Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing (Harold M. Baron, 1971)

Synopsis by Briana Gipson

In 1971, Hal Baron published an incredible study on the relationship between housing policy, urban planning, and racism in 20th century Chicago. This study was titled Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing, a study completed by Baron during his time as a Research Associate of the Center of Urban Affairs at Northwestern University.[1] Baron used dozens of first-hand accounts, legal proceedings, and peer-reviewed articles and books to vividly recall the ways government institutions and property owners embodied racism in the development of post-World War II Chicago. His study shed an investigative light on the anti-Black practices committed by government officials, housing authorities, and planning agencies engaging in land use planning, particularly community and economic development planning, in the early to mid-1900s.

His study argues that Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) created one of the most racist public housing programs using several planning and housing controls. These controls included discriminatory segregation, zoning, and public housing site, tenant and management regulations and procedures. He shows that these governance structures were implemented to expand the power of the mostly white ruling class and further terrorize, suppress, and control Black communities in Chicago. He refers to Chicago’s anti-Black housing program as Babylon, a code name used by federal officials to describe the nature of Chicago’s Housing program in the 1960s.[2] Baron provides a telling story of the ways Chicago’s public housing program perpetuated a regelated status of Blacks in and outside of the City’s public housing developments in seven sections.

Baron begins unpacking his story on the racist nature of Chicago’s housing program with a background section on the complexities and gaps of the federal public housing policy. He particularly introduces readers to the Housing Act of 1937. The Housing Act of 1937 was the first legislation to create large-scale, fully funded public housing programs in the United States during the Great Depression. Baron notes that it was not radical legislation as if often believed with New Deal legislation. The Housing Act of 1937 was designed to improve the built environment and housing stock for powerful, higher income groups rather than the poor. Baron identifies three limitations that showed the latter. But he makes it clear that public housing programs were not stigmatized and subsequently, designed to control groups, especially Blacks, in its infancy. He includes quotes from CHA’s first Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Wood, and the United States Housing Authority (USHA) that showed that public housing programs were initially respected and valued among a wide range of racial, ethnic, and class groups. This pattern of social acceptance would continue well into World War II.

It was after World War II Baron notes that resulted in public housing programs becoming stigmatized, racist institutions. Baron unpacks the latter statement by first describing the suburbanization processes that took place following World War II. He hones in on the history of Federal Housing Administration home loans and transportation infrastructure development in the 20th century. He describes that federal home lending and transportation policies along with McCarthyism and the Cold War lead to the weakening of the public housing movement. The movement would be further weakened by the urban renewal of the mid-20th century. Baron notes that federal development policies began to be prioritized over public housing as the public housing movement dwindled. This created the conditions for public housing programs to become subordinate to development pressures and led to public housing being stigmatized as “second-class housing for second-class people.”[3] Baron makes sure to inform readers that public housing projects became predominantly Black and failed due to Blacks’ treatment as second-class citizens.

Baron ends this section noting that public housing critics are recognizing the issues that led to public housing failures. However, he explains that they fail to simply acknowledge that public housing programs are rooted and enmeshed within “the web of urban racism.”[4] This web is made up of interconnected anti-Black urban forms, governance, and institutions that depends upon the repression of Black material conditions to magnify the white bourgeoisie’s power. Baron hints to the fact that the public housing system will remain flawed if critics do not dismantle the web and create social equity. In turn, he shows that his study is significant because it describes and challenges CHA’s position within the web and subsequently fills the gap of public housing critiques. 

Baron would write the next six sections explaining CHA’s inherent and systematic anti-Blackness due to “the web of urban racism.” The first of these six sections was titled “CHA, Creating a Racist Institution.” Baron provides a summary indicting CHA with embodying and enacting racism in this section. Baron used the nation’s most famous public housing desegregation lawsuit, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority—a case he helped initiate—to justify his indictment. In this case, the Federal District Court of Chicago found CHA responsible for suppressing the rights and opportunities of Black communities and intensifying segregation in Chicago. They particularly instituted discriminatory site and tenant selection schemes to separate and regulate Blacks behavior. These racial controls, as Baron identify, resulted in all Black public housing developments in mostly Black neighborhoods.

