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Nation's Poorest Fight a Grim Stereotype

By Sam WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1995



CHICAGO

ON a biting cold morning, the residents of Stateway Gardens emerge from their yellow-brick towers pushing strollers, swinging lunchboxes, and carrying backpacks. As they tread toward the bus stop on 35th Street, they defy the ``got nothing, do nothing, go nowhere'' stereotype often attributed to the poor.

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Yet today, the citizens of this public-housing complex on Chicago's South Side carry a special burden. It's not drugs, crime, or joblessness - though those persist.

Today, it's a statistic.

According to a study released last week, Stateway's 5,166 residents report a per capita income of just $1,650 per year. That makes it America's poorest neighborhood.

``No comparable concentration of the idle poor can be found anywhere else in the Western world,'' says the study's author, Pierre deVise of Chicago's Roosevelt University.

The deVise report, based on 1990 census tracts, also found that Stateway is not an exception: Nine of the nation's 10 poorest neighborhoods are subsidized-housing developments in Chicago; all are just a few miles apart.

For longtime critics of public housing here, the study is further proof that the most desperate poverty in Chicago is still concentrated, despite federal and state efforts to spread low-income families throughout the metropoltain area.

But to residents, nearly all of whom are black, the study is a cruel reminder that they not only have to fight the most distressing social problems, but outside perceptions and generalizations as well. ``People will hear that report and think that everybody who lives at Stateway is destitute, and that's a lie,'' says a resident who identified himself only as Mr. Crawford. ``Just like any community, we've got middle class, low class, and no class. Nobody ever knocked on my door and asked me how much I make.''

``I've lived in public housing my whole life,'' says Artensa Randolph, vice-chair of the Chicago Housing Authority. ``I raised five children in public housing and they all have good jobs.'' Calling the report ``garbage,'' Ms. Randolph says census data collected in public housing is unreliable because residents often misstate income to avoid rent hikes. Some won't open their doors to strangers, she adds, even census workers.

``This report is an insult to those of us who have strong family values,'' she says. ``I may not make $40,000 a year, but that doesn't make me feel inferior. I like where I live. If I didn't, I'd be trying to move out.''

But among South Side residents, negative impressions of Stateway Gardens are abundant.

``I don't live there, I don't go there, and I don't know anyone who does,'' says Sharetha Williams, standing at the 35th Street bus stop.

Nearby at Rally's Hamburgers, store manager Chris Manuel shakes his head at the Stateway complex. On New Year's Eve, he says, he had to shut down the store because a gunfight broke out between rival gangs.

Mr. Manuel blames the mess on welfare. He says most teenage girls see no reason to work full time at Rally's for $700 a month when they can receive the same amount in food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children if they quit and have three babies.

``People should have to get up and work every day,'' Manuel says, ``but we're giving them a reason not to work.''

Manuel, who started to cry during an interview, says that although the situation is grim at Stateway, many of its residents just need a push. ``They may be poor,'' he says, ``but their spirits aren't poor. Most of them are just afraid to try something and fail.''

Down the street at the Dawson Technical Institute, Doyle Edgecombe, head of the culinary arts department, says students from Stateway lack basic skills.

``We get a product from the public school system that we have to tear down and build all the way back up like in kindergarten. I've met people here that have never been past 35th Street,'' he says of Stateway's northern border. ``Most of them haven't had a job, and they don't know anything about the work ethic. All they know is how to go to the welfare office on the first of the month and get their check.''

Leon Singleton, a resident of Chicago's South Side for 42 years, says that from the beginning, he thought the high-rise complexes like Stateway were built to ``ghettoize'' blacks migrating from the South. Over the years, he says ``you wouldn't believe how much these buildings have deteriorated.''

According to the deVise report, income at Stateway has fallen 42 percent since 1980 alone.

``What we have predominantly are teenage mothers,'' says Henry Eaton, Stateway's general manager. ``No one else basically qualifies or wants to qualify for this particular development.'' Mr. Eaton says Stateway differs from most developments because it has mostly large extended families, a situation that makes it ``clannish'' and difficult to control.

``You wouldn't believe the atmosphere of fear and intimidation here,'' he says. ``You'd almost need a policeman at every door to make the tenants feel safe.''

Eaton says the problem with Stateway, and other Chicago public housing developments, is their size and economic isolation. But he says replacing the units with smaller, more manageable ones faces many hurdles: No communities want low-income housing developments in their backyards, local politicians object to the loss of their constituencies, and many extended families living in the buildings do not want to be separated.

``I have a lot of friends; attorneys, medical doctors, and other prominent people that came out of Stateway Gardens,'' he says. ``Instead of painting a picture of hopelessness, we should show examples of people who made it out of this community despite the odds - so the people who live here now can aspire.''