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Book from Case history professor examines history of public housing in Baltimore

Photo: Rhonda Y. Williams with studentsIn the popular imagination, urban public housing complexes are places of squalor and violence, inhabited predominantly by poor black women and their children subsisting on welfare.

The reality is far more complex. The vast majority of public housing tenants are law-abiding people who want only to make a better life for themselves and their families. But doing so often means battling hostile bureaucracies, apathetic city governments, and urban decline resulting in the loss of population and tax base.

Rhonda Y. Williams, associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, explores issues of race, class, and gender in public housing in her new book The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (Oxford University Press: 2004). The book traces the development of public housing in Baltimore from its beginnings under the New Deal to the early 1990s, when Baltimore and other cities began tearing down high-rise public housing and dispersing its residents. It also examines the growing political activism of tenants as they strive to improve their living conditions, gain greater responsiveness from the bureaucrats and politicians they deal with, and fight for basic human rights and dignity.
Williams explains that the book is “about black women’s struggles against urban inequality and racism.” She continues: “What I’m really concerned with is how these women negotiated better lives for themselves and their families and negotiated discrimination in the era of Jim Crow. The women are really the central story of the narrative.”

The book particularly focuses on African-American women, in part because as the years went by they constituted an ever-larger percentage of public housing residents, but also to debunk myths about poor black women.

“Ronald Reagan (in the early 1980s) created a debilitating type of language with the notion of the lazy welfare queen,” a negative image of low-income black women that had roots in stereotypes of earlier periods, Williams argues. “These are the stereotypes that low-income black women have had to continuously struggle against. Further, the assumptions that ‘welfare is black women’ or that ‘public housing is poor black people,’ are erroneous not only because white people benefited from both welfare and public housing, but because such pat assumptions mask a much more complicated story of racial demographic change, economic disparity, social inequality, and everyday people’s battles for survival.

Williams’s interest in the topic began when she was a newspaper reporter intern in Baltimore. “One of my first assignments was to go to a public housing complex and cover a story about some recreational day care programs. And you grow up hearing warnings about public housing, so I admit I found myself just a tad nervous.” But she soon saw there was little to fear in the complex and that the people in it were no different from those she encountered elsewhere.

The memory stuck with her when she left newspapering to attend graduate school in American history at the University of Pennsylvania and was searching for a thesis topic. “My initial focus was on public housing and what it meant in terms of urban policy and urban space,” she says. “But when I started doing the research, I began seeing these tenant struggles popping up. And when I put that alongside the ‘they’re lazy, they don’t want to do anything to better themselves’ stereotypes, it took me down the path that is now this book.”

Baltimore, it turned out, was an ideal place to study. Williams grew up and still has family there. But more importantly, Baltimore is a border city, with characteristics of both a northern industrial city and a southern city where Jim Crow laws existed until the 1960s. In addition, Williams says, its housing, racial patterns, and politics had been studied much less than those in larger cities like New York and Chicago.

Williams believes the struggles of Baltimore’s public housing residents, like those in other cities, are an overlooked part of the story of African Americans’ quest for equality and civil rights. “If you focus on the major organizations, like the NAACP, then you lose a lot of the other kinds of activities going on at the grassroots in terms of people fighting for their civil rights.”

Writing the book, Williams says, has taught her about “the complexity of human experience, the way people negotiate life’s travails, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But the struggle itself is important. And these women’s stories really bear that out. In fact, I end the book with one of the women saying, ‘The key thing for me as an activist has been to try to change things and improve my life. I’m glad I didn’t sit on the sidelines.’ And I think that’s important. Not to sit on the sidelines.”

 

About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.