Baron emphasizes that the CHA did not create predominantly Black spatial patterns alone in his next section, “CHA, Creating a Racist Institution.” CHA was mandated by four major institutions to carry out an anti-Black agenda and practice Baron shows. The institutions consisted of the political system, the ruling class (ie. non-governmental institutions, corporations, and associations), real estate and finance industries, and CHA’s leadership and resources. Baron explains that these institutions organized and implemented economic and political decisions that were not in favor of and excluded Black communities for the ruling class’ benefit. Baron indicates that these decisions resulted in the CHA becoming and being associated with police and police terror in Black communities.

He picks up his discussion on the ways CHA controlled and terrorized the Black community in his second major section, “The Early Days, In the Spirit of the New Deal.” He begins this section with an introduction to Elizabeth Wood. Wood was CHA’s first Executive Secretary. She served in this position from 1937, the year CHA was established, to 1953, the year she was demoted because of her desegregation work. Baron shares that Wood would lead her administration in the liberal reform tradition. However, he notes that the liberal reform philosophy had race-based flaws that the CHA could not escape. For example, the CHA attempted to implement “color-blind” criteria commonly used by reformers to screen and select public housing tenants.[5] Baron thoroughly explains that the criterion used was racist because of federal segregation policy. One of these segregationist policies was known as the “Neighborhood Composition Rule”. This rule required that public housing authorities admit tenants that were representative of neighborhood’s residential racial composition during the era of Jim Crow.

Baron immediately begins describing the horrible impact of the “Neighborhood Composition Rule” on Blacks. It further restricted the limited supply of affordable housing available to Blacks. This was particularly the case in the Jane Addams Homes on Chicago’s West Side, where only a small share of Blacks displaced by the Home were guaranteed apartments. The “Neighborhood Composition Rule” would also empower the police, Whites, and even the real estate industry to commit physical and psychological violence against Blacks needing housing in majority White neighborhoods due to war-work. Baron would briefly highlight the physical violence that took place at the Ida B. Wells Homes site on the City’s South Side. He provided more depth on the mob-related violence that took place at the City’s Airport and Fernwood housing developments.

When the CHA did challenge the “Neighborhood Composition Rule”, Black families were heavily screened and sometimes selected if they met Whites’ standards Baron explains toward the end of this section. At Cabrini-Green, one of CHA’s most infamous public housing developments, more than 250 Black families endured this screening at a point of time during World War II. Yet, they still were not admitted in the Cabrini-Green homes even though CHA had vacancies. They could only move in if a Black family moved out, which would only worsen Blacks’ lower access to affordable housing. Baron notes that CHA continued controlling the number of Blacks admitted into large majority White housing developments to navigate the rule. He explains this contributed to CHA losing its independency as it became the center of public discourse and treated as a political entity. Baron shares that the elite would certainly make moves to control CHA, particularly through urban renewal processes. Baron ends this section by describing the significance of another racial control, urban renewal, and its impact on Black communities in Chicago. He would use this as a transition to his third major section related to the racist nature of CHA: “The Landed Interests Set Priorities.”

In “The Landed Interests Set Priorities” section, Baron describes CHA’s role in urban renewal. Throughout this section, Baron shows that urban renewal was a racist economic and community development planning process that stole and destroyed a significant and disproportionate amount of Black homes and neighborhoods. He begins unpacking the latter by describing the history of urban renewal in Illinois and Chicago. Readers learn that Illinois Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Act of 1941 charted the path of urban renewal in Illinois. It provided private benefit corporations with legal and financial incentives to destroy deteriorated areas Baron identifies as slums in his study. Legal incentives included eminent domain rights, which is a powerful land-acquisition power that planners used to clear areas they zoned slums. He credits the development of the Michael Reese Hospital and Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’s South Side as the initiator of a massive urban renewal campaign in Chicago. The movement would expand due to the Illinois Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947.

