Venkatesh is pushing the thesis that the lives of the residents in the projects have been too pessimistically portrayed by other authorities, and that for long periods of time they, in fact, managed to get along pretty well, through various informal and often criminal survival mechanisms they developed.
That is, as I say, his thesis. I am reminded of a story of a man who fell out the 40th story window of an office building. Mid way down, with his eyes, firmly closed, he imagined himself flying. “So far, so good,” he said.
This author records comparable delusions, and the state of free-fall that of necessity must end. He thinks he is recording something better than that.
Venkatesh has done a superb job of describing the interrelationships between tenants, and the relationship between tenants and management, as well as chronicling the changes in these relationships since Robert Taylor was constructed in the early 60s.
Anyone who wants to move beyond the headlines, and finds out more about the strengths and weaknesses of life in a public housing development should read this book.
That said, the author’s background and training as a sociologist come through loud and clear and ultimately limits his book. While Venkatesh does a good job of detailing the social relationships among the players, he virtually ignores the larger political issues.
Why was management so inept as to be virtually non-existent? Why did the drug/crime culture take hold, and how did the gangs transform themselves into multi-state corporate enterprises? Most importantly, given that CHA is now in the process of demolishing virtually everyone of the buildings which form Robert Taylor Homes, how do we avoid creating the same problems in the next generation of public housing.
Excellent bibliography, by the way. A very good place to dig for resources for anyone wanting to study the history of the Chicago Housing Authority since 1960.
“American Project” started out with the best of intentions, but along the way, the author became a little repetitive. He should’ve explored the lives of the tenants a bit more. I think that would’ve made their situation a bit more understandable for the unaware. But, I give the author credit for trying to explain the lives, situations and forces, which keep the people disconnected from the rest of Chicago.
Read also: Another Century of War