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Justice et injustices spatiales

 | 
Bernard Bret
, 
Philippe Gervais-Lambony
, 
Claire Hancock
, 
et al.

Justice Spatiale, Identités, Minorités

Kitchenettes, The Robert Taylor Homes, and the racial spatial Order of Chicago: The Carceral Society in an American City

Rashad Shabazz

Texte intégral

1IN HIS COLLECTION OF LETTERS from prison, San Quentin prisoner and radical Black activist George Jackson argued that his upbringing “prepared him for prison”. This paper argues that the deployment of carceral practices into Black living spaces, what I call the prisonization of Black living space, readied Jackson and a generation of poor Blacks for prison. To illustrate this, I draw on the insights of Black prisoners, Black literary artists, sociologists, Black feminists and gender the-orists, memoirs, and geographers. I draw on these works to construct a holistic picture of Black life and illuminate the carceral logic that underwrote the community that Jackson spent his childhood in—Chicago’s Southside. Part one of this paper explores the emergence of kitchenettes; while part two examines housing projects. Part three turns to subjectivity and asks how Black men reflected this carceral logic. The fourth and final section of this paper offers insights as to how a spatially just urban planning strategy can help to undermine the growth of carceral sites.

From the Kitchenette to the Penitentiary”

  • 1 ST Clair, Drake, and Horace R., Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City(...)

2The movement of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans from the southern states after the First World War to the North profoundly reshaped urban racial and spatial relations. Not only did the migration change Black location, but their relation to space and their subjectivity was deeply impacted, as well. Sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton illustrate this in their study of Black Chicago. They conduct a case study of a migrant aptly named Slick. Slick migrated to Chicago from Missouri with his parents. They lived in the “lower depths” of Bronzeville. Conditions were deplorable: poverty, confinement, vice, and violence reigned supreme. Housing was dreadful. Residents lived huddled together in cramped makeshift residential units. Slick lived in a basement room with his girlfriend Betty Lou, an Alabama native, who, like Slick, came to Chicago to escape the poverty and terrorism of the South. It was a one-room occupancy with no windows, one bed, a chair, and a table. Others also lived in the basement with them. Separated by provisional walls, the residents shared hotplates, stoves, sinks, showers, toilets, and other household items like pots and pans. The tight space made privacy impossible. Many of the residents were so poor, that they lacked even the smallest amount of paper money. They bartered and traded to get food, cooking utensils, and clothing. Vice was a way of life. Prostitution and drugs were central to the sub-economy that eased the pain of life and put money in residents’ pockets. All of this made violence—mostly predicated by men—the standard way to garner respect and protect oneself and the little they possessed1.

3Tragically, lower Bronzeville claimed Slick and Betty Lou as victims. Slick went to prison for stabbing her. In Bidwell prison Slick would once again live in tight cramped spaces; he would share sinks, bathrooms, and showers. In prison, he lived in an economy that was mostly paperless. And he used violence to protect himself and his possessions. His kitchenette “skills” were useful in prison; his familiarly with life in the “outside”, in the kitchenette, enabled him to survive prison on the “inside”.

Emergence of Kitchenettes

  • 2 Ibid., p. 175-180.

4Kitchenettes emerged out of the political, social, and economic shifts brought on by the Great Black Migration2. As hundreds of thousands of Black migrants from the south descended upon Chicago (1915-1948) in search of work, the dynamics of the city rapidly changed. Kitchenettes were the answer to both the housing shortage and the push for segregation. Essentially, swaths of the Black Belt became hyper-confined living spaces; old dilapidated mansions and apartments served as the staging ground. They were turned into multiple occupancies, seething with people—three, four, sometimes as many as five families lived in a space made for one. Their crowded nature left residents vulnerable to disease. Thousands died of T.B. City officials refused to create affordable housing for new migrants, placed restrictions on where Black people could live, subsequently forming a network of segregation that packed poor and working class Blacks into over-crowded, disease ridden, poverty stricken detention “zones”.

