Normal Predicaments of Human Divinity: Outside(r)s and Inside(r)s in Moundville and Chicago | Paul Hermanson | The Hypocrite Reader

Paul Hermanson

Normal Predicaments of Human Divinity: Outside(r)s and Inside(r)s in Moundville and Chicago


When the last high rises in the Cabrini-Green Homes were demolished in 2011, many photographers, professional and amateur, gathered on the near-north side of Chicago to document the process. Their photos were widely published, because there was immense demand from a public fascinated by the demise of Chicago’s most famous housing project. Many of the most frequently reproduced photographs depict the high rises from the stkreet, mid-demolition. A crane often looms in the background, with construction fencing and a group of onlookers in the foreground. Only half the building remains standing, presenting to the observer a tangle of rebar with chunks of crushed concrete attached, and a pile of rubble below.

The exterior appearance of high-rise public housing was a commonplace, in the latter half of the twentieth century, for residents of large American cities. While occupied, the Cabrini-Green towers bore quasi-brutalist, gray-and-beige concrete façades. Their spines were traced by elevator shafts, flanked by exterior walkways encased in black chain link fence. The design was common among the inexpensively constructed public housing developments of postwar Chicago. Many of the city’s public housing developments were designed by illustrious architecture firms, and embodied developing ideas of community building through architecture. Stanley Tigerman, gadfly of postmodern architecture, designed an award-winning set of low-rise public housing units, which was later successfully converted to a co-op. The towers at Cabrini-Green were themselves designed by a protege of Mies van der Rohe. However, rows of identical towers like those at Cabrini-Green, born of a potent mix of progressive politics, economy, and design, had by the end of the 20th century lost their visual sense of practicality and futuristic luster, and come to assume a drab affect.

I recall the demolition of the high rises with the kind of nonspecific regret typical of an uninformed but sympathetic observer. The demolitions began when I was five, and ended while I was away at college. I grew up on the north side of Chicago, and Cabrini-Green was on one of the major corridors between the majority-white north side and downtown. Because of its location, surrounded by relatively wealthy neighborhoods and shopping districts, it was the city’s most visible large-scale housing project. In the media, Cabrini-Green became a synecdoche for public housing as a whole. (Though the Robert Taylor Homes on the near south side were much bigger, they were relatively distant from the city’s seats of economic power, and so were relatively invisible.)

What I saw from the window of the train, as it passed Cabrini-Green, was beige concrete buildings with caged sides, sooty here and there from apartment fires that had not been cleaned up. The broad lawns surrounding the buildings were poorly maintained, and many of the streetlights were broken. I did not know anyone who lived there, but I was aware that there was resistance to the demolition. The Chicago Housing Authority had not planned to provide sufficient replacement units for those who were to be displaced, and it was receiving attention in the news.

The Chicago Housing Authority was established in 1937 with two main functions: the construction of public, affordable housing units and clearing slums. In the former, the CHA took over the work of private philanthropic and religious organizations, which had since the turn of the 20th century been involved in various projects to demonstrate, with more or less success, the feasibility of easing neighborhood overcrowding with inexpensively constructed housing sold or rented at cost. The CHA’s latter function meant that from the start the agency was involved in more demolition activity than construction.

The CHA typically identified neighborhoods in which housing was dangerously substandard, using a combination of statistics and observation, and acquired the land for a new housing project there through buyouts and eminent domain. The structures it constructed to replace the “slum” housing stock were often cheaply constructed, monotonous for lack of ornament. This had the effect of homogenizing the outward appearance of neighborhoods that had before contained workers cottages, and two- and three-flats in a variety of architectural styles. In contrast to the densely developed neighborhoods they replaced, the CHA also strove to maintain open space in its site plans, vacating streets, landscaping, and distributing structures so that only 10–40% of each project’s acreage was occupied by buildings. (Cabrini-Green, for instance, was nearly 85% open space.) The outdoor “recreation” space, born of an early twentieth-century impulse (usually attributed to New York activist Jacob Riis) to democratize the healthful influence of nature, was rarely used by residents, however, and further isolated the structures. In a 1957 article for Architectural Forum, Catherine Bauer, a contemporary architect and public housing activist, described high-rise developments thus:

The public housing project therefore continues to be laid out as a “community unit,” as large as possible and entirely divorced from its neighborhood surroundings, even though this only dramatizes the segregation of charity-case families. Standardization is emphasized rather than alleviated in project design, as a glorification of efficient production methods and an expression of the goal of “decent, safe and sanitary” housing for all.

