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Cabrini-Green (46525 hits)


Background and Summary

Cabrini-Green is a Chicago Housing Authority public housing development on Chicago's North Side. It’s bordered by Evergreen Avenue, Sedgwick Street, Division Street and Larrabee Street. At its peak, Cabrini-Green was home to 15,000 people who were living in the mid- and high-rise apartment buildings. Over the years, gang violence and neglect created terrible conditions for the residents, and the name "Cabrini-Green" became synonymous with the problems associated with public housing in the United States.

As of 2007, fewer than 5,000 residents remain in Cabrini-Green. Most of the buildings have been razed and the whole neighborhood is being redeveloped into a combination of high-rise buildings and row houses, with the stated goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood with some units reserved for public housing tenants. Controversy has been created by the ways the plans have been implemented.

Cabrini-Green was composed of four sections built over a 20-year period: the Frances Cabrini row houses in 1942, Cabrini Extension North and Cabrini Extension South in 1958 and lastly, the William Green Homes in 1962. The construction reflected the "urban renewal" approach to U.S. city planning in the mid-20th century. The extension buildings were known as the "reds," for their red brick exteriors, while the William Green homes, with reinforced concrete exteriors, were known as the "whites." Many of the high-rise buildings originally had exterior porches called "open galleries." According to the CHA, the early residents of the Cabrini row houses were of predominantly Italian ancestry. By 1962, however, a majority of residents in the completed complex were African-American. White flight from the complex escalated over the following decade; by the 1970s, its population was almost entirely black.

Neglecting the Problems

Poverty and organized crime have long been associated with the area. A 1931 Map of Chicago's Gangland created by Bruce-Roberts, Inc. considers the intersection of Locust and Sedgwick Avenues as “death corner." Allegedly, as many as 50 murders have taken place at that street corner alone. At first, the housing was integrated and many residents held jobs. This changed in the years after World War II, when the nearby factories that provided the neighborhood's economic base closed and laid-off thousands. At the same time, the cash-strapped city began withdrawing crucial services like police patrols, transit services, and routine building maintenance. Lawns were paved over to save on maintenance, burnt-out street lights were left for months and apartments damaged by fire were simply boarded up instead of rehabilitated and reoccupied. Later phases of public housing development, such as the William Green homes, the newest of the Cabrini-Green buildings, were built on notoriously stingy budgets, having problems with construction quality and durability.

As a result, the houses became neglected, and there was an exodus of residents who had any kind of resources or options. Only the most marginalized and destitute residents or those still involved in the development's lucrative drug trade, remained. Such a resource-poor population could not effectively exert political pressure on the city, so the city increasingly neglected its obligations to those residents. Unlike many of the city's other public housing projects, such as Rockwell Gardens or the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green was situated in an extremely affluent part of the city. The poverty-stricken projects were actually situated at the meeting point of Chicago's two wealthiest neighborhoods: Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