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No peace in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens: What Obama and Jarrett left behind

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By Michelle Malkin  •  October 12, 2009 12:38 PM

Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama cut his teeth in community organizing at Chicago public housing project Altgeld Gardens.

Obama exaggerated his role as an activist at Altgeld Gardens, according to a 2007 LATimes report quoting other community organizers, and left behind more failure than success, according to this 2008 Boston Globe report:

Twenty miles from the glittering center of Chicago, at the farthest edge of the South Side, dozens of two-story brick buildings stretch for block after weary block. It was here where America provided public housing for African-American veterans of World War II and it was here, in the 1980s, that Barack Obama became a community organizer. Working with a band of outspoken mothers, Obama first auditioned his oratory and gained public notice. The despair evidenced by the many dilapidated buildings, and the seeming mockery of the project’s flowery name, Altgeld Gardens, prompted Obama to recount years later how an elementary school principal believed the children here no longer laughed like children. “Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you can see they’ve shut off something inside,” Obama quoted the principal as saying.

…or all its impact on Obama, Altgeld Gardens today seems far from the kind of success story politicians like to tout. Dozens of buildings are boarded up, with fences surrounding much of the property. The roads are a potholed mess. Blinking lights illuminate a series of towers where police have mounted cameras.

Last fall, Obama returned here for a television interview, walking past the boarded-up buildings, waving at children, and promising not to forget the residents as he runs for president. “It was, it is, a tough, tough place,” he said.

Yes, it is. Altgeld Gardens is the home of several of the suspects charged in the beating death of teen Derrion Albert.

Last week, while Obama’s AG Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were visiting to discuss teen violence, more students from Altgeld Gardens got into a fight with students who live in the area surrounding the high school, an area known as “The Ville,” as WCBS2 reported:

Students and other Far South Side residents were protesting Wednesday outside the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall and at Altgeld gardens.

They were trying to add their voices to what Holder and Duncan called a national conversation on student violence.

Altgeld Gardens resident Tommie McCoy said Holder and Duncan should have visited Fenger and Altgeld Gardens, not just met with Mayor Richard M. Daley and other local officials in downtown Chicago.

“I think they should have come out this way instead of downtown because this is where it’s happening at out here,” McCoy said.

If Holder, Duncan and Daley had been outside Fenger on Wednesday when school let out, students said they would have gotten an eyeful.

“They was fighting,” one girl said.

Another student said, “Some boys they got off the bus fighting and that. Then the police came over there breaking up the fight.”

As soon as the punching stopped at Fenger, the students and the simmering tension moved south to Altgeld Gardens a few miles south.

The Daley machine, with help from Team Obama, will persist in throwing more money at the problem. Cook County blogger Kelli Kobor at the Examiner throws up her hands — as are many local parents and activists sick of the same old, same old at the expense of Chicago schoolkids’ safety:

Today, Daley’s handpicked schools chief, Huberman does not believe in the expulsion of disruptive students.

In an interview with [The Sun Times] schools CEO Ron Huberman rejected Stewart’s idea, saying research done this year by CPS on troubled high schools points him in a different direction. Schools that successfully create what he calls a “culture of calm” do so by dealing with difficult students in-house, he said. Schools that are quick to suspend and expel — effectively moving kids out — have not fared as well, his data indicate.

Now, it was the newly appointed Huberman who carried through on the “turnaround” process for Fenger last winter, a process that removed practically all of the teachers and administrators from the school but left every student in place. This makes Fenger’s restructuring different from earlier turnarounds in Chicago, and it may have been the critical factor in the afterschool violence that plagued the school from the first week of the new year.

But Huberman remains fully committed to the course he has set and his vision for curbing violence in Chicago Schools. He is a data junkie who has just overseen a 6 month study of the pattern of violence in Chicago schools.

Armed with that data, Huberman recently laid out a $30 million plan to help 38 of the city’s most unruly high schools by adding social workers, counselors, new discipline policies and more training for security guards, among other efforts. His staff, using a probability model, also has identified the 1,200 kids most likely to be shot over the next two years — mostly low-performing, disruptive and chronically truant kids. They will be assigned 16-hour-a-week mentors.

The New York Times characterizes Huberman’s plan as an effort to identify the most “vulnerable” students and “saturate[] them with adult attention. But local critics have labeled it a make-work scheme for community organizers, ministers and other neighborhood men who will be hired as the mentors. And as for giving jobs to the “at-risk” students themselves, one long-time CPS critic has called this program “Jobs for Jerks” because it rewards some of the worst students in the school system with incredibly rare employment opportunities while leaving good students to fend for themselves.

“Jobs for Jerks.” Useful phrase.

For decades, the public housing boondoggle has provided lucrative jobs and windfalls for Daley cronies and developers.

The failure to make the communities safe for families and kids touches not only Obama, but his closest advisers — including real estate mogul/Daley operative/consigliere/city planning commissioner/Habitat Company chief Valerie Jarrett.

Daley/Jarrett’s “Plan for Transformation” for Chicago public housing was like Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize “achievement”– far more aspirational than concrete:

Chicago’s grand experiment to transform public housing is lagging nearly a decade after Mayor Richard Daley’s administration turned to private developers to shape the future of housing for the city’s poor.

Conceived amid a rising housing market, the city’s Plan for Transformation used hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and virtual giveaways of public land to reverse decades of neglect that confined the city’s poorest residents to racially segregated ghettos.

Demolition of Chicago’s reviled high-rises became a national symbol of change and hope, but little attention has been focused on what happened next as rhetoric collided with realities.

A Tribune investigation found that almost nine years into what was billed as a 10-year program, the city has completed only 30 percent of the plan’s most ambitious element tearing down entire housing projects and replacing them with new neighborhoods where poor, working-class and wealthier families would live side by side.

More from the Chicago Tribune’s investigation last fall:

Mayor Richard Daley declared eight years ago that Chicago would end “the failed policies of the past.” Yet a Tribune investigation found that the city has pumped hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars into housing complexes that preserve the very policies the plan was meant to reverse.

The largest is the Altgeld-Murray Homes, a sprawling 190-acre development built on the Far South Side for black factory workers during World War II. At that development alone, the CHA plans to spend $451 million rehabbing 1,998 barracks-style apartments, with politically connected Walsh Construction doing much of the work.

Altgeld sits in one of the city’s most isolated areas. The nearest supermarket is miles away. Only one bus route serves the development. And it backs up to the Little Calumet River in an area once known as “The Toxic Doughnut” because of a long history of environmental problems.

Crime is another challenge. Open drug markets thrive at Altgeld, and shootings occur frequently enough to keep residents on edge.

“You guys are an island out here, cut off from everyone else,” John Ball, the local police commander, noted during a recent community meeting with residents.

For generations, public housing in Chicago was a highly visible failure. In the mid-1990s, the agency began demolishing more than 13,000 public housing units on prime real estate to make way for new developments where poor residents are supposed to live alongside wealthier families.

Those mixed-income developments are now more than a decade behind schedule. The same problem plagues the CHA’s efforts to rehab the public housing that wasn’t demolished, with fewer than half of those units finished.

At Altgeld, about two-thirds of the units lie empty, despite a severe shortage of affordable housing across the region. Some of the apartments are awaiting rehab, and others remain vacant because the CHA has had trouble persuading residents displaced by demolition to relocate to Altgeld.

Legacy.

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