  • 3 See Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Who Set You Flowin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • 4 Part of the punitive element of kitchenette life for men was the abject poverty. Because the tenet (...)
  • 5 Wright, Richard (ed.). The Richard Wright Reader. New York: Harpercollins, p. 215

5Kitchenettes drew on the logic of carceral punishment by making containment, disease, as well as punitive temporality and social death (the latter of which are central aspects of prison life) constitutive parts of its function. In addition to these carceral techniques, the performance of masculinity underwent dramatic shifts3. Unable to rely on economic strength, men relied on physical force to both prove manhood and negotiate the closed nature of the carceral world4. This ultimately had a profound impact on Black women; creating a context where sexual violence occurred. According to Wright, with its “dark hallways” and cramped quarters, the kitchenette “jams our farm girls, while still in their teens, into rooms with men who are restless and stimulated by the noise and the lights of the city5”.

“The Kitchenette is our prison”: Reading the Carceral Landscape

  • 6 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1st American ed.). New York: Pan (...)

6Black American (and one-time Parisian resident) author Richard Wright argued Kitchenettes were prisons. Wrights’ analysis was not a literary maneuver; rather it was an analysis of spatial order. Wright under-stood that kitchenettes forced new Black migrants to live together in small cramped areas; share resources such as bathrooms, kitchens, and cooking utensils; negotiate movements; grapple with disease and hyper-masculine violence, within a racially homogenous environment, where residents were kept under the watchful eye of others, and social death and punitive temporality permeated social life. Kitchenettes were, to use Foucault’s formulation, part of the “carceral continuum”, which worked to prepare and predispose Blacks for a life of carceral containment6.

Robert Taylor Homes, Apex of Carceral Mise en Scene

7Kitchenettes did not last forever. They became obsolete in the years following the Second World War. They were replaced with a series of housing projects. These projects were politically mobilized by what sociologist Howard Winant called the Post-War “racial break”—a political formulation that sought to reform white supremacy, rather than destroying it. Between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970, American cities produced thousands of housing projects. In Chicago, as for much of the nation, these projects were intended for poor Black residents. In Chicago, the largest and undoubtedly the most notorious was the Robert Taylor housing project.

Carceral Architecture and the Projects

8Architecturally, a single form—the highrise—dominated postwar project construction. Impersonal and imposing, high-rises packed many of the tens of thousands of people “served” by public housing into a single structure within geographically contained zones. Of the ten major high-rise projects built in Chicago between the end of the war and the mid-1970’s, none was more offensive than the Robert Taylor housing projects. Constructed between 1960 and 1962 on ninety-five acres of land, one-quarter mile wide, two miles long, the project consisted of four thousand four hundred units—making it the largest housing project in the world.

A block of the Robert Taylor Homes

  • 7 Ibid., p. 125; Wilson, David. Race and Cities: America’s New Black Ghetto. New York: Routledge, p. (...)
  • 8 Devereux, Bowly Jr. The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976. Carbondale: Southern (...)
  • 9 Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. American Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 126.
  • 10 According to philosopher David Theo Goldberg, periphrastic space “implies dislocation, displacemen (...)

9Robert Taylor was the epitome of carceral mise en scene. Of all the high-rise projects, it identified with prison the most. Units were contained in twenty-eight identical sixteen-story buildings, grouped in a U-shape formation, encircled with “cages of meshed wire7”. It was built within a contained field of city blocks with railroad tracks to the east, siphoned off from a white middle class community to the west, by the Dan Ryan Express-way. The buildings faced each other, with a ‘yard’ for recreation in the center. Grouped in threes, the anonymity of the buildings forced residents to remember which “stack” they lived in. An auto-cratic management style centralized all operations, which enabled the Chicago Housing Authority to control things like the heat, leaving residents with relatively little individual agency in their own homes8. The coup de grace of this carceral architecture was the entrance to the complex. Vehicles drove along a U-shaped road, which gave police easy access to monitor resident activity. This convenient design proved useful during the state sanctioned paramilitary control of the project in the 1980’s and 1990’s9. Residents were forced to wear identification badges; surveillance cameras were used to monitor activities; and visitors to the complex had to sign and out and be accompanied by residents as they moved about. As crime increased (an obvious response to poor oppressed people packed into a confined space) city officials placed a special police force in the project to control gang activity. The police force raided residents’ homes without warrants, often striking fear into the hearts of residents. The entire mise en scene of Robert Taylor expressed a restrictive, prisonlike containment that was underwritten by a racialized or “periphrastic” spatial order10.

