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High-rise public housing developments were signature features of the post–World War II city. A hopeful experiment in providing temporary, inexpensive housing for all Americans, the "projects" soon became synonymous with the black urban poor, with isolation and overcrowding, with drugs, gang violence, and neglect. As the wrecking ball brings down some of these concrete monoliths, Sudhir Venkatesh seeks to reexamine public housing from the inside out, and to salvage its troubled legacy. Based on nearly a decade of fieldwork in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, American Project is the first comprehensive story of daily life in an American public housing complex.
Venkatesh draws on his relationships with tenants, gang members, police officers, and local organizations to offer an intimate portrait of an inner-city community that journalists and the public have only viewed from a distance. Challenging the conventional notion of public housing as a failure, this startling book re-creates tenants' thirty-year effort to build a safe and secure neighborhood: their political battles for services from an indifferent city bureaucracy, their daily confrontation with entrenched poverty, their painful decisions about whether to work with or against the street gangs whose drug dealing both sustained and imperiled their lives.
American Project explores the fundamental question of what makes a community viable. In his chronicle of tenants' political and personal struggles to create a decent place to live, Venkatesh brings us to the heart of the matter.
The demolition of high-rise public housing such as the Robert Taylor Homes can only improve the lives of those presently subjected to its debilitating and dangerous grasp, right? Wrong. That, at least, is the carefully thought-out view of Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh in American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. Revivifying participant observation as a form of sociological research, Venkatesh...has produced an ethnography of the South Side's most infamous project that challenges much of what passes for conventional wisdom...In many ways, Venkatesh's study...appears as a brief against a policy of demolition and dispersal...Forced relocations with minimal assistance would uproot the social networks painstakingly created over the past generation and represent a retrogression...The problem, in short, lay not simply with the occupants of public housing but in their relationship with the larger society.
— Arnold Hirsch
Venkatesh wrote American Project to urge readers to get beyond the quantitative, statistical measure of the urban pathology of public housing and look at the 'collective memory' of the people who lived there. It's all too easy to disparage life in the projects, Venkatesh notes, but such thinking also disparages the forms of community, political organization, and ultimately the lives of those who made Robert Taylor their home...American Project is moving, thoughtful, and written with common-sense clarity.
— Michael Corbin
The major contribution of this book is its focus. Most of the recent books on the life of the inner city ghetto focus exclusively on the individual behavior of poor urban residents, and stress the pathology of the inner city. American Project, however, documents continuous efforts of the project residents to create community, to pool resources and political muscle to insure the continuation of basic services, and to secure democratic representation. The ultimate failure of Robert Taylor Homes was not a lack of trying, but rather that the problems faced by the residents went beyond what they could address with limited resources.
— G. Rabrenovic
[This] history of Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes...[describes] how this once promising program fell so low and [offers] cautionary lessons for progressives who want to devise successful social policies...Venkatesh probes beyond the headlines about Robert Taylor Homes—the shootings, murders, accidental deaths, and police sweeps—and shows us how its residents used whatever resources were at hand to adjust to adverse circumstances. The brilliance of the author's approach is that he listens sympathetically to the people who lived and worked in this massive public housing development, yet he remains scrupulously objective.
— Alexander von Hoffman
The results of Venkatesh's myriad experiences are encomapped in 332 rivetting, thought-provoking pages...Completely different from the usual sociological tracts, American Project proffers a strong narrative and vivid stories. It offers its readers challenging insights into the lives of people in the government-subsidised [Robert Taylor] Homes. Above all, it stunningly portrays the transformation of a curious Indian-American "outsider" into an "insider" who gradually comes to understand and appreciate "the beauty of human condition" amidst squalor and violence.
— Arthur J. Pals
American Project is a rich and perceptive account of the inhabitants of the project, which brings us into close contact with everyone from poor tenants to drug-peddling gangs.
— Allan Winkler
1. A Place to Call Home
2. Doing the Hustle
3. "What's It Like to Be in Hell?"
4. Tenants Face Off with the Gang
5. Street-Gang Diplomacy
6. The Beginning of the End of a Modern Ghetto