which helped refer the unemployed to training programmes throughout the city. We had trouble finding the place – it turned out to be a 45-minute drive from Altgeld, on a back street in Vrdolyak’s ward – and by the time we arrived the administrator was gone. Her assistant didn’t know when she would be back but handed us a pile of glossy brochures.

“This ain’t no help at all,” Shirley [another activist] said as she started for the door.

“We might as well have stayed home.”

[Another activist,] Mona noticed I was lingering in the office. “What’s he looking at?” she asked Angela.

I showed them the back of one of the brochures. It contained a list of all the MET programmes in the city. None of them were south of 95th [street].

“This is it,” I said.


“We just found ourselves an issue.”

As soon as we got back to the Gardens, we drafted a letter to Ms Cynthia Alvarez, the city-wide director of MET. Two weeks later, she agreed to meet with us out in the Gardens. Determined not to repeat my mistakes, I drove both myself and the leadership to exhaustion: preparing a script for the meeting, pushing hard for the other churches to send their people, developing a clear demand – a job intake and training centre in the Far South Side – that we thought MET could deliver.

Two weeks of preparation and yet, the night of the meeting, my stomach was tied up in knots. At 6.45, only three people had shown up: a young woman with a baby who was drooling onto her tiny jumper, an older woman who carefully folded a stack of cookies into a napkin that she then stuffed into her purse, and a drunken man who immediately slouched into a light slumber in a back-row seat. As the minutes ticked away, I imagined once again the empty chairs, the official’s change of mind at the last minute, the look of disappointment on the leadership’s faces – the deathly smell of failure.

Then, at two minutes before seven, people began to trickle in. Will and Mary brought a group from West Pullman; then Shirley’s children and grandchildren walked in, filling up an entire row of seats; then other Altgeld residents who owed Angela or Shirley or Mona a favour. There were close to a hundred people in the room by the time Ms Alvarez showed up – a large, imperious, Mexican-American woman with two young white men in suits trailing behind her.

“I didn’t even know this was out here,” I heard one of the aides whisper to the other as they walked through the door. I asked him if I could take his coat, and he shook his head nervously.

“No, no . . . I’ll, uh . . . I’ll just hang on to mine, thanks.”

The leadership acquitted themselves well that night. Angela laid out the issue for the crowd and explained to Ms Alvarez what we expected from her. When Ms Alvarez avoided giving a definite response, Mona jumped in and pushed for a yes-or-no answer. And when Ms Alvarez finally promised to have a MET intake centre in the area within six months, the crowd broke into hearty applause. The only glitch came about halfway through the meeting, when the drunk in the back stood up and began shouting that he needed a job.

Immediately, Shirley walked over to the man and whispered something in his ear that caused him to drop back into his seat.

“What did you tell him?” I asked Shirley later.

“You’re too young to know.”

The meeting was over in an hour – Ms Alvarez and her aides sped off in a big blue car, and people went up to shake Mona’s and Angela’s hands. In the evaluation, the women were all smiles.

“You did a terrific job, Barack,” Angela said, giving me a big hug.

“Hey, didn’t I promise we were gonna make something happen?”

“He sure enough did,” Mona said with a wink.

I told them that I’d leave them alone for at least a couple of days, and went out to my car feeling slightly light-headed. I can do this job, I said to myself. Have this whole damn town organised by the time we’re through. I lit a cigarette, and in my self-congratulatory mood, imagined taking the leadership downtown to sit down with [mayor] Harold [Washington] and discuss the fate of the city.

Then, under a streetlight a few feet away, I saw the drunk from the meeting spinning around in slow circles, looking down at his elongated shadow. I got out of my car and asked him if he needed help getting home.

“I don’t need no help!” he shouted, trying to steady himself. “Not from nobody, you understand me! Punk-ass motherfucker . . . try to tell me shit . . .”

His voice trailed off. Before I could say anything more, he turned and began to wobble down the centre of the road, disappearing into the darkness.

Tomorrow: Obama’s Kenya connection