This standardization, along with the chronic mismanagement and deferred maintenance at the CHA’s high rise projects, took its toll on the residents. The towers were ugly and, perhaps worse, institutionally plain. One tenant of the Lathrop Homes, a low-rise project along the Chicago River north of Cabrini-Green, described how Cabrini-Green’s appearance impacted those who lived there: “When I went to Cabrini it really felt like a project. It felt like you were in jail.”

In 2000, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his “Plan for Transformation,” which called for the demolition of the monolithic housing projects and their replacement with mixed-income housing and retail outlets developed by private firms. The Plan was as much about beautifying what had become valuable real estate, adjacent to wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods, as it was about ameliorating the living conditions of the city’s public housing tenants.

As the Cabrini-Green towers were demolished, public interest hit its peak. (Who, after all, doesn’t like the spectacle of a good demolition?) I recall looking at photos of the event on David Schalliol’s Flickr page. One 2006 image in particular stuck out, showing a tower reduced to a vertical fragment, the interior walls of each floor exposed. Each unit’s interior is painted a different, vibrant color. The plain concrete exterior, so effective as a homogenizing visual container, was finally removed. The guts of the building rendered visible what its façade didn’t — that the residents of Cabrini-Green, so frequently discussed as a unit in the media and popular culture, were individuals with individual aesthetic impulses. One reporter on the scene of the demolition saw the words “I need money” painted on an interior wall as it was demolished.

Agee and Evans in Moundville

In 1936, at the nadir of the Great Depression and the height of literary America’s interest in the fares of the working class, James Agee went to rural Alabama to report on conditions there. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was the eventual result. It was not published until late 1941, at which point America’s attentions had turned wholly to a war in Europe and Asia. The five intervening years were tumultuous for Agee, who spent two failed marriages, several aborted careers, and hundreds of bottles of whiskey attempting to render his time in Alabama faithfully. It was “a book only by necessity,” he wrote in his preface, “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

The book was conceived as a feature for Fortune magazine, which was then a young publication trying to balance the desires of its conservative readership against the news instincts and progressive sensibilities of “the young New-Dealers” on its staff. Agee, who had been on the magazine’s payroll since 1932, had struggled with this tension, and was disillusioned with the impositions the job made on his ability to write as he wished. As a sort of compromise, and in order to retain his talent, publisher Henry Luce allowed Agee a certain amount of discretion in the selection of his assignments. Agee proposed an article exploring the economic status of Southern agriculture, with tenant farming families as its focal element. He was surprised to receive approval for the piece, and ecstatic that Luce had agreed to hire Walker Evans, then a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, to produce images to accompany it.

Agee and Evans traveled to Moundville, Alabama in the summer of 1936, and visited with three tenant farming families to conduct interviews, observe, and take photographs. Evans stayed in a nearby hotel, but Agee decided to live with one of the families, sleeping on their porch in an effort to more completely capture the reality of their experience.

“At the end of August,” Agee writes in the preface, “long before we were willing to, we returned to the north and got our work ready.” Back in New York, he produced a draft that, at thirty thousand words, was unpublishable by Fortune. It became apparent that even a condensed version would not appear in the magazine, as Agee’s politics,1 imbued in the text, were incompatible with the publisher’s abrupt rightward turn. The magazine shelved it. (The draft survived, and was published in 2013 under the name Cotton Tenants.) Agee eventually obtained the right to publish the piece elsewhere, and shopped it around for several years, reworking the manuscript all the while. A considerably expanded manuscript was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941.

