Documenting the Rise and Fall of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects

A new film traces the history of America’s most famous—and infamous—housing projects.

Maya Dukmasova

In the first decade of the 21st century, as the red and white buildings disappeared from the 70 acres of land between Wells St. and the Chicago River, tens of thousands of people were displaced away from the area.

From the moment it was com­plet­ed, the pub­lic hous­ing devel­op­ment known as Cabri­ni-Green has been cap­tured in still and mov­ing pic­tures. The devel­op­ment was not only icon­ic to Chica­go, but a sym­bol of pub­lic hous­ing all over the coun­try, from its hope-filled foun­da­tion to its con­tentious demolition. 

The projects weren’t supposed to be a place where you lived in the past. They were designed as temporary waystations to permanent homes, built on the cheap, meant at first for high turnover and later for warehousing a population that wasn’t wanted anywhere else. But even as more and more families became stuck in the projects for lack of better housing opportunities, Cabrini-Green and other developments became home over time.

Eng­lish-born film­mak­er Ronit Beza­lel arrived in Chica­go from Cana­da in the 1990s and began film­ing at Cabri­ni-Green almost imme­di­ate­ly. Her first movie, a 30-minute doc­u­men­tary called Voic­es of Cabri­ni (1999) cap­tures the devel­op­ment at the start of the decade of demo­li­tions that would rad­i­cal­ly reshape the city’s phys­i­cal and social land­scape. This month, Beza­lel is screen­ing a fea­ture-length fol­low-up, 70 Acres in Chica­go: Cabri­ni Green, a film that both tells the his­to­ry of the development’s birth and shows us the 20-year meta­mor­pho­sis of the neigh­bor­hood from the City’s worst fear to its desired vision of itself.

The sto­ry of Cabri­ni-Green begins in in 1941, with the con­struc­tion of the Frances Cabri­ni Homes, also known as the Cabri­ni Row­hous­es. These two-sto­ry beige brick build­ings can still be seen in their neat rows as one dri­ves down Chica­go Avenue toward the Chica­go River. 

Built for war work­ers, the Row­hous­es were the first inte­grat­ed pub­lic hous­ing project in the city. But the land where they were erect­ed was not vacant and the peo­ple who moved into the 586 apart­ments were not the poor­est of the poor. Before the CHA began its con­struc­tion this part of town was known as Lit­tle Hell — a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Sicil­ian neigh­bor­hood with shod­dy hous­ing stock and ram­pant crime. 

As MIT Urban Design and Plan­ning pro­fes­sor Lawrence Vale chron­i­cles in his book Purg­ing the Poor­est, the build­ing of pub­lic hous­ing in this neigh­bor­hood was adver­tised as a way to uplift the poor entrapped in its insalu­bri­ous ten­e­ments. In the end, how­ev­er, the new pub­lic hous­ing wasn’t real­ly for them. They were con­sid­ered to be too poor and moral­ly degen­er­ate to be entrust­ed with the nice, new apart­ments. Instead, the Chica­go Hous­ing Author­i­ty pop­u­lat­ed its projects with reli­ably employed fam­i­lies who, with the Authority’s strict super­vi­sion and assis­tance, took good care of the build­ings and did not linger long. No one knows what hap­pened to the slum dwellers of Lit­tle Hell; any fight against the city’s dev­as­ta­tion of their neigh­bor­hood and way of life went undocumented.

The post-war con­struc­tion and pop­u­la­tion boom brought a dire need for afford­able hous­ing and CHA soon expand­ed its foot­print in the old slums west of the Gold Coast by build­ing mid- and high-rise projects. In 1955, when con­struc­tion on the Cabri­ni Exten­sion — the 15 red-brick build­ings between Chica­go and Divi­sion — began, the Row­hous­es were no longer as diverse as they once were and the new build­ings were filled most­ly with work­ing black fam­i­lies. This trend con­tin­ued as the last part of the devel­op­ment — the 8 white build­ings of the William Green Homes, north of Divi­sion — were com­plet­ed in 1962

By the mid-1960s, CHA projects across the city were hous­ing almost exclu­sive­ly African-Amer­i­cans. But the seg­re­ga­tion embod­ied by these build­ings and spurred on by bet­ter, sub­ur­ban hous­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for whites, was not yet cou­pled with dev­as­tat­ing pover­ty. The pop­u­lar notion of the projects as hous­ing for the poor­est of the poor, as ware­hous­es of mis­ery and pathol­o­gy, did not begin to take hold until the ear­ly 1970s.

