Ghetto Express: Beauty Turner’s bus tours show off Chicago’s projects

Ghetto Bus Tour by Lisa Bang

“Who here is the next Oprah Winfrey?” Hands pop up around the room. Ron Carter, editor of the Chicago-based South Street Journal, is addressing a room filled mostly with ninth-grade girls from the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, who are gathered alongside a handful of volunteers, journalists, and activists at the Swift Mansion in Bronzeville. Next, a man named Storm steps to the front of the room and performs a song. He raps about the strength of the individual in making social change. “Music is a movement!” he repeats. Now and then, the sound of chattering around the room drowns out the performance and teachers begin fervently shushing, trying to quell the noise. Beauty Turner’s voice cuts through the cacophony: “We can sing together, but we sure can’t speak together!” This seems to quiet everyone down, and Turner begins to lead the crowd in chanting “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” Soon, the crowd is led outside to a yellow school bus. The Ghetto Bus Tour begins.

To some, the notion of a ghetto tour may call to mind stereotypical images of riding in a rickety old bus and stopping at Harold’s Chicken for lunch, but “ghetto” means something totally different to Beauty Turner, the organizer of the Ghetto Bus Tours. To her, it stands for the “Greatest History Ever Told to Our People.” Her bus tours are meant to give the residents of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) projects a chance to speak for themselves, when most of the talking until now has been done by journalists and academics. She wants people to hear “the voice of the voiceless.”

Turner first became an advocate of CHA residents’ rights in 1986, when she moved into the Robert Taylor Homes. She saw a lot of things that she did not like: police brutality, children killing children, and buildings in disrepair. Nobody wanted to address these problems. Turner has been conducting her tours in some form or another since 1997. They began as informal trips into Chicago’s public housing developments in order to give outsiders a taste of what life in these developments was like. Once public housing high rises began to be demolished in the late 1990s to be replaced with mixed income housing, the tours gained additional political significance. According to the Chicago Housing Authority’s $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, all leaseholders are required to temporarily relocate to make room for the demolitions. Due to difficulties that families often have finding new homes or their ineligibility for housing under the new system, Turner suspects that the Plan for Transformation may have an ulterior motive–to kick poor people out of Chicago. She notes the condos “popping up like jiffy popcorn in the microwave oven,” and low-income housing “shrinking like a raisin in the sun.” “That’s not a great combination for poor people,” she stresses.

Thursday’s Ghetto Bus Tour started with a screening of the film “Dislocation” by Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor at Columbia University studying urban communities in the United States and France. The film followed several residents of the Robert Taylor Homes as they underwent the relocation process in 2001 and 2002. While the violent life in the projects was occasionally captured in the film, its focus was mostly on the strong sense of community shared by the residents and the difficulties they encountered in the relocation process. Residents told stories of having to relocate several times since the apartments where they moved did not pass building codes. Other long-term residents who lived with family members off the lease or who had been made lease non-compliant by large electric bills due to mistakes made by building management were not eligible for relocation. After the relocation, many of the residents missed life in the Robert Taylor Homes. One resident named Lee Lee said that she would give up the keys to her new house to go back. Another relocated resident named Chuck said that he missed the fun and the community of the homes.

The first stop on the tour was “The Hole,” a now-empty lot on South Federal Street where one of the buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. Turner points out the several churches surrounding the lot and the school across the street. The Robert Taylor Homes fed these institutions, as well as the nearby stores. Now that the homes are gone, there is nothing keeping these businesses and institutions afloat; the surrounding area is littered with abandoned storefronts. Turner notes that the new residents who will move into the new buildings will profoundly alter the cityscape. They don’t want to look out and see “seven little black churches. They want to see a Starbucks.”

Next, the bus drove north, to the Dearborn Homes. On the way, one of the students on the tour mentioned having lived there. A woman on the bus responded excitedly, “Really? What building?”, appropriately demonstrating the community felt amongst the residents. The group debarked and was led through the hallways of the Dearborn Homes, which are made of cinder block and concrete, and painted a dirty sea-foam green. A damp scent filled the air. Here and there graffiti was scrawled on the walls. One note read: “This how players rock.” The group went upstairs to the apartment of Carol Wallace, a resident of many years. Wallace spoke to the group from her doorway about the police harassing her kids. Her son has been arrested more than three times for trespassing when trying to visit his grandmother. Turner tells the group, “This hour is truth hour.” Wallace claims that other than these injustices, life in the Dearborn homes is peaceful: there is no drug dealing or fighting. Her apartment seen through the doorway is a perfect picture of order. It has neat and colorful paintings decorating the walls.

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The students of YWLA in front of Dearborn Homes.

The tour ended with a drive through Oakwood Shores, a new mixed income development that is replacing the Ida B. Wells Homes. As the bus passed the abandoned and fenced-off homes, Turner invited the group to imagine how, only a few months ago, these houses were inhabited. She noted that the CHA’s Plan for Transformation was originally only intended to clear out high rises, not low rises like the Ida B. Wells homes. Driving back to the Swift mansion along Pershing Road, Ron Carter, who was helping to direct the tour, pointed the group’s attention to an approaching billboard at the next corner. He said that it would show the plans that the city had for the area. On the billboard was a picture of a young white couple, just moved into in their brand new house. Lacking any furniture or utensils, they sit on the hardwood floor sharing a pizza with enormous grins on their faces.

Beauty Turner’s Ghetto Bus Tours have been accused of being unfairly biased and of unreasonably glorifying Chicago’s housing projects. In an article written for MSNBC, Chicago Housing Authority spokesman Bryan Zises says, “She is running out of bad things to show people. She is taking a circuitous route so she doesn’t have to drive by the new stuff,” including, the reporter adds, Turner’s own home in one of the new mixed-income communities. Claims of bias did not appear unfounded at the latest tour. The Chicago Housing Authority’s claimed purpose of the Plan for Transformation was given no mention. At times, the discussion recalled a meeting of an activist group or religious congregation. Discussion leaders rallied the students to become active in the cause, often using racially charged language. “Do not sell out your own race!” one discussion leader told the students. “We’re still in the capitalistic form of slavery!” Another leader passed out a newspaper to the students–“Revolution: The Voice of the Communist Party.”

In response to these accusations of bias, Turner points out that the purpose of the tours is simply to let people see what is really going on, and it is not just the activists and journalists who want to see. People of all kinds, rich and poor, have attended the tours to seek the truth for themselves, even those who would have a Starbucks built on every corner.

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