A Dream Deferred

The excellence and misdirection of “A Dream Foreclosed”

ADreamForeclosed2

Laura Gottesdiener’s “A Dream Foreclosed” is the story of four men and women and their broken dreams. Though the four are dispersed around the country, they are all black, and all the victims of a housing crisis that has singlehandedly shattered their modest dreams of a better life. The spurt of foreclosures which began in 2007 was the product of “predatory targeting of people of color,” Gottesdiener claims. As a societal issue, this contemporary brand of racism can seem abstract. But though black Americans are no longer shunned on bus seats, at water fountains, or on the Mississippi Delta’s plains, they are nevertheless the victims of impenetrable legalese on predatory loans offered by companies with confusing acronyms for names. IMC and GMAC, and not George Wallace, represent the modern face of American racism.

Gottesdiener’s interviews with these everymen put a human face to what can appear an intractable problem, lifting the veil on what it means to have lived through the effects of what amounts to a systematic destruction of Black America’s future. It’s a laudable effort, and her first two sections, entitled “The Dream” and “The Explosion,” go a long way in demonstrating that it is remarkably easy to fall victim to the wiles of an unforgiving financial and housing industry. Bertha Garrett, from Detroit, could be anybody’s grandmother: she was an “elegant and deeply religious” woman who loved the Bible, parties in her backyard, and her eighteen boisterous grandchildren. Her home on Pierson Street was her sanctuary for twenty-two years until she was foreclosed upon, after taking out a second mortgage to pay for the college tuition of her youngest daughter.

In “The Fight,” the final section of the book, Gottesdiener shows how each of her four case studies battled the anonymous system and won. Her account of Martha Biggs’s triumph over chronic homelessness in Chicago’s West Side is the most moving of the lot; Gottesdiener allows Biggs’s impossibly precocious daughter Jajuanna to speak for herself, and it works. Jajuanna, all of fifteen, battles with depression in middle school, cutting her wrists in seventh grade because she believes she is ultimately responsible for her family’s having to spend Chicago’s cold winters in a cramped minivan. We get a glimpse into her impossible burden: “I thought it would be better if I were gone,” she lets on. In 2011, when her mother is given a modest home in West Woodlawn that Jajuanna can finally call her own, it seems like manna from heaven.

This ultimate release comes from the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a nationally lauded organization that works in Chicago’s poorest communities to provide what it calls “home liberation.” In other words, they reclaim homes after they have been foreclosed upon by banks. It’s a grassroots effort to rehabilitate the properties and then hand them over to families  who are in desperate need, at no cost to them. Martha and her brood were the beneficiaries of the first publicized “liberation” in the city, and their relief is palpably portrayed.

The other three stories are also emotionally triumphal: Bertha Garrett manages to  buy her house outright after the loan servicing company decides to cut its losses.  Griggs Wimbley, who dreams of constructing a subdivision of suburban homes in sleepy Tempting Church Road, North Carolina, finds comfort in knowing that there are others who have similarly fallen prey to shadowy financial machinations in this rural town. And Michael Hutchins, a young disabled man in Chattanooga who sees a home as the key to his personal freedom, manages to defeat the local government’s attempt to close College Hill Courts, his beloved public housing complex.

But beyond the warmth of their stories and their individual successes, Gottesdiener’s proposals for how to fight a housing system that seems determined to tear apart the dreams of poor black families are often deeply frustrating. Having laid bare what housing discrimination looks like, Gottesdiener then spends much of the latter half of her book trying to show how this system can be fought and, ultimately, beaten. But the tactics underpinning that war are confusing: a mix of bottom-up organizing, renovations on the cheap, and disruptive public disobedience.

More to the point, this is a book not only about the American foreclosure crisis, but also the Occupy movement, and how it was the only group enlightened enough to see the truth about America’s systematic marginalization of its weakest. The fight against foreclosure, Gottesdiener suggests, perhaps finds a natural home in a movement that was founded on the central premise that the American banking industry is deeply corrupt.

Gottesdiener herself was an active member in the New York City chapter of Occupy, and the personal stories she includes in “A Dream Foreclosed” are not simply telling accounts of people who have fallen victim to banking foreclosure. They are all also designed to be paeans to the successes of Occupy and its tactics. But though Gottesdiener is quick to claim public opinion for her side, such a claim is dubious. Her account is littered with sweeping statements: the Bank of New York Mellon, for example, is bluntly described as being “despised in Detroit”, without any substantiation for such a claim. Similar exhortations that Occupy speaks for an amorphous “community” litter the book, and Gottesdiener uses phrases like “the 99%” to stake out an assumed moral high ground. One suspects merely purporting to speak for everyone is much easier than actually convincing people that your political position is one they should support.

The book is also shoddily researched, and serves to undermine the claims she is making about the national housing industry. Gottesdiener has never lived in any of the four cities portrayed in the book, and her unfamiliarity with the local conditions is apparent. Portions of the book set in Chicago are egregiously wrong. She states that Cabrini-Green’s future was threatened by its potential redevelopment into student housing by the University of Chicago, half a city away. Woodlawn is depicted only as a hellhole of unremitting violence, shorn of any redeeming qualities. A citation supporting the notion that Mayor Emanuel has spent $4 million tearing down 200 vacant properties bizarrely links to an article about Occupy Auckland in the New Zealand Herald. The book is published by Zuccotti Park Press, an outfit that describes itself on its website as being driven by “the advocacy of social change.” This is a polemical work whose main purpose is to sustain an attack on the financial industry, and that ideological slant comes at the expense of the facts.

Lastly, her remedies appear frightfully fringe. Her most well-developed argument centers on a tactic she calls “eviction blockades,” where activists forcibly attach themselves to their homes. She admiringly, and graphically, describes how the act of chaining one’s own neck to a structure with a bicycle U-lock is coming increasingly into vogue. “Hard lockdowns are not for the faint of heart,” she writes, noting that police have to drill just inches from the neck with diamond saws to extricate protestors. It’s unclear what emotional outbursts in this vein are meant to accomplish.

Gottesdiener vividly illustrates a modern fracture in the leftist coalition, as these portions of the young and minority population in the United States see government not as a the means for a Great Society but as something irreparably hostile to equality. This leads them to forsake mainstream politics entirely, and it is telling that Occupy has not made any inroads in electing candidates that are friendly to their ideas at the municipal, state, or federal level.

Rather than being content with achieving minor victories that fail to alter the basic calculus of this system, activists like Gottesdiener would perhaps be better served attempting to reform government itself. Politics, after all, is the strong and slow boring of hard boards, rather than the capture of sensational, and fleeting, headlines. With its heft and resources, only organized government can bring about change in a societal problem that appears as intractable as discriminatory housing practices, to ensure that predatory loan servicers can no longer victimize humble families like those presented to us in this book.

Yet the first half of “A Dream Foreclosed” is excellent, and Gottesdiener presents us with sufficiently robust evidence for the notion that lending practices, since at least the 1990s, have in fact conspired to ruin the lives of millions of black Americans like the four she profiles. But without a realistic method for undoing such misdeeds, well-intentioned efforts like “A Dream Foreclosed” cannot hope to find a way in which this basic human right can truly be protected.

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