First, a Safe Place to Live


April 29, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

CHICAGO — Chicago. - Vincent Lane is ''mayor'' of what may be America's toughest ''city.'' It has 150,000 people officially, but perhaps 50,000 additional squatters. Nine of ten families are headed by females, black and destitute (median income $5,000). Three-quarters of the adults are jobless.

The biggest population concentration in Mr. Lane's ''city'' is a 30-block-long canyon of gang-infested high rises, marked by graffiti, strewn garbage and dark and menacing hallways. Families striving to maintain a semblance of normal life find themselves surrounded by alcohol and drug dependency, rampant assaults, robberies and random shootings.

Mr. Lane's city is the purview of the Chicago Housing Authority. He is its chairman and executive director. His demeanor is amazingly collected for a man who presides over what may be America's worst public housing. He exhibits commitment, passion and supreme confidence that he can make a difference.

Mr. Lane, like many of his tenants, was born into a poor black Southern family. He came as a child from Mississippi and grew up in a South Side cold-water flat -- admiring the playgrounds and new apartments of a then-new housing-authority project that had opened across the street.

Mr. Lane emerged from the ghetto to get his MBA from the University of Chicago. Taking over the Chicago Housing Authority, he ordered a classic cleanup. He insisted he wouldn't take the job until Chicago politicians assured him a free hand in running the agency. Then he fired hundreds and brought in a new executive team.

Mr. Lane also has a community-development background from the early '70s when he worked for the Woodlawn Organization, one of America's earliest community-development corporations. He learned grassroots organizing, giving poor people a hand but helping them set standards for their own housing and neighborhood life. Later he became a successful real-estate developer and manager, so respected that Chicago turned to him as the massive CHA disintegrated in the late '80s.

Mr. Lane quickly decided on taking command that social order must be restored in housing where ''violence and death have been accepted as a way of life -- to make these places safe, clean and decent.'' His most celebrated move has been ''Operation Clean Sweep.'' The sweeps start as paramilitary-style police raids on gang-controlled public-housing high-rises. In mid-morning, when the kids are in school and the night-owl drug dealers still in bed, some 60 cops descend on a building. First they seal off the open lobbies, providing a single, guarded point of access.

Then they go door to door, checking for illegal residents. Short-term chaos ensues. Hypodermic needles and shotguns come flying out windows. Plastic explosives were found in one electrical cabinet.

Hundreds of illegal residents have been found: an average of one per apartment. Legitimate residents get identity cards and must show them regularly; outsiders must apply for guest passes. Two guards are then deployed for each shift. A building manager gets assigned, a site office opened. Multiple repairs are made and various social services offered the tenants.

Some 25 of the authority's high-rises have been swept to date. Mr. Lane promises to do another 40 this year, and says it will take another three years to cover all units. There's been resistance in some buildings, but as Lane boasts, a lot of tenants welcome the sweeps. Some even picketed to demand a sweep at the notorious Cabrini-Green project.

The sweeps unquestionably create a new sense of security. With gangs dislodged, people dare to emerge from their apartments without fear of being shot. Playgrounds and libraries are used again.

Mr. Lane believes in enlisting tenants wherever he can -- they're now patrolling corridors in swept buildings. He's establishing a public-housing police force, with greater minority representation and far more community-responsiveness than regular Chicago cops.

There are caveats. At Rockwell Gardens, scene of the first and biggest sweeps, dramatic drops in crime and vandalism, or rises in rent collections, can't yet be proved. And sweeps are expensive: about $150,000 a building. Yet in the long run, the restoration of social order Vincent Lane is attempting may mark the first turnaround for the big-city public housing.


Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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