Public Housing, Chicago Builds a Ghetto (Hal Baron, 1967)

Synopsis by: Briana Gipson

In 1967, Hal Baron delivered “Public Housing, Chicago Builds a Ghetto” as a fiery, anti-colonial speech on the state of Chicago’s public housing system. This speech was delivered to an audience containing Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) leaders and staff at a symposium at the University of Chicago on March 10, 1967. He would use his speech to critique the City of Chicago’s and the CHA’s practices and reveal the negative outcomes they created and forced on Chicago’s Black community. He argued that City transformed its public housing system into a tool that implements and solidifies racism. It essentially became a system that segregated Blacks, decreased their mobility, and altered their community networks and solidarity by social, economic, and political force. He devoted his speech to discussing the federal government’s, Chicago’s and CHA’s role in creating ghettos, or areas with high concentrations of low-income Blacks, through public housing. He organized his discussion into four separate sections.

The first section of Baron’s speech is titled “From Crusade to Containment”. He began this section by discussing the three major periods of public housing from the lens of the Chicago Urban League. His main point is public housing was originally organized as a campaign to rid problems associated with urban life such as overcrowding and poverty by the federal government. Then it became a system to support World War II war workers before finally becoming “a virtually Negro institution” Baron says. In other words, Baron claimed that it became a system designed to reinforce the racial biases of those in power. He used CHA statistics to show that their biases resulted in Chicago’s public housing system being 90% Black, in 90% of CHA’s properties. Baron explained how Jim Crow and anti-black legislation in the League’s three public housing periods led to Chicago’s segregated and predominantly Black public housing system in the 1960s.

The next section of Baron’s speech focuses on the influence of federal policies and urban renewal on Chicago’s segregated and Black public housing system. The name of this section is “The Safety Valve for Urban Renewal”. It fundamentally argued that Chicago’s public housing system became segregated and Black because it used its system as a “safety-net” for urban renewal. Baron unpacks this argument by revealing how the federal government’s housing and transportation policies began altering housing supply based on race beginning in the late 1930s. It offered Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veteran Affairs loans to Whites, which contributed to mass suburbanization processes and ultimately increased Whites’ housing supply. Baron indicated that suburbanization expanded at the expense of Black neighborhoods as the federal government subsidized expressways to support migrating Whites. These expressways along with urban renewal would displace thousands of Blacks and decrease their already limited housing supply. Baron asserted that this led to Chicago’s public housing properties becoming relocation settlements or “catch-basins” for Blacks who were uprooted from their homes and livelihoods. He provided evidence showing that CHA transitioned from serving mostly low-income, White neighborhoods prior to 1949 to proposing over 95% of its properties in Black neighborhoods from 1950 to 1955. Baron further supported his main argument that Chicago built a segregated and concentrated low-income Black community by ending this section discussing how the CHA came under fire for proposing a housing project development in a White neighborhood. His example showed how firm the City of Chicago was in creating and maintaining segregation through the CHA.

Baron’s third section describes how CHA began to engage in disparate treatment once its public housing system became predominantly Black. He particularly focused on the CHA’s building designs. He explained that CHA’s building designs followed the Garden City movement when it was created for Whites and war-workers. They were often constructed as single family apartments with green space. However, once CHA began building public housing developments for displaced Blacks, Baron witnessed CHA build dense, high-rise buildings that had larger building coverage ratios. He contended that this building design exacerbated Chicago’s spatial segregation. He supported his claim by explaining that this increased residential segregation within central Chicago strengthened school segregation and furthered separated Blacks from jobs. Jobs were often moving to the periphery of cities as a result of expressway and highway construction, which increased employment segregation. Baron ended this section explaining the negative impact of CHA’s high-rise developments on community networks. He mentioned that it does not allow for Blacks to rebuild the institutions they lost in urban renewal to full capacity. It also weakened community connections and leadership opportunities. Baron’s last sentences showcased that Chicago’s public housing system did not even provide the stability needed for Blacks to rebuild and connect. Blacks lost their public housing vouchers once they made it to a certain income, and Baron foreshadows that this only perpetuates the very racism that led Blacks to Chicago’s public housing system in the first place.

Baron’s last section, “The Powerlessness of Black Tenants”, uncovered how he believed CHA acted as Black colonizers. He began this section describing two differences between the private and public housing market. The differences were that Blacks lacked the alternatives the private market offered and the power to make political decisions. Baron credited these differences to the CHA’s failure to treat Blacks as their clients and accommodate their needs like the FHA did for its mostly White clients. Additionally, Blacks could not significantly influence the ways the CHA operated because it was a public entity that did not often act in Blacks’ interests. They instead provided top-down orders Baron implied. He proclaimed that this made organizations like the CHA paternalistic colonizers that managed the public housing system like wards instead of providing opportunity. Baron ended this section and his raw speech summarizing the main idea he wanted the audience to grasp: CHA’s public housing system segregates and disrespects Blacks. His final words share that Blacks felt “hopeless, helpless, and totally manipulated” by CHA’s disparate and disrespectful public housing system.