Baron starts explaining the connection between urban renewal and public housing with a speech Elizabeth Wood delivered to the American Public Works Association in the mid-1940s. Wood would denounce the urban planning field for prioritizing economic development at the expense of Blacks’ homes and livelihoods. She noted that their work led to the forced removal of Blacks as their homes were often demolished and unreplaced. She argues that CHA could address these issues by supplying public housing. Baron explains that this sentiment gained momentum among planning and public officials in 1948. They wanted to use public housing to house displaced Blacks. This would become known as ‘Negro relocation’.[6] Baron included a quote from a federal housing official describing ‘Negro Relocation’ as ‘Negro Clearance’, a common term used for urban renewal in the mid to late 20th century.[7] Baron made sure to highlight Blacks’ agency in challenging urban renewal processes and outcomes before describing CHA’s role in Blacks displacement with the Michael Reese Hospital agreement.

Baron notes that the CHA agreed to clear parts of a Black neighborhood for the Michael Reese Hospital in the Michael Reese Hospital agreement. Baron explains that the Michael Reese Hospital was a Jewish owned hospital and research center in a dilapidated area of a Black community. The Hospital determined that they wanted to change the neighborhood for profit and cost-related purposes. They worked with the CHA to gain cleared land by requesting the CHA use it eminent domain powers granted by the Illinois Redevelopment Act of 1947. The CHA would use its powers and later build its Dearborn Homes on the South Side to supply housing for displaced households. Baron explains that the Illinois Institute of Technology would join Michael Reese Hospital development efforts with the creation of the South Side Planning Board. He identifies a number of concessions the Hospital and Board made to show that they were not engaging in ‘Negro Clearance’ after Blacks resisted.[8]

Baron would end this section challenging the idea that urban clearance was designed to produce affordable, decent and safe homes. He suggests that the Michael Reese agreement showcases that urban renewal was centered around economic development interests rather than public housing or community development for Blacks. He describes how medical, educational, government, and economic institutions such as the Chicago Plan Commission treated public housing secondary to their economic interests and practices. Baron uses the next section, “The Battle over Sites” to show the power these institutions gained to pursue their interests and deprioritized housing.

“The Battle over Sites” was the fifth section Baron wrote on racist practices within the CHA. He particularly shows that the ruling class used land-use policy to restrict CHA’s influence on tenants’ housing supply and perpetuate racial segregation. Baron credits the Illinois Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947 as the cause of the latter. This urban renewal act gave Chicago’s City Council Alderman and their White constituents the power to vote on CHA’s public housing development sites. He describes two major battles ensued over this racial control in 1947 and 1950. He showed that the 1947 battle resulted in CHA not being able to develop large developments in profitable, vacant land in White neighborhoods. Instead, the CHA was forced to build nine small developments that would displace Blacks and lower their access to affordable housing.

In 1950, the CHA would lose its battle to develop 20,000 housing units on vacant and deteriorated sites using funds from the Housing Act of 1949. Baron describes the dramatic steps City Council members took to show their disproval of the sites CHA selected including touring the City and selecting “absurd” alternative sites.[9] In the end, City Council leaders and Mayor Kenelley forced CHA to expand racial segregation by only approving 9,000 sites in Black neighborhoods. This would further reduce Blacks access to affordable housing and displaced 7,000 households. Baron thoroughly explains that the City’s housing shortage and mass displacement approval reflected the dying public housing movement that was taking place at all political levels. He particular used anecdotes and quotes from Chicago’s real estate, mortgage, and housing leaders like Elizabeth Wood to show the latter and close out this section.