For Chicagoans who knew and lived in pub­lic hous­ing in those years, 1968 was a turn­ing point — par­tic­u­lar­ly for Cabri­ni-Green. After the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King, riot­ing broke out across the city and was strict­ly con­fined by police to the African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods. This cor­don­ing off, as Vale notes in his book, was par­tic­u­lar­ly strict­ly enforced around Cabri­ni, due to its prox­im­i­ty to the wealthy, white lake­front neigh­bor­hoods. Cabri­ni-Green, which had always been sur­round­ed by a vari­ety of busi­ness­es and ameni­ties, emerged from the riots as a shad­ow of its for­mer self. 

The dev­as­ta­tion of the neigh­bor­hood econ­o­my was close­ly tailed by a series of fed­er­al hous­ing pol­i­cy reforms which were intend­ed to pri­or­i­tize pub­lic hous­ing access for the poor­est — sin­gle moth­ers on wel­fare and the home­less. Though well-inten­tioned, these reforms sharply reduced rental income for the CHA, an agency already plagued by man­age­r­i­al and fis­cal incom­pe­tence. Thus, just as the most dis­ad­van­taged Chicagoans began mov­ing into pub­lic hous­ing in ever larg­er num­bers, the man­age­ment of the prop­er­ties was for­sak­en. Garbage shoots were over­fill­ing and incin­er­a­tors break­ing less than a mile away in the lux­u­ry con­do­mini­ums, too. But at Cabri­ni-Green, no one was com­ing to fix them.

Left to their own devices the res­i­dents — over­whelm­ing­ly chil­dren and teens — orga­nized, gov­erned, and cared for them­selves the best way they knew how. Drug deal­ers preyed on the young, gangs took hold of pub­lic spaces. After two cops were killed by a sniper in the devel­op­ment in 1970, the project’s noto­ri­ety grew and the City gave up treat­ing its res­i­dents like cit­i­zens alto­geth­er. One-sixth of the development’s pop­u­la­tion moved out by 1971

Around the same time, spurred by over­whelm­ing­ly neg­a­tive local media atten­tion, Cabri­ni-Green gained a broad­er cul­tur­al cur­ren­cy in fic­tion­al­ized por­tray­als such as the TV sit­com Good Times and the film Coo­ley High. In 1992 these depic­tions hit a ter­ri­fy­ing nadir in Can­dy­man, a hor­ror film set in Cabri­ni-Green. Direc­tor Bernard Rose said that he chose the loca­tion because it was a place of such pal­pa­ble fear.” An irra­tional fear, he admit­ted, a fear of out­siders towards African-Amer­i­cans and the poor.

Ray­mond McDon­ald, who is a cen­tral char­ac­ter in Bezalel’s 70 Acres grew up know­ing this fear and see­ing it shape his world. His neigh­bor­hood had a neg­a­tive stig­ma to it — don’t go there: killers, rob­bers, black peo­ple,” he said at a recent screen­ing of Bezalel’s first film. 

Through­out 70 Acres we watch McDon­ald watch the neigh­bor­hood he knows and loves give way to a new com­mu­ni­ty designed to exclude him. In the mid-90s the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed a new pro­gram that gave local hous­ing author­i­ties mil­lions of dol­lars to demol­ish severe­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed pub­lic hous­ing build­ings and build new homes in their stead. Much like the projects were in their ear­ly years, these new com­mu­ni­ties were premised on the idea of uplift­ing the poor. How­ev­er, hav­ing giv­en up on the idea that archi­tec­ture and design could save the poor from their pover­ty, plan­ners and politi­cians turned to the con­cepts of mixed-income hous­ing.” The thing that would sure­ly save the poor, they thought, was prox­im­i­ty to rich­er neighbors.

Cabri­ni-Green was the first site of this exper­i­ment, but by the ear­ly 2000s it was tak­en to scale across Chica­go under May­or Richard M. Daley’s $1.5 bil­lion Plan for Trans­for­ma­tion. The footage in 70 Acres book­ends this tumul­tuous peri­od for the city’s poor­est res­i­dents. It begins at the begin­ning, as the first of the Cabri­ni-Green high-ris­es are torn down in 1995 and ends at the end, when the last of Chicago’s pub­lic hous­ing tow­ers, Cabrini-Green’s 1230 N. Burl­ing is demolished. 

