Revisiting Chicago’s Ida B. Wells Housing Project

In the summer of 1995, documentarian Frederick Wiseman and his cameraman John Davey spent five weeks at Chicago’s Ida B. Wells Homes housing project shooting Public Housing, the latest installment in the filmmaker’s career-long project of surveying institutions within contemporary Western civilization.

Public Housing marked Wiseman’s 30th film, nearly all of which have been broadcast on PBS and focus on civic microcosms that ostensibly offer a place for fine art, social service, discipline, or community, such as the Ida B. Wells housing project on Chicago’s South Side. What has emerged in this massive body of work is a continual meditation on the relationship between citizens and society’s power structures; in Public Housing, we see this dynamic between residents and the Chicago Police Department, the Ida B. Wells administration, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

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Wiseman came to now-demolished Ida B. Wells Homes (which housed approximately 5,000 residents until 2002) just after HUD’s takeover from CHA in May 1995, all of which gives the film an inherent archival importance. The filmmaker’s timely arrival means he was able to film meetings between HUD representatives and the residents, capturing the federal agency’s initial approach to rehabilitating the housing project — something we’re now able to measure, 25 years on, against their actual results.

Still from Public Housing (1997), dir. Frederick Wiseman

Public Housing is also useful for how it captures a particular milieu at a particular time in America. The film is a palimpsest of Clinton Era politics in action — the D.A.R.E. program, 1994 crime bill, aggressive HUD funding, and the President’s abstinence-until-marriage sex education policy — and how they were shaping the experiences of low-income Black people in deindustrialized urban areas.

But, like all Wiseman’s nonfiction films, there’s a central paradox within Public Housing’s archival attributes: Alongside any sociological value, the film is also an expression of the filmmaker’s own perspective, naturally imbued with his own preoccupations and biases. Here, that manifests in how Wiseman chooses to use the HUD handover to hammock his film between Helen Finner, the hardworking, well-respected and outspoken president of the residents association, and Ron Carter, a former NBA player now working in economic development for HUD. A dialectic of the insider versus the outsider.

“Mrs. Finner represented to me old-time politics in the Tammany Hall sense … She liked exercising power, and she was very effective in representing the residents. She’s a strong woman,” Wiseman told the Boston Phoenix in 1998. In the same interview, the filmmaker said he was interested in Carter’s varying behaviors depending on his audience, and was curious what kind of interventions he could make at Wells.

Carter promises the residents first dibs on any jobs for HUD’s rehab projects — something they’ve heard before — and tries to persuade them that starting their own business (such as an elevator repair company or the “Energy Preservation Company” to turn out lights around the project to make 10% of the profit they save CHA) is a way out of poverty.

His language is remarkably similar to language used in Wiseman’s films Deaf (1986) and City Hall (2020). In all three films, public speakers pitch America as a unique land of opportunity where minorities and people with disabilities can transcend their disadvantages through entrepreneurship.

Chicago Reader’s Bill Stamets called Public Housing an “essay on the bureaucracies of caring,” a phrase that Finner embodies. We also see this in the film’s longest scene, a drug counselor’s appointment with a resident applying for state-supported drug rehab. Their conversation, which Wiseman edited down from nearly two hours to 15 minutes, illustrates something unique in Wiseman’s artistry.

Still from Public Housing (1997), dir. Frederick Wiseman

The scene is dictated by the counselor’s questions about drug use, and each response reveals a life increasingly complex, thereby shifting our judgment and understanding of the applicant. Eventually, we hear he doesn’t qualify for rehab barring a judge’s generosity. It’s a sucker punch to see someone trying to get help and be turned down.

This is more conclusion than Wiseman usually allows himself; however, we don’t know the eventual outcome of the judge’s decision. This technique to bake a routine denial of outcomes into the rhythms of his films, along with his willingness to linger on any given conversation for minutes on end, is one of his great strengths.

“When my technique works, the audience becomes involved because they are placed in the middle of sequences and are asked to think through their own relationship to what they are seeing and hearing,” Wiseman told the Boston Phoenix. In other words, the denial of outcomes isn’t so much about unpredictability or even the withholding of answers, but about inviting us into the scene on a deeper level.

“Once you realize that a cut isn’t necessarily in the offing … you watch differently,” Eric Hynes said in a Film Comment review of Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights (2015). “By not shaping every bit of dialogue, every volley of conversation, into an easily identifiable point within the narrative, Wiseman makes being present in that moment, in that place, the point.”

Here, being present means many things, including listening to and reflecting on this man’s history, family life, regrets, goals, and attitude toward addiction. But it’s also about watching the important work of the counselor across the table, seeing how he talks with the man and seems to care for his well being.

Directly in the middle of the film’s three-hour-plus runtime, Wiseman lingers on an elderly woman at her kitchen table, glacially peeling cabbage with her fragile hands while a maintenance worker fixes her bathroom sink. This scene, which comes directly after one about avoiding the separation of family, isn’t driving a narrative action forward but offering us something to reflect on: a woman alone.

“The way she examined and peeled the cabbage, there was an element of control. The patience and endurance suggested to me the way she led her life,” Wiseman told the Boston Phoenix, before mentioning the phone call she gets in which a family member says they’re no longer coming to visit. “She was disappointed but accepted it with the same stoicism she’d examined the cabbage.”

The nature of Wiseman’s suggestive style and structure allows us to think about how this woman’s existence resonates elsewhere in the film. It’s not hard to imagine her, decades earlier, braiding a friend’s hair, dancing at a birthday party, or arguing with the father of her children. On the flipside, is this life — telling an absent family member over the phone, “I ain’t doin’ so hot” — what some of the younger residents have waiting for them?

The film lives and breathes as a document of five weeks during the summer of 1995, but it’s through Wiseman’s authorship and willfulness to be driven in the edit by poetry and suggestion rather than sociology that Public Housing carries with it the aura of an era.

Public Housing is available on streaming services.


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