Major: Political Science
Mentor: Jessi Quizar
Political Science major focuses her research on notorious public housing project, social justice
When public housing was first built in the Cabrini-Green development in Chicago, beginning in the 1940s, it offered low-income residents a safe, clean and affordable living situation. Over the years, Cabrini-Green grew to 3,600 public housing units with more than 15,000 residents. But by the 1980s, after years of neglect, Cabrini-Green became synonymous with crime, poverty, gang violence and terrible living conditions. The Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing the buildings in Cabrini-Green in 1995 and the last tower came down in 2011.
What happened next is the subject of sophomore Ayanna Desquitado’s current research. In a textbook case of gentrification, the poorer and predominately African-American residents were displaced by more affluent, mostly white residents as housing costs in the area soared. Desquitado’s research was inspired by her mentor, Jessi Quizar, NAU assistant professor of Ethnic Studies, whose work finds parallels between colonization and gentrification.
A Political Science major with a minor in Civic Engagement, Desquitado, who is passionate about social justice, was immediately interested in the project. Her research has involved reading about the history of the area—the bureaucratic and the human—and examining old photos.
“I read personal stories of people who lived in those public housing units,” she said. “And then I looked at the more historical side. And I studied the politics of why they decided to demolish Cabrini-Green, why gentrification took place afterwards, and what that looks like, physically, in the neighborhood.”
With the Jean Shuler Research Mini-Grant, Desquitado hopes to travel to Chicago to compare the reality of today’s Cabrini-Green area with historical photographs she has collected. She is especially interested in the community spaces that have been lost.
“My main goal is to show how dangerous gentrification can be and give people that visual aspect of it, while also showing the culture of those people who have now been displaced because of gentrification,” she said. “The pictures that I’m specifically looking at and trying to compare are cultural sites, mainly; I’m looking at elementary schools and parks and things like that.”
She is also examining the number of minorities, specifically African Americans, who were living in the area before gentrification, and comparing that to the number who live there today.
“Typically, white upper class or middleclass people moved into these areas and then poor black families had to move out because they can no longer afford the rent,” she said.
Desquitado plans to showcase her research at the virtual Undergraduate Symposium in April. She said she is grateful for the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate and the experience has her reassessing her professional aspirations.
“I have really enjoyed doing this research, and it’s given me an advantage because a huge part of political science is conducting this type of research,” she said. “It has led me into considering new career paths. As a poli sci major, I’ve always kind of just thought about being in government and just in politics in general, but now I’m thinking about maybe pursuing a career in academia.”