At the start of the film, the film’s crew cap­tures live­ly scenes at com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings as city lead­ers pitched their vision of the future while pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents respond­ed with skep­ti­cism and dis­be­lief. They had a feel­ing that what was com­ing to uplift” wasn’t real­ly meant for them.

This new com­mu­ni­ty is not about exclu­sion, it’s not about kick­ing every­body out,” says a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from May­or Daley’s office, show­ing ren­der­ings of the future of the neigh­bor­hood — town­homes and a con­do build­ing along a tree-lined street. We can’t afford that!” yells some­one from the audi­ence. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive tries to con­tin­ue his rehearsed speech despite grow­ing clam­or. I’m sick of oppres­sion and mov­ing black peo­ple out of these com­mu­ni­ties,” a woman says loudly.

At anoth­er meet­ing a com­mu­ni­ty activist crit­i­cizes a city offi­cial for not con­sult­ing with Cabri­ni-Green res­i­dents before launch­ing into demo­li­tions. She chas­tis­es the man for inter­rupt­ing her. You inter­rupt­ed a way of life over here lady!” he yells back.

As the demo­li­tions con­tin­ued through the ear­ly 2000s, large groups of res­i­dents marched, pick­et­ed, and even sued the city to win the right to take part in the plan­ning for the new neigh­bor­hood. But despite their efforts very few were able to return and live at the new mixed-income devel­op­ments that have been built in Near North. 

Just as Lit­tle Hell had been purged of its poor­est res­i­dents, so was the Cabri­ni-Green neigh­bor­hood. Only the choic­est fam­i­lies who met a strict set of require­ments were allowed to return to the new hous­ing with idyl­lic names like Park­side of Old Town. As one such res­i­dent, Deirdre Brew­ster puts it in 70 Acres, to come back to the com­mu­ni­ty you actu­al­ly have to be a nun. There’s no room for mess-ups. But I think it’s kind of dehumanizing.”

For Brew­ster the apart­ment at Park­side came at the expense of her rela­tion­ship with her eigh­teen-year-old daugh­ter. Because the girl had a mis­de­meanor on her record for a fight at school she could not be on Brewster’s lease. Guests at pub­lic hous­ing apart­ments in her com­mu­ni­ty were also strict­ly mon­i­tored. Brewster’s daugh­ter had to stay with rel­a­tives. God for­bid she ends up home­less,” Brew­ster says in the film, what am I sup­posed to do as a mom — not let her in?”

The idea of mixed-income hous­ing was part­ly inspired by archi­tec­tur­al New Urban­ism (which favored low-rise res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial archi­tec­ture woven into city street grids), and part­ly by neolib­er­al notions of com­pe­ti­tion and self-real­iza­tion. The poor would pick them­selves up out of pover­ty if they just lived next to more afflu­ent peo­ple who could offer them a pos­i­tive exam­ple of how to live and work, the rea­son­ing went. David Simon’s recent HBO minis­eries on Yonkers cap­tures how these ideas took hold of city plan­ners.

There was this whole belief that if so-called pub­lic hous­ing residents…move next door to such afflu­ent neigh­bors that would make them bet­ter peo­ple, which was very insult­ing,” says Brew­ster in 70 Acres.

McDon­ald is just fif­teen when he first appears in footage from 2007, but he is artic­u­late about what the loss of the pub­lic hous­ing build­ings means. May­or Daley is mov­ing us out to get a high­er class of peo­ple in,” he says. 

In an unex­pect­ed encounter, McDon­ald and his friends are able to speak to Daley direct­ly. How do you think we feel about the com­mu­ni­ty, the build­ings being torn down?” McDon­ald asks. Daley bum­bles, In the long run pub­lic high ris­es will be tak­en down all over the coun­try.” But McDonald’s friend press­es the may­or: If you grew up in Cabri­ni would you want them to take your memories?”

Daley wax­es poet­ic. Mem­o­ry always stays with­in the mind, but every com­mu­ni­ty changes. You can’t live in the past. No one lives in the past.” 

