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”.