Centralizing the Black Diet

10The closed carceral world of Robert Taylor also had a dramatic impact on the quality of food consumed by residents. Poverty forced many residents to use food stamps. Many of grocery stores in the neighbor-hood—which were often too far to walk to—did not take food stamps. However, the small corner stores did. Corner stores carried foods high in saturated fat, much of which was processed. They rarely had fresh produce, and had significantly higher prices. Thousands of residents poured into these small stores weekly to get the food they needed to survive only to be encountered by bulletproof glass that enclosed the register attendant. Turnstiles that were used to deliver goods to customers; customers whom register attendees did not touch. This centralized diet had serious consequences. Many residents experienced high rates of obesity, cancer, and heart disease.

Part three: Post-Industrial Carceral Masculinity

  • 11 My use of performance is shaped by the work of performance theorist E. Patrick Johnson, and litera (...)

11Like the kitchenette, Robert Taylor profoundly shaped the “performance” of masculinity11. Historically, hypermasculinity in the kitchenette foreshadowed the performance of Black masculinity that emerged during the post-industrial period. Over time, the maturation of what I call post-industrial carceral masculinity took shape.

  • 12 Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 90.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 90.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 90.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 90.

12Black feminist Patricia Hill-Collins argues that Black men in the postindustrial city are “urban prisoners12”. According to Hill-Collins, “African American reaction to racial segregation in the post-civil rights era, especially those living in hyper-segregated, poor inner-city neigh-borhoods, resemble those of people living in prison13”. For Hill-Collins, this prison-world of the ghetto produces a context where, like prisoners, Black people “simply turn on one another, reflecting heightened levels of alienation and nihilism14”. This is especially the case with respect to Black men. Faced with few job possibilities, insufficient schools, drugs, and easy access to guns, Black men kill each other over seemingly inconsequential things15. She maintains that the politics and performance of Black masculinity is shaped by a geography of carceral punishment, poverty, and adoption of prison masculinity. Like Wright and Jackson, Hill-Collins is not being metaphorical. Her analysis reflects an under-standing of the multiple social forces shaping Black people’s lives in general and men’s lives in particular.

13In the prisonlike yards that surround the Robert Taylor housing project, young men learned to perform masculinity that was contiguous with the political, economic, cultural moment. In his book Brothers, Sylvester Monroe narrates his life growing up in Robert Taylor during the 1970’s. Like many youth, Sylvester and his friends learned to read, write, do math, sing, and play ball in the confines of the project. At the same time they learned to “jive girls”, hustle, make money in the under-ground economy, steal, drink, and fight with sticks, bricks, stones, knives and eventually guns. From his earliest days, Sylvester and his friends thought of life in Robert Taylor as a preparatory prison. According to his friend Honk, “if you came from trey-nine (thirty ninth street)…prison was just a change of address”.

  • 16 Sabo, Don, Terry A., Kupers, and Willie, London. Prison Masculinities. Philadelphia: Temple Univer (...)
  • 17 Ibid., p. 5.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Ibid.

14In the United States, prison masculinity is characterized by “ultra-masculine” performance. It relies on physical toughness and the willingness to negotiate and survive violence16. According to Don Sabo, Terry Kupers, and Willie London, prison masculinity takes its cue from hegemonic masculinity. This performance of masculinity is the “prevailing, most lauded, idealized and valorized form of masculinity a historical setting17”. In the U.S., hegemonic masculinity emphasizes “male domination, heterosexism, violence, and ruthless competition18”. Moreover, hegemonic masculinity posits femininity as “compliant”, “passive”, “sexually receptive”, and “fragile19”.

  • 20 See Hurt, Byron. “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes”, 2006.

15In American culture, hegemonic masculinity is always associated with whiteness. White masculinity, particularly white middle class masculinity, has access to real and abstract forms of power, like financial power, political power, and workplace authority. Black men do not have access to these forms of power. In exchange, Black men use their bodies and the threat of violence to gain financial status and street credibility. This is demonstrated in the lyrics and hypermasculine performance of hip-hop, for example20.