Liv­ing in the past. In Amer­i­can cul­ture this phrase sig­ni­fies a kind of back­ward­ness, some­thing anath­e­ma to the nation­al spir­it of progress. But if we’re talk­ing about quite lit­er­al­ly liv­ing in the past — liv­ing in fam­i­ly homes, neigh­bor­hoods where one is root­ed, much as the Daleys are in Bridge­port — it is a pleas­ant real­i­ty afford­ed to many wealthy and mid­dle class peo­ple. What was the point of build­ing sub­urbs if not to allow fam­i­lies to anchor them­selves to a piece of land, to live a life root­ed in space and time? After the Sec­ond World War the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment real­ized that liv­ing in and with the past is a great way to build a sta­ble soci­ety, to reduce the like­li­hood of social unrest by pin­ning peo­ple to homes they wouldn’t want to risk losing.

The projects weren’t sup­posed to be a place where you lived in the past. They were designed as tem­po­rary waysta­tions to per­ma­nent homes, built on the cheap, meant at first for high turnover and lat­er for ware­hous­ing a pop­u­la­tion that wasn’t want­ed any­where else. But even as more and more fam­i­lies became stuck in the projects for lack of bet­ter hous­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, Cabri­ni-Green and oth­er devel­op­ments became home over time. 

This is what McDon­ald felt acute­ly as he reflect­ed on the loss of his com­mu­ni­ty. Gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies lived there and built their mem­o­ries in those apart­ments despite the vio­lence, dete­ri­o­ra­tion, and stig­ma sur­round­ing their neigh­bor­hoods. Lest one think they had no right to do so on the pub­lic dime, it is worth remem­ber­ing that the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans did so as well, out in the sub­urbs, sub­si­dized by gov­ern­ment-insured mort­gages and tax deductions. 

But the loss of com­mu­ni­ty is not the only thing to lament as we con­sid­er the demise of Cabri­ni-Green. As Chica­go gave up on its pub­lic hous­ing so too did it give up on the idea of pro­vid­ing per­ma­nent­ly afford­able homes. Of course the polit­i­cal cli­mate had changed dras­ti­cal­ly since the New Deal, and those in pow­er were not inter­est­ed in this mis­sion any­more. But the rea­sons for the shift were and con­tin­ue to be repeat­ed like a mantra — we tried this and it didn’t work. The answer sug­gest­ed by the col­lu­sive forces of elect­ed offi­cials, financiers, and devel­op­ers was that pri­vate enti­ties would do a bet­ter job of build­ing and man­ag­ing hous­ing for the poor. 

The fact is, though, that the CIty nev­er real­ly tried to make it work. Else­where in the coun­try, such as New York, where pub­lic hous­ing has always been seen by the author­i­ties as a neces­si­ty and a pub­lic good, it has worked. While it has not been with­out its prob­lems, New York’s pub­lic hous­ing, con­sist­ing of 2,600 most­ly high-rise build­ings (some taller than 25 floors) today hous­es some 400,000 res­i­dents in over 178,500 apart­ments . Mean­while, Chica­go failed to main­tain its prop­er­ties even though there were nev­er more than 40,000 apart­ments in the CHA’s care. The agency’s fail­ures were blamed on the residents.

Out­siders accused pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents of not tak­ing care of their homes, not car­ing about their com­mu­ni­ties. But pub­lic hous­ing devel­op­ments had tight net­works of social rela­tions, many inter­nal orga­ni­za­tions, sys­tems of liv­ing to com­bat the psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure of race and class-based stig­ma, to over­come the total aban­don­ment by city ser­vices and the preda­to­ry incur­sion of both gangs and police. Need­less to say, indi­vid­u­als’ main­te­nance of their homes in these devel­op­ments var­ied as much as they do any­where else. When these res­i­dents protest­ed their dis­place­ment from homes that had been hard won, the out­siders said they had no right to the hous­ing that was nev­er theirs to begin with.

The point that home could inspire both com­fort and fear, frus­tra­tion and joy, that, as Beza­lel puts it, Cabri­ni was fraught with con­tra­dic­tions like all places,” was lost on Daley and the Chicagoans who called relent­less­ly for the dis­man­tling of pub­lic hous­ing. It was assumed that the build­ings had no val­ue because they weren’t worth any­thing. And it was assumed, as soci­ol­o­gist Mary Patil­lo points out in the film, that the way poor peo­ple did things and what they val­ued was wrong. 