In Baron’s fifth major section, “Tightening the Bonds”, he describes the havoc urban renewal, public housing developments, and the CHA inflicted on Blacks. He notes that land clearance and redevelopment practices displaced well over 33,000 Black households and destroyed over 25% of Blacks’ housing stock between 1948 and 1965. He particularly highlights CHA impact on Blacks’ displacement and housing stock by describing the significant amount of hardship the Michael Reese agreement created for Blacks. He provides statistics showing that the land CHA cleared for the Michael Reese Hospital resulted in substantial portions of Black families paying more in rent. He includes a table showing that Blacks were often paying more for lower-quality residential units when forced to move. Although those who moved to public housing often paid less and received larger and better-quality homes, Baron mentions that multiple studies have found that the number of Blacks paying high rents increased by 50%.

Baron connects the impacts of the Michael Reese Hospital to public housing data. This development along with others’ contribution to displacement and higher rents resulted in Blacks public housing demand ranging between 65% and 95%. Baron shows that public housing did not often meet the demands of displaced Blacks due to racism. He makes it clear that the CHA restricted Blacks housing by deeming a high rate of Blacks ineligible or imposing longer apartment wait times. Baron explains that the CHA tried to increase Blacks access through integrated projects. However, racial disparities still existed as Whites were given priority to certain units through a race-based coding scheme. In all White public housing developments, Commissioners had to authorized Blacks admittance. Barons end this section with a description of a violent accidental desegregation effort that took place at a White public housing development known as the Trumbull Park Homes in 1953. He used this incident to explain that urban renewal was a less subtle form of the White mob violence that took place at the Trumbull Park Homes.

He would dedicate the sixth major section, “Reservations in the City”, to describing the systematic violence the CHA employed against Blacks in public housing developments. First, he describes how Blacks became segregated. He mainly describes the Kean-Murphy agreement, an informal segregation agreement made between CHA’s Executive Director, General W.B. Kean, and Aldermen William Murphy, chairman of Chicago’s Housing and Planning Committee. It gave the Chicago’s Housing and Planning Committee and Alderman the right to veto CHA housing development sites. It also prompted the CHA to double the number of proposed sites in Black neighborhoods. Baron shows that this agreement led to Chicago’s City Council expanding segregation as 99.4% of approved CHA developments were in Black neighborhoods. This certainly would contribute to Blacks becoming CHA’s largest public housing tenant group Baron shows.

Baron provides a powerful description of the ways CHA constrained its Black tenant base. He highlights unjust housing transfer policies that showed that Blacks were often “stuck in place” in CHA’s housing developments. They could not move between housing developments unless extraordinary circumstances existed. He describes CHA’s failure to maintain their housing developments due to inefficient bureaucratic procedures and the role it played in the death of a three-year-old Black girl. Baron would note that terror would not end there. He describes the ways CHA policed the Black community through eviction, social service elimination threats, tenant council leaders, and inadequate facility design.

Baron discussion of the CHA’s leadership role in carrying out this violence against Blacks suggests that this led to the CHA being charged with racism in the Gautreaux lawsuit he discussed in the beginning of this study. He notes that the lawsuit forced CHA to build more housing units in White neighborhoods and subsequently desegregate. However, Baron ends this section indicating that desegregation will not occur if the racial controls he described in this study are not removed. In turn, he implies that CHA’s racism cannot be undone until the “web of urban racism” is undone. He shows that it is more financially feasible to destroy the web than maintain it a short data analysis that followed this section.

[1] Harold M. Baron, Building Babylon: A Case of Study of Racial Controls in Public Housing (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1971), 1-76.

[2] Baron, Building Babylon, 1.

[3] Baron, Building Babylon, 9.

[4] Baron, Building Babylon, 12.

[5] Baron, Building Babylon, 16.

[6] Baron, Building Babylon, 38.

[7] Baron, Building Babylon, 39.

[8] Baron, Building Babylon, 42.

[9] Baron, Building Babylon, 50.