16Without material or abstract power, Black men use their bodies to present themselves as being worthy of respect. It’s not a coincidence that this logic governs many men’s (and some women’s) prisons21. Sculpting the body into a seemingly impenetrable machine garners respect, admiration, and even fear among other prisoners. The hypermasculine logic of prison demands toughness and the willingness to use violence if necessary—characteristics that symbiotically shaped performance of masculinity in post-industrial ghettos.

17The Robert Taylor housing projects continued the trajectory of carceral punishment—the blurring of the line between freedom and captivity—at work in the kitchenette. Technological advancements in the art of surveillance, isolation, policing, centralizing the diet, the performance of prison masculinity, and the concealment of carceral practices under the guise of better housing for poor Blacks, worked to make the project a space where thousands of residents were prepared for the dictates of prison life.

Part Four: Anti-Racist Spatial Justice

18Chicago’s carceral order succeeded in large part because of housing segregation. But in creating this housing, multiple carceral technologies—policing, surveillance, curfew, etc—were deployed into these spaces. The result was the prisonization of Black spaces and the subjectivities that occupied them. A willing collaborator in all this was city planning. It provided the intellectual capital and creativity to create open prisons on Chicago’s Southside. This chilling fact should remind us how bodies of knowledge and professions can become accomplices to racism. Even more, it should illustrate how practices and ultimately in this case, spatial order becomes imbued with the logic of racism. This is not to suggest that city planners are racist or that the profession is somehow conspiring against Black people. Rather I want us to think about the implications of a profession or body of knowledge that does not consider race. That is to say, by not thinking of race in the process of designing public space, city planners provide a spatial order and landscape that is far too often used to contain and punish the most vulnerable.

Notes

1 ST Clair, Drake, and Horace R., Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945, p. 571-572.

2 Ibid., p. 175-180.

3 See Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Who Set You Flowin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

4 Part of the punitive element of kitchenette life for men was the abject poverty. Because the tenets of white or hegemonic masculinity suggest economic stability is key to having hegemonic masculinity, poor Black men in kitchenettes could not achieve that status. Although the new Black masculinity was horribly oppressive to women, it unfortunately became the model in the kitchenettes. This desire for and denial of hegemonic masculinity continues to trouble Black men’s performance of masculinity. See Estes, Steve. I Am a Man: Race Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2005; Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2004; bell Hooks, We Real Cool. New York: Routledge, 2004; O. Wallace, Maurice. Constructing the Black Masculine. Durham: Duke, 2002.

5 Wright, Richard (ed.). The Richard Wright Reader. New York: Harpercollins, p. 215

6 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1st American ed.). New York: Pantheon Books, 1977, p. 297

7 Ibid., p. 125; Wilson, David. Race and Cities: America’s New Black Ghetto. New York: Routledge, p. 25.

8 Devereux, Bowly Jr. The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1978, p. 128.

9 Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. American Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 126.

10 According to philosopher David Theo Goldberg, periphrastic space “implies dislocation, displacement, and division. It has become the primary mode by which the space of racial marginality has been articulated and reproduced”. See Goldberg, David Theo. Racist Culture. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993, p. 188

11 My use of performance is shaped by the work of performance theorist E. Patrick Johnson, and literary theorist Vershawn Young. For Johnson, performance “facilitates the appropriation of blackness”. Drawing on Johnson’s work, Young suggests that Black people endure what he calls the “burden of racial performance”. For Young, the performative elements of Blackness demand that Black people perform those tropes. According to Young, not doing so risks skep-ticism or exclusion. See Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity. Detroit: Wayne State University, 2007.

12 Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 90.

13 Ibid., p. 90.

14 Ibid., p. 90.

15 Ibid., p. 90.

16 Sabo, Don, Terry A., Kupers, and Willie, London. Prison Masculinities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001, p. 3.

17 Ibid., p. 5.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 See Hurt, Byron. “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes”, 2006.

Table des illustrations

Légende A block of the Robert Taylor Homes
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University of Vermont

© Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2010

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