In the first decade of the 21st cen­tu­ry, as the red and white build­ings dis­ap­peared from the 70 acres of land between Wells St. and the Chica­go Riv­er, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple were dis­placed away from the area. One short­fall of the film is that we do not get to see what hap­pened to those who end­ed up with Sec­tion 8 vouch­ers instead of per­ma­nent hous­ing units — a fate that befell most high-rise project res­i­dents around the city as a result of the Plan for Trans­for­ma­tion. Those who did not leave Chica­go alto­geth­er end­ed up in poor, seg­re­gat­ed neigh­bor­hoods on the South and West sides where they could find land­lords to take their vouch­ers, or in the pau­per­iz­ing inner-ring sub­urbs. Mean­while, Near North has gen­tri­fied with the help of the mixed-income com­mu­ni­ties erect­ed in Cabrini-Green’s stead, and Beza­lel poignant­ly cap­tures this social transformation.

One white man from a mar­ket-rate home in the new neigh­bor­hood assumed that the peo­ple in sub­si­dized homes did not know how to earn a liv­ing, or be proud of your­self, and be proud of what you have.” Anoth­er was frus­trat­ed that they did not pay close enough atten­tion to the park­ing spot assign­ments. As more and more white peo­ple arrived in the area, Black res­i­dents were increas­ing­ly exclud­ed from parks and playgrounds. 

Cather­ine Crouch, the film’s edi­tor and writer, clev­er­ly jux­ta­pos­es scenes of class-cod­ed inter­ac­tions around pub­lic space. Par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing is footage of a sparse­ly attend­ed block par­ty orga­nized by mixed-income home­own­ers con­trast­ed with Cabri­ni Green reunion pic­nics which brought hun­dreds of peo­ple week­ly to Seward Park.

For most of its his­to­ry, peo­ple with cam­eras have not treat­ed Cabri­ni-Green kind­ly. Between lurid hor­ror film, and no-less lurid news footage, between real tragedies like the shoot­ing death of Dantrell Davis and the tragi­com­e­dy of Coo­ley High, this project became the dis­graced and dis­turb­ing image of pub­lic hous­ing in Amer­i­ca. The orga­niz­ing efforts, opin­ions, and aspi­ra­tions of its res­i­dents were lost among sen­sa­tion­al news accounts of their vio­lence and delin­quen­cy. Beza­lel, an out­sider not just to pub­lic hous­ing and to Chica­go, but to the coun­try, does not attempt to dimin­ish the suf­fer­ing and chaos res­i­dents endured. But she cap­tures them in con­text, in action, in rela­tion with a city that wants them gone and with a home that’s hard to let go. Like the dis­placed res­i­dents of Lit­tle Hell, the res­i­dents of Cabri­ni-Green are most­ly gone. But thanks to Bezalel’s doc­u­men­ta­tion efforts of the past 20 years, they will not be forgotten. 

Beza­lel is also striv­ing to make the film an occa­sion for the com­mu­ni­ty to engage in a dis­cus­sion about pub­lic hous­ing. There were pan­el dis­cus­sions with McDon­ald, Brew­ster, and the film’s writer and edi­tor Cather­ine Crouch at the first round of screen­ings in August. She has also brought her first film from the vault for a screen­ing and dis­cus­sion dur­ing the Archi­tec­ture Bien­ni­al. And, after com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers crit­i­cized the lack of ref­er­ences to the Row­house res­i­dents’ con­tin­ued legal fight to save their homes, added an epi­logue to 70 Acres.

70 Acres is not an exhaus­tive his­to­ry of Cabri­ni-Green, but it cov­ers as much ground as a one-hour film can. Espe­cial­ly to those audi­ences unfa­mil­iar with its his­to­ry, ithe film will be high­ly edu­ca­tion­al. For those who lived this his­to­ry, it is a record of their pres­ence on a land from which they have been erased. It reminds all of us that the attach­ment to home is a priv­i­lege in this coun­try, one that the poor are con­sid­ered to have no right to. 

70 Acres in Chica­go: Cabri­ni Green will be screen­ing at the Gene Siskel Film Cen­ter Novem­ber 13 – 19.

Maya Duk­maso­va is a writer based in Chica­go. She runs a blog devot­ed to pub­lic hous­ing issues and a sec­ond one for her dai­ly street pho­tog­ra­phy. Her arti­cles and trans­la­tions have appeared in Harper’s, Jacobin, the Chica­go Read­er, and the Chica­go Tri­bune. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @mdoukmas.
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