The reign of the welfare queen is over. The powerful rule of public housing presidents ended with more of a whimper than a crash. Public opinion, which for nearly four decades affirmed these project strong-women as the legitimate voice of the subsidized poor, gradually turned away. The policies which once gave them legal standing and legitimate authority were weakened by welfare reform. Their volatile rhetoric, once capable of stirring up demonstrations and summoning media attention at will, has grown silent. Today their dynasty has all but disappeared. There was a day when the power of these tenant leaders was nearly absolute in housing projects. Woe to the naïve young urban worker who tried to circumvent their authority. I will never forget our first attempt to schedule the use of a community center for a summer program for project kids our ministry was working with. The president of the tenants' association, who had keys to the facility, was proving to be a bit uncooperative and it seemed unfair to us that the center should sit empty all summer when we could provide a free program for community children. Assuming that the housing authority had both ownership and control over the use of such facilities, we contacted the central office directly. "Not so" we were told in no uncertain terms. The president of the tenants' association had full authority to determine the use of that facility. And empty it sat!
It would certainly be unfair, however, to portray all - or even most - of these elected community leaders as tyrannical. Many used their position to organize activities, attract programs and secure benefits for their constituents. They became the voice for a voiceless population, carrying legitimate concerns about unchecked crime and substandard maintenance to the authorities - and not infrequently to the court of public opinion. Their credibility derived from their membership in the culture of poverty; they knew whereof they spoke. Many were devoutly religious and served as sacrificial role models. They ascended to power through active engagement in community life and instinctive political savvy. They maintained control through persistence and decibel level. Some even refused opportunities for upward mobility, so committed were they to defending the cause of their people.
But as George Bernard Shaw once said, "You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too." And so it was with many of the powerful welfare queens. So it was with Shirley Brown*. For twenty-five years she was the voice of the infamous East Lake Meadows. Elected by fellow-residents in one of the meanest housing projects in the city, Shirley lost no time asserting much needed leadership. She confronted the housing authority for allowing the Meadows to become littered and graffiti-covered, for ignoring leaking roofs and backed up sewers. She marched on city hall to protest the lack of police presence that allowed the project to be overrun with gangs and drugs. She called press conferences to expose bureaucrats and politicians who were neglecting their responsibilities to pick up trash, deliver mail and repair streetlights in her community. Because of Shirley's relentless barrage of phone calls, letters and public protests, life in East Lake Meadows was less intolerable. Conditions were never good but her confrontations did attract attention and afforded residents temporary moments of hope.
Like most tenant presidents, Shirley's position was sustained by public policy and government funding. She had a private office and secretary, funds for programs, a cadre of publicly funded lawyers at her beck and call, and facilities to control. She handed out stipends, recognition and trips with the skill of a political boss. Her nepotism and favoritism went unchecked. She enjoyed immunity from public criticism, since a pervasive "political correctness" was slanted heavily in her favor. For what politician or charitable business leader would risk the media backlash for appearing to speak negatively of the poor? With a mix of charm, compassion and in-your-face defiance, Shirley's authority was invincible, so long as she could summon an ingratiated group of residents willing to show up for an annual vote. And so she did for 25 years.
Power is not an easy thing to lay down. Some say it must be taken away. For Shirley, her position and her personal identity had become so enmeshed that she found it impossible to voluntarily step down - even to allow the vision of her lifetime to be realized. After years of dreaming, debating and negotiating, the public-private partnership deal had finally been struck that would replace the old Meadows housing project (known as "Little Vietnam") with a safe, attractive, mixed-income rental community. Shirley had been at the forefront of the planning process, prevailing in the "right income mix" debate, and heavily influencing density and design issues. But the most difficult decision of all she would avoid facing until the very end - the dismantling of the political machinery. The new Villages of East Lake would be privately managed and there would be no community president. In the end, Shirley could not bear it. She would do battle to stop the project in court rather than see it go forward under new authority. She would lose.
Today, not a trace of the old East Lake Meadows remains, nor the governance that once gave it voice. Shirley Brown has moved back to the community, into the new Villages of East Lake. Unlike her dramatic departure two years earlier after losing a highly visible lawsuit to halt the redevelopment, her re-entry was without fanfare. This once formidable public housing resident-leader, described by former president Jimmy Carter as the most difficult advocate-adversary he ever encountered, slipped quietly back onto the transformed landscape that was once her domain. Her adult children and grandchildren, now cut from government perks that were once the family mainstay, can no longer depend on the political savvy of their matriarch for subsistence. They must make it on their own. Shirley, who has managed to hold onto her disability entitlement, can live out her days as a normal resident in an attractive, safe, mixed-income neighborhood. It is the end of an era.
* I've changed her name and enough detail to protect her identity.