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Chicago Becomes a Test Case for Salvaging Urban Housing

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FEDERAL officials gauging the failure of Chicago public housing need only look into Dorothy Jackson's eyes.

They flit constantly, alert to the signs of gunfire in the glass- and litter-strewn compound where her grandchildren play.

Over the years, Mrs. Jackson has watched neglect and mismanagement transform the brick-walled project on Chicago's West Side into a vertical ghetto beset by poverty, drug dealing, and gang violence. The towering tenements are now emblematic of the worst public housing in America.

Jackson put up with mice, cockroaches, and overflowing toilets. But her resolve was shattered nine months ago when her grandson - an eighth-grade valedictorian who called her 'Mom' - was gunned down as he walked home from school. Now, Jackson says, she wants out.

''I just sit, look, and pray,'' says Jackson, sitting in the complex playground. ''I don't care if you've got gold dripping out of the sky onto these buildings. You couldn't pay me enough to stay here.''

Like Jackson, federal authorities found the situation intolerable. The steep decline of Chicago public housing, home to 86,000 of the city's poorest people, prompted a federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) a month ago.

Top US housing official Henry Cisneros called the CHA a ''miasma of physical decay and fiscal mismangement,'' where 58 percent of the 40,000 units are not fit to live in.

The federal bid to turn around the CHA - the largest takeover of its kind - has become a national test case of whether some of the country's most troubled public housing can be turned around.

It comes at a time when the federal approach to urban housing is undergoing perhaps its most radical overhaul in six decades, with more authority flowing to the local and grassroots level and with public assistance of all kinds being reduced.

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