What problem did Barack Obama encounter in the Altgeld Gardens project?
The Altgeld Gardens are a housing project in Chicago that were built during World War II to furnish housing for black veterans returning from the war. In the 1980's the projects were among the worst in the nation. Isolated from the city of Chicago and surrounded by landfills and industrial complexes, the projects are not healthy for residents. President Obama became a community organizer in Chicago during this time. His organization was concerned about the projects as the asbestos had not yet been removed, which was a major health concern. His organization took up the cause of asbestos abatement in the Altgeld Gardens.
President Obama was embarrassed and felt guilty about a meeting that took place between the housing executive director and about 700 residents. The director showed up over an hour late which established the tenor of the meeting. Residents grew angry and frustrated when the director told them that the city had not even started with the planning process for removing the asbestos. The crowd grew unruly and the director left the proceedings. Mr. Obama felt that he had not fully prepared the residents for the meeting and felt embarrassed by the entire episode. While the asbestos was removed from the projects, it did not occur until after President Obama left for law school in 1989.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama writes about being involved in an asbestos removal project at Altgeld Gardens, a black public housing project in Chicago. A resident of the housing project alerted Obama, then a young community organizer, that an ad in a local newspaper had asked for bids to remove asbestos from an office at the housing project. The resident worried that asbestos was also present in the residents' apartments, and Obama writes that he publicized the problem, forcing city officials to conduct an investigation and clean it up. Obama spearheaded two very contentious meetings with the Chicago Housing Authority that resulted in hearings about the asbestos problem.
However, critics have contended that activists already living in the projects, including Hazel Johnson, deserve credit for removing the carcinogenic substance from the housing project. Johnson had been asking for a cleanup of the project for a long time, and she was helped in her efforts by a local newspaper called the Chicago Reporter. Though Obama helped publicize the issue, the asbestos problem and its cleanup started before Obama and continued after he no longer worked for the public housing project.
When he was a Chicago community organizer in 1983, Obama ran into a common problem when dealing with government agencies, whether they were local, state, or national: bureaucracy. Obama was advising a tenant group at a housing project to question officials about the presence of asbestos in their apartments. When the officials avoided the tenant group, Obama led them to the Chicago Housing Authority, and, after two contentious meetings, the apartments underwent asbestos abatement.
Other problems that Obama says he encountered was the behavior of some of the tenants. He portrays them as confused and afraid to confront authority, pointing out that some could not read well enough to advocate for themselves effectively. He also had problems with the behavior of some of the tenants at the second meeting; the housing official was late to arrive, and after only a few minutes at the microphone, it was wrestled away from him. The tenants then began chanting "no more rent." Obama was unhappy about the confrontational behavior and felt he had not led the tenants effectively.