Famous Men is notable for Agee’s extensive self-conscious peregrinations regarding the moral and aesthetic implications of his project.2 Much of this material, in which Agee ponders the immense weightiness of human existence, was added in the years following the first draft. He took his original assignment, to produce for a financial magazine a study of the economic and material conditions of the residents of the cotton belt South, quite seriously. This assignment, however, accounts only for the “nominal subject” of the book. “Actually,” he writes:

the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity. […]

Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left untouched…

Agee makes good on this threat in Part Two of Famous Men, “Some Findings and Comments.” This portion is the direct descendent of his original Fortune piece, its sections sensibly titled: Money, Shelter, Clothing, Education, and Work. Shelter is the longest of these sections, with its own title page and table of contents. Agee spends considerable time, 54 pages, describing in painstaking detail the interior and exterior appearance, contents, and usage of one family’s house. The reader learns which angles are right and which are oblique, the arrangement of items on a mantelpiece,3 the odors of each room and bedspread, and the full text of every paper pinned to the walls. He roots around in closets and drawers to report on their contents, and describes the dirt under the front porch for good measure. Each of the other sections in Part Two follows this formula.

Agee’s excruciating description serves his twinned purposes well: it is documentary, a complement to Evans’s stark photos, providing the reader with visual access to the material circumstances of life for a tenant farming family. With his immersive rendering, however, Agee also implicates the reader in what he insists is “an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.” He believes that a reader, having been exposed, through the most accurate rendering possible in text and image, to the circumstances of daily life in Moundville, Alabama, may perceive “the cruel radiance of what is.”

Agee chafed under the specter of the social documentary work being made by such popular contemporaries as Margaret Bourke-White, which he considered saccharine and complacent, as well as the long history of intrusive poverty documentary established by Jacob Riis, who captured interior photographs of tenements without permission. Such work was exploitative, Agee thought, and served to draw attention to boundaries, rather than enhance understanding. He ruefully acknowledges, however, that he will join their ranks through the publication of Famous Men:

this is a book about “sharecroppers,”4 and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South…

Agee’s project, as conceived, was different: he attempted, through painstaking and self-aware description, to create a perceptual field upon which the observer is level with the observed. Despite his best efforts, though, he was destined to join a self-congratulatory, patronizing canon he wanted no part of.

Rebuilding a Soul

In the early 2000s, the Chicago Housing Authority redefined its duty to the low-income tenants it served. It would abandon the high rise developments as irretrievably broken.

In conceiving and enacting the Plan for Transformation, Mayor Daley’s primary objective was to reduce the CHA’s overhead and shift its burden to the private sector. The Plan was conceived at the height of Daley’s privatization binge, which saw a variety of public assets, from a toll road to every parking meter in the city, sold to politically connected private entities. The CHA had already outsourced the production of many new housing units to private nonprofits, but the Plan for Transformation called for wholesale divestiture from the bulk of its housing units, turning the land (and some of the money) over to development firms friendly with the administration. On its website, the CHA boasts that it has “streamlined its staff from more than 2,600 to fewer than 500,” as it “now focuses on its primary responsibility as an asset manager and contracts with private professional property management firms to manage properties.” Meanwhile, the waiting list for housing has run into the tens of thousands while the sites of large-scale projects have been developed into mixed-use retail, market-rate housing, and “affordable housing” which is neither as affordable, nor as plentiful, as the public housing units it replaced.

In a 2008 press conference about the Plan for Transformation, Daley’s rhetoric took a bizarre turn. When pressed about the fate of the current and displaced residents of Cabrini-Green and other demolished projects, the Mayor sputtered that his plan was to ”rebuild their souls. Not give them an apartment, not give them a home, but you rebuild their souls.” It’s as if the Mayor, having practiced a line he considered resonant, promptly forgot what it meant.5

Daley’s vague gesture toward liberal rhetoric bespeaks the hollowness of his intent. His words were clearly figurative and, as such, didn’t have much to say about his actual plan. It seems unlikely that the CHA’s tenants required or desired soul-rebuilding, even if the Mayor could provide such a service. With this line, Daley grabbed for the mantle of social progressivism, and was quoted doing so, but ended up with only the quote.

