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How Obama and Valerie Jarrett Helped Launch Their Political Careers in an Outrageous 'Urban Renewal' Scheme

Developers and investors got rich on a project that destroyed the homes of thousands of Chicago's poorest black residents.
 
 
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As President Obama's second term begins, and inequality, especially for black Americans, is worse than it was when Obama first took office, it's worth revisiting progressives' and Obama supporters' impression of the president as somebody who might actually care about equality and helping the most unfortunate in society. And a big centerpiece of that impression, which endures despite evidence that he's at best ambivalent, is his early days in Chicago. The narrative that Obama is a salt-of-the-earth community organizer has been spoon-fed to the American populace since Obama first began campaigning. In reality, there's a big piece of the president's past that has gone under-reported that will help us to understand Obama and his closest adviser Valerie Jarrett a bit better: Obama and Jarrett built the nexus of political support that took him to the presidency by participating in one of the most appalling examples of neoliberal-corrupted City Hall-"urban renewal projects" in recent history that enriched developers and investors and destroyed the lives of thousands of Chicago's poorest black residents, in some cases using his community organizer job as camouflage.

We have the opportunity to revisit our impression of Obama thanks to a speech by Robert Fitch, a radical journalist and activist who chronicled the destruction of public housing in his 1996 book, The Assassination of New York, in which he detailed the changing landscape of the city at the hands of bankers and developers. New York's poorest were left to the mercy of the extremely rich, who used their power and money to gentrify, gut and obliterate public housing. Fitch's accounts of the plunder of New York and Obama's efforts in Chicago offer a different narrative than we're often accustomed to hearing -- they weren't the "fault of Republicans," but rather examples of the most frequent attack on democracy and the general welfare: how politicians "of all stripes" served the interests of the richest and most powerful in the society. In the case of NY and Chicago, the powerful took the form of a collection of interests that Fitch called FIRE: finance, insurance and real estate.
During a speech delivered at the Harlem Tenants Associations in November 2008, directly after Obama's presidential win, Fitch explained how the new president and other middle-class blacks, including Valerie Jarrett and Obama's wife Michelle, climbed the power ladder in Chicago at the expense of poor African Americans by aligning themselves with "friendly FIRE":

...[A]s Obama knows very well, for most of the last two decades in Chicago there’s been in place a very specific economic development plan. The plan was to make the South Side like the North Side. Which is the same kind of project as making the land north of Central Park like the land south of Central Park. The North Side is the area north of the Loop—Chicago’s midtown central business district—where rich white people live; they root for the Cubs. They’re neighborhood is called the Gold Coast.

For almost a hundred years in Chicago blacks have lived on the South Side close to Chicago’s factories and slaughter houses. And Cellular Field, home of the White Sox. The area where they lived was called the Black Belt or Bronzeville—and it’s the largest concentration of African American people in the U.S.—nearly 600,000 people—about twice the size of Harlem.

In the 1950s, big swaths of urban renewal were ripped through the black belt, demolishing private housing on the south east side. The argument then was that the old low rise private housing was old and unsuitable. Black people needed to be housed in new, high-rise public housing which the city built just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The Administration of the Chicago Housing Authority was widely acclaimed as the most corrupt, racist and incompetent in America. Gradually only the poorest of the poor lived there. And in the 1980s, the argument began to be made that the public housing needed to be demolished and the people moved back into private housing. …

 
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