|Criminalizing the ‘Hood: The Death of Public Housing in the American Visual Imagination|
|During the latter half of the twentieth century, popular media coverage depicted the public housing projects in Chicago as a dystopia of crime and terminal poverty. Serving as the backdrop for MTV rap videos and Hollywood horror films, the projects became synonymous with all that was wrong with poor, black America. Today, as the Plan for Transformation – the Chicago Housing Authority’s controversial urban renewal initiative – implodes the last of the city’s public housing buildings, this paper seeks to address the ways in which the projects have been mythologized in popular visual culture as crime-ridden sites that deserve to be razed.
I begin by discussing the ways in which Chicago’s public housing provided a backdrop for deviant criminality in popular fictional dramas of the 1990s such as Cops and ER. I then turn to a consideration of Stephen Hopkins’ Judgment Night (1993), arguing that the film constructs public housing as a site of repression and social isolation through textual references to its cartography. From the first frame, Judgment Night uses street signs and lights as signifiers (“One Way,” “Do Not Enter,” and red “Stop” signs appear often), in order to problematize movement in the context of the city’s housing projects: There is, quite literally, no way ‘out’ of the ghetto. The film’s protagonists are helplessly trapped in a vicious cycle that offers them no other career options than those of a drug dealer, mugger, murderer or a potential murder victim.
In conclusion, I suggest that such destructive narratives have not only constructed the projects as a landscape of hopelessness in the American visual imagination but have also had the devastating effect of producing and validating the ‘death’ of public housing in the form of the Plan for Transformation.