Everyone felt that the ‘projects’ were just an experiment that failed… Everyone felt they were built for political reasons, and torn down for political reasons,” director and actor Kenny Young remarked in an interview a day before the premiere of his new documentary, They Don’t Give a Damn: The Story of the Failed Chicago Projects at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center this past Friday. The documentary is based on a book written by Chicago native Dr. Dorothy Appiah on the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) “projects” and their nebulous “Plan for Transformation” titled Where Will They Go?: Transforming Public Housing in the City of Chicago. The “Plan for Transformation” was a large-scale public housing restructuring undertaken by the CHA starting in 2000 that involved the demolition of many of the largest developments such as the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and most of Cabrini-Green.
Director and actor Kenny Young grew up in Morgan Park, “one block from the Jackie Robinson West Little League,” as he’ll proudly tell you. For most of his professional life, however, Young has lived and worked in Los Angeles working on narrative feature films as a writer, actor, and director.
In order to expand the reach of Appiah’s work, Young and his crew, including his LA producer Phil James as well as Chicago producer Karon Hamlet, set out to attempt to tell the story of the “projects” through the experiences of five women who appear in Appiah’s book. However, only three of them agreed, and Appiah, Young, and company decided to just interview everyone they could find. During the course of their research, they interviewed around forty-five different individuals connected in some concrete or tenuous way to the CHA developments or the Plan for Transformation, ultimately compiling thirty hours of interview footage that Young boiled down to the final 105-minute cut.
The appeal certainly seems substantive: the auditorium was so full that some audience members stood during the entire screening, even after rows of extra seating had been set up. A few employees from the National Public Housing Museum who showed up a little late couldn’t even get in and asked about future screening dates during the Q&A. Young and James promised that there would be screenings in the future, at festivals and in other forms, though they couldn’t say for certain where and when quite yet.
As UofC professor Jacqueline Stewart added in a Q&A session after the screening, the greatest strength of the documentary is the way that it manages to “live with many of the contradictions” surrounding discourse and opinion on the amorphous and vast public housing situation. Nearly the entire documentary utilizes the “talking head” format, allowing subjects to voice their own opinions relatively unhampered and enabling comments to contrast with each other rather than challenging them through the documentary mainstays of voice-over narration and factual exposition. The result is a swirling, dissonant muddle whose very triumph is its complexity.
This is not to imply that the documentary is unorganized or confusing in itself, however; the complexity occurs merely within the topic. Young and James insisted that the version of the film screened on Friday was still a rough cut, and at times the film’s unfinished status and low budget were obvious. However, any evident roughness didn’t detract much from the emotional impact of the juxtaposed interviews, which jumped from place to place, tracing the rise and fall of the CHA developments, as well as the dispersal of their tenants, in a relatively chronological fashion. Attempting to capture, as Young put it, “the experience of [the ‘projects’],” They Don’t Give a Damn articulates the impossibility of capturing one single narrative from so many unique experiences. It takes one massive high-rise monolith and illuminates the stories upon stories, rooms upon rooms that make up this imagined singularity.
The documentary is divided into sections, all bearing titles from comments made by interviewees, such as a “city within a city,” or “put on reservations.” The title, They Don’t Give a Damn, also tumbles out of the mouth of one interviewee near the beginning. This decision is telling, reflecting the course the filmmakers took throughout the project. Young mentioned in an interview, “When we started, we had one direct goal, one direct focus, but then people brought their own elements to it, so it grew into something we initially didn’t plan on.” As producer Phil James added during the Q&A session after the screening, that original goal was almost exclusively anti-CHA. After compiling hours of interviews, though, Young and James realized that the story was leading them somewhere else when their interviewees gave vastly diverse and sometimes conflicting opinions.
One perspective that inevitably came to the fore in the process of crafting the documentary was the filmmakers’ own bias toward the “projects” and CHA. Young noted, “I had some family members who lived in the ‘projects’ at the time. I grew up hearing horror stories. Even though they were my family members, I only remember maybe one time going to visit. So I grew up with a great bias against the ‘projects,’ …. When I started to work on the documentary and got the actual stories from the actual people who were displaced, it was really eye-opening.” Young asserted, however, “Eventually [my own bias] really helped me to humanize the entire thing from everyone’s perspective.”
And the documentary certainly doesn’t shy away from expressing controversial or painful opinions, made evident by the gasps and chuckles from the crowd, particularly when individuals expressed the opinion that the dispersal of tenants from the projects caused a supposed rise in crime and decline of stability in traditionally middle-class neighborhoods on the South Side like Chatham.
Throughout the documentary, the word “they” is repeated over and over again. It refers to the CHA, the tenants of public housing, the “projects” themselves, the Chicago city government, the rich, the poor, white people, black people. “They did it without any dignity, they did it without any remorse,” one interviewee said of the Plan for Transformation. It even shows up in the title of the documentary, They Don’t Give a Damn, and the title of the book on which it is based, Where Will They Go?.
The host of “they”s haunts the film and particularly in its interviewees’ attempts to articulate something clear and definitive about their own experiences with the CHA “projects.” This search mirrors one story that flashes briefly across the screen near the end of the documentary, in the section “Ain’t no structure.” The segment features interviews with multiple gang members, three younger men and one older, all with their faces covered and voices disguised. They argue for the necessity of the gang structure for survival in certain living situations, decrying its breakdown in their former haunts. They seem to believe that the creation of a “they” can be essential.
In contrast, the documentary, in its dissonance, its complexity, and expansive range, resists the idea of “them,” even if some of the people whose stories the documentary shares do not. They Don’t Give a Damn: The Story of the Failed Chicago Projects exists in this complex universe, and despite the title, it doesn’t tell the story — it tells stories.