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The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality.

The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality. By Rhonda Y. Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. v plus 306 pp.).

Rhonda Williams tells a much bigger story in The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality than one might suspect at first glance. Or to put it more accurately, Williams enables the players in this important history to narrate their tale and in so doing they tell a story that reaches back to the Great Depression era of de jure segregation and spans the postwar decades of increasing de facto segregation. They describe a movement for tenants' rights in Baltimore that finds common cause with the 1960s welfare rights movement organizing across the nation. And they vividly demonstrate the imperative of the human condition, the desire and right for "dignity, respect and fairness."

These storytellers are predominantly poor African-American women and a smattering of equally poor white women, residents in Baltimore's public housing and activists in the tenants' rights movement of the New Deal through the Great Society eras. Based on over fifty oral history interviews with people who are too often absent from the historical record, except perhaps as victims, what emerges is a powerful sense of poor women's agency. These women responded to and influenced public housing conditions and legislation on the local, state and federal levels.

By shifting the "angle of vision to the people on the ground affected by New Deal and Great Society social welfare policies," Williams makes a convincing case for continuity of activism and racially discriminatory practices across the pre- and post-Brown eras. 1960s tenants' rights organizations had their roots in tenants' councils that black women organized during the 1940s to demand adequate housing for Baltimore's black residents contributing to the war effort. Through the lobbying efforts of civil rights organizations, public housing was ultimately built for Baltimore's black population during World War II though on hazardous and polluted land. As Williams documents, the federal government plays a key role in constructing urban inequality through the discriminatory practices of agencies such as the Federal Housing and Veterans Administrations. And like blacks in cities throughout the country, Baltimore's African Americans were victims of the post-war "urban renewal" trend that resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of poor people of color. By the early 1960s, public housing was a critical necessity for these urban refugees.

The heart of the story is the 1960s period during which public housing tenants are living in deteriorating conditions and organizing to improve them. Through the lens of these women's real experiences, Williams offers a nuanced analysis of the War on Poverty. The Great Society campaign to eradicate poverty focused on rehabilitating poor people's behavior and avoided addressing the structural foundation of racial and economic inequality. Yet, as Williams repeatedly demonstrates, the antipoverty programs gave tangible resources to poor, black women who then used these funds to take control of their communities, develop leadership skills, and ultimately shape housing and welfare legislation.

It was often on the most local level that public housing tenants subverted and expanded the parameters of antipoverty programs. The Resident Aide Program is a case in point. Initiated in 1969 by Baltimore's housing authority it hired public housing tenants to perform "the housekeeping duties of government." Paid modest salaries, the women performed a range of jobs that included mediating relations between the housing staff and residents, overseeing elevator and laundry room operations, and encouraging good housekeeping. While the policing aspect of their work sometimes made them suspect by tenants, the resident aides also took advantage of their insider status to gain trust, advocate on behalf of the residents, demand necessary security for the housing project, and initiate training and recreation programs. Equally important, the resident aides spoke of developing self-respect and becoming spokeswomen for public housing tenants, articulating the shared desire for respectability and decent living conditions.

Among the resident aides were women like Gladys Spell, who brought to the work her experience as the president of her tenants' council. Tenant councils developing in public housing complexes throughout the city, and country, powered by women, were grass-roots vehicles for demanding power and asserting rights. It was these grass-roots leaders, argues Williams, who laid the groundwork for the formation of a city-wide Resident Advisory Board (RAB). In 1968, Baltimore became one of the first cities in the country to establish a formal citywide advisory board, thereby giving Baltimore's 12,598 tenant families living in twenty public housing complexes direct representation in the city's government and a voice in policymaking regarding their communities.

Williams places Baltimore's public housing leaders within a national movement of poor black women who emerged as leaders in the welfare and tenants' rights struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s. Many of these local leaders attended meetings of the National Tenants Organization and the National Welfare Rights Organization. With more than half of the overwhelmingly black public housing population in Baltimore receiving public assistance, these leaders knew first hand the connection between subsistence needs and public housing concerns. Asserting their rights as citizens, public housing activists linked their protests against substandard housing, insufficient welfare grants, inferior education and inadequate food. They demonstrated, held vigils, exerted their clout as voters and consumers, created food cooperatives, organized rent strikes and brought their case to court. By giving a voice to the women activists who are the backbone of all the organizing efforts, Williams powerfully demonstrates that the modern movement for black civil rights cannot be narrowly contained--or discredited--as part of the black militant movement of the late 1960s. Williams argues that the activists articulated an expanded vision of black freedom, one that merged black nationalism and civil rights, human rights with economic justice, daily survival with dignity and respect. Furthermore, she establishes that women organize in a variety of institutional frameworks, ad hoc organizations and through individual acts. Finally, by documenting the narratives of these women activists, Williams also uncovers how women's political consciousness changed in the process of organizing. If Williams could have expanded her book, more of her narrators' testimonies would have been welcome, for they are powerful speakers with critical insights and wonderful stories. Shirley Wise, longtime public housing resident and tenants' rights activist, offers one example of the process of historical change on a personal level when she describes what happened to her at the 1971 National Tenants Organization national convention in San Francisco:
 It was the first time I had ever seen that many residents together
 and that many resident groups who had won so many battles that we
 didn't even know anything about.... After the NTO conference, it
 suddenly woke up a lot of people's eyes and then ... we kept on
 saying: It is really totally ignorant if you keep on continuing to do
 business as usual when all these other groups out there is doing
 something to make a difference in their communities, you know.

The Politics of Public Housing is an important addition to the growing body of history that is examining the structural and cultural impact of racism in the North and South in the post-Brown decades. This study uncovers the grass-roots activists who have been powering the movements for racial and economic justice, and places these women rightfully at the center of poor people's struggles. These activists can trace their roots much further back for they are part of a long lineage of poor and working-class warriors who have always demanded "dignity and respect and fairness for everybody."

Adina Back

New York University
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Author:Back, Adina
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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