30 Years ago, a Young Barack Obama Saved a Poor Southside Chicago Project from Certain Death

by Sokolove Law

The 1980s: otherwise known as the “Me” decade. An era of glitz and glamour; of self-indulgence, materialism, and excess. But deep in the heart of south-side Chicago, the scene was anything but flashy. There sat Altgeld Gardens — one of the first public housing projects ever built in the United States. With crumbling foundation, cracked walls, and broken windows, the south-side projects were badly neglected and screaming for attention. A man, who would one day become the president of the United States, not only set out to tackle the problem head-on, he shed enormous light on the potential health hazard associated with the naturally-occurring fibrous mineral that haunted the buildings: asbestos.

His name? Barack Obama.

How a Decaying Altgeld Gardens Became a Deathtrap for Its Residents

The federal government built Altgeld Gardens in 1945 to create low-income housing for African American Army, Navy, and Marine veterans who were returning home from World War II. In spite of its flowery name, there were no gardens on the grounds. Instead, the complex consisted of 190 acres of low-rise brick apartments, schools, medical facilities, and a recreational sports center. Eleven years later, after the Chicago Housing Authority took over Altgeld in 1956, the project gradually became rundown and neglected.

By the 1980s, Altgeld residents had heard many empty promises of help, reform, reconstruction, and assistance. But none of that ever came true – not especially from the Reagan-run federal government. That is until one day a young Barack Obama – a recent graduate of Columbia University and a sharp-looking, strong-willed community organizer for Chicago’s Developing Communities Project – stepped in and decided to take action.

The Story at Altgeld – How Obama Built His Legacy

Obama had spent a lot of time working with people who lived in Altgeld Gardens. His initial focus in the complex was employment. Then, according to his memoir, Dreams from My Father, an Altgeld resident witnessed some specialized work going on inside of the management office. The resident, a woman named Yvonne Lloyd, went up to Obama and said, “…they’ve got white suits on and they’re doing something in the office.”

Obama and his team of community organizers at Altgeld questioned the workers. In Obama’s telling, he recounts, “We asked them what they were doing and they said, ‘We’re renovating.’ That didn’t sound right. Why would they be wearing all this gear if they were just renovating?”

They soon would learn: What the workers were really doing was removing asbestos.

A resident of Altgeld, a worried mother, turned to Barack Obama and asked: “Do you think it’s in our apartments, too?”

“I don’t know,” Obama replied. “But we can find out.”

But the facility was strapped for cash – and federal and state funding was not being allocated for fixing up housing projects like Altgeld. So, a then 24-year-old Barack Obama and other community organizers urged Altgeld residents to call and write the housing authority asking them to either test the apartments for asbestos or to show proof that they had been tested.

The housing authority ignored those requests until Obama’s group actually showed up to the headquarters with local news television cameras rolling. The strategy worked. The housing authority was pressured to cooperate and, sure enough, tests showed that Altgeld had asbestos-laden insulation – and a terrible asbestos problem. As a result, the housing authority paid for the asbestos to be removed — a cleanup project that took years to complete.

The Importance of Asbestos Removal and Obama’s Ensuing Commitment to Workplace Safety and Awareness

Since the 1980s, a lot of asbestos has been removed – or “abated” as it’s referred to in the industry – from buildings across the U.S., but there remains plenty more work to be done. When asbestos-containing construction materials or insulation deteriorate over time, or become disturbed or damaged, tiny asbestos fibers – which are incredibly dangerous – can be released into the air. These fibers can lodge themselves in the lining of one’s lungs, causing asbestos-related diseases and mesothelioma — a lethal cancer for which there is no cure.

Asbestos is so dangerous, that it even has a medical condition named after it: Asbestosis — which is a permanent and deadly scarring of the lung tissue. Most often, however, asbestos exposure is linked to mesothelioma, of which there are over 3,200 new cases annually. According to a CDC study, between 12,000 and 15,000 annual deaths can be traced back to asbestos as the root cause. Had Barack Obama and his team of community organizers not stepped in at Altgeld Gardens, and residents were thus continually exposed to asbestos on a daily basis over a period of years and years, there’s no telling how many people could’ve been exposed and how many people could’ve ultimately died.

Most people who suffer asbestos-related health problems were exposed to the mineral over long periods of time, such as workers in factories that manufacture asbestos-containing products. In the U.S. alone, officials estimate that, in total, as many as half of a million people have died from asbestos exposure since the 1960s. And because the U.S. still imports 2.3 million pounds of asbestos on a yearly basis, thousands of workers are still dying. Political action has been stymied due largely to the deep pockets of the companies in the asbestos industry and the amount of money spent lobbying members of Congress.

Workers Memorial Day 2016

In 2014, to honor those men and women who have been killed or injured due to unsafe working conditions, President Obama proclaimed April 28 as Workers Memorial Day — a day which is now fast approaching. In a statement, Obama said his administration stands behind a commitment to improve workplace safety standards, saying:

“We are helping employers provide safe workplaces and holding those who risk workers’ lives and health accountable.”

Asbestos removal and community action — these are just 2 of the prominent successes of Obama’s political legacy that have set a precedence for future leaders. With 2016 election season now fiercely underway, occupational safety and policy should undeniably be issues that are on U.S. voters’ minds – if nothing is done about the America’s age-old asbestos habit, thousands of men and women will needlessly continue to die.

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