It is interesting that the Mayor, having bypassed, with the rest of the city’s elite, the actual interiority of public housing tenants, plunged directly into a kind of speculative interiority, which he did not define. There is no evidence that Daley made even the slightest effort to understand the tenants he was purporting to help. The most powerful man in local government singlehandedly redefined the mission of the country’s second largest landlord as “rebuilding souls.” People laughed, but the Plan moved forward.

Daley’s sloppy rhetoric, and similar from others, is partly to blame for Chicago’s rough handling of public housing tenants. It seemed self-evident to such detached observers and administrators, given the disrepair the high rises had fallen into, and the language popularly used to describe them, that the projects were broken beyond fixing. The rhetoric was self-feeding: The high rises are a problem. How could such an ugly, disintegrating set of structures even be worth the effort? They resembled a prison camp. (And who lives in prison camps?) Better to tear them down and avoid the problem altogether. Scant attention was given to tenants, other than to their run-down souls.

What if the administration had suspended the rhetoric for long enough to approach its project with Agee’s cleareyed sensitivity? To peer beyond the “broad-brushes stereotype” it used to justify liquidation and withholding vacant units? Such an approach seems unlikely, but journalists had been laying the groundwork for years, producing incisive reporting that gave the residents of Cabrini-Green and other projects faces and public voices, allowing them to step outside the monolithic concrete of the towers in popular perception. But the CHA persisted in its reductive and totalizing attempts to reform its residents, a group whose individual circumstances, far more diverse than even the paint on their apartment walls, could not possibly be rendered in the set of statistics in their files.

There’s nothing prescriptive about Agee’s project, no call to action nor invitation to sympathy. This is by design. Agee recognizes the corruptive aspect of presuming to know, of drawing conclusions without direct experience, of viewing-then-judging. Taken to its extreme, Agee’s documentary method, an “effort to suspend or destroy imagination,” is paralyzing; and his attempt, in Famous Men, could be called a constructive failure. But his impulse could be instructive to policymakers, whose crude claims to understand their constituents, to have the tenants’ deepest interests at heart, belie their failure to even see them. Agee turned the farmers’ houses inside out, exposing to his readers the minutiae of existence, then returned everything to its right place, said sorry, and left. The Chicago Housing Authority, in pursuit of souls to rebuild, evicted tenants, removed their exterior walls, then the interior walls, then the elevator shafts, and then sold the land. There’s a Target there now.

1 Agee’s response to a 1939 Partisan Review questionnaire question is included below. This material was included in a section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Q: Do you find, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

A: ‘I find, in retrospect,’ that I have felt forms of allegiance or part-allegiance to catholicism and to the communist party. I felt less and less at ease with them and I am done with them. I feel sufficiently intense allegiance toward certain shapes of fact and toward certain ideas that I prefer not to speak of them here, beyond saying that no organization of thought or of persons has ever held them, that they are antipathetic to any such…. I am most certainly ‘for’ an ‘intelligent’ ‘communism’; no other form or theory of government seems to me conceivable…

2 A brief but representative sample of Agee’s tortured self-effacement: “I might say, in short, but emphatically not in self-excuse, of which I wish entirely to disarm and disencumber myself, but for the sake of clear definition, and indication of limits, that I am only human.”

3 Walker Evans’s photographs of the same mantel were examined in minute detail in Errol Morris’s 2009 New York Times essay The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock.

4 “Sharecropper” is a fraught word for Agee, as he relates in the final pages of the book:

Of all the words which may be used to designate any sort of tenant, the word we heard least frequently throughout our investigation, by landowners, storekeepers, townspeople, small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers, and all local human beings white or black, save only new dealers, communists, and various casts of liberal, was the word sharecropper…. It is a dialect word, to which a conscientious ‘educated’ person knows he has forfeited the right, even should he know its meaning accurately...

5 Thus continuing a grand Daley family tradition of speaking publicly with his foot all the way in his mouth.