Planning in Black and White (Hal Baron, 1968)

Synopsis by: Briana Gipson

Hal Baron was a strong proponent for anti-racist planning and Blacks’ right to the city during his tenure as Research Director of the Chicago Urban League. In 1968, Hal Baron and the Chicago Urban League would further showcase their advocacy by identifying, evaluating, and challenging the gaps that existed in the City of Chicago’s 1966 Comprehensive Plan. This was the first plan created by City of Chicago planners and influential planning scholars such as Louis B. Wetmore that attempted to address Chicago’s long legacy of racism, anti-Blackness, and segregation. The Chicago Urban League would argue that the Plan failed to significantly challenge Chicago’s infamous racial and class divides in its 1968 critique of the Plan. This critique was titled The Racial Aspects of Urban Planning: An Urban League Critique of the Chicago Comprehensive Plan. Baron served as the critique’s editor and wrote “Planning in Black and White” as an introduction to the critique.

Baron’s introduction makes a strong case for planners and the planning field to support and enforce anti-racist public policies and designs. He begins his article by defining planning as an evolved form of racism. He supports his argument by discussing a significant challenge that still exists within the planning practice today: planners are often obligated to act in the interest of the public but there are different definitions of the public in practice. These definitions do not often include historically disadvantaged communities but instead property owners and predominantly White communities.

Baron discussed how planners were not acting in the interest of Blacks especially property-less Blacks in the 20th century. Blacks often lacked property due to legalized real estate and home-lending theft practices such as contract selling and redlining especially in Chicago. This led to planners being able to intentionally displace Black communities under the guise of urban renewal. Baron claims that urban renewal was the strongest microcosm of planning’s racist roots and practices. He incorporates a quote from prominent 20th century planner and architect Hans Blumfeld that provides an explanation of the latter. Planners engaged in urban renewal to address concentrated urban decay in Black communities. However, the quote explains that urban renewal and planners failed to address the root cause of blight—economic exploitation, racism, and anti-blackness. Instead, planners revitalized the area for those in power, White property owners, and increased costs and distress in Black communities. Baron’s article suggests that planners used planning tools such as urban renewal to maintain racism and subsequently plan segregated Black and White neighborhoods. This is a key theme of Baron’s introduction and the Chicago Urban League’s larger critique of Chicago’s 1966 Comprehensive Plan.

Baron would dedicate the rest of his article to explaining how planners and the field of planning can engage in anti-racist planning and eradicate segregation. He listed four ways planners could carry out this anti-racist work as government officials. He began explaining these four mechanisms by calling out social science researchers on their failure to educate planners on racism. He implied that they must address this issue by producing studies on racial and economic segregation and the racial implications of planning. He encouraged planners to incorporate these studies into their plans and policies. However, he recognized that planners in the 1960s existed within the confines of racist and segregated institutions and organizations. He urged planners to find ways to convince these institutions and organizations to support racially conscious studies. To further challenge the power dynamics of the time, he strongly advised planners to standardize their studies and use large and frequently updated datasets. He also demanded that planners create plans that uncover racism and segregation and clearly describe how planners will chip away at these systems and processes.

Baron made it clear he understood planners faced major limitations to completing this anti-racist work. They were up against power structures that would not adopt and enforce plans due to a lack of support, resources, or jurisdiction powers. Baron implied that these challenges should not stop planners from fighting against racism. He explains that planners have the potential to confront racism through advocacy planning. He describes advocacy planning as planning that is directed by and in the interest of marginalized communities and activist groups. The results of this planning had the opportunity to be presented to and incorporated by planning officials. Baron hoped that planning officials began to serve the interest of Black communities in the 1960s with or without advocacy planning. Black communities were becoming the predominant racial group in central cities due to discriminatory real estate speculation and white flight, and consequently should have been considered the public, in theory.

While history shows that planning officials did not often act in Blacks’ interests in practice as white flight skyrocketed in the 1950s and 1960s, Baron and the Chicago Urban League were adamant and rightfully so that racism cannot be eliminated without anti-racist urban planning practices. Baron ended his article describing that the Chicago Urban League’s 1968 critique was the League’s attempt to shed light on planning’s racial biases and implications. He explained that the critique was designed as debate between the Chicago Urban League and five planners, two of which were planning academics that contributed to Chicago’s 1966 Comprehensive Plan. The League provided a frank critique of the plan and the five planners Baron referenced responded to the critique. Baron and the Chicago Urban League hoped that this debate would fuel new anti-racist practices within the field of planning. The League’s critique provided at least five ways for Chicago and planners across the world to understand and engage in the anti-racism Baron demanded in “Planning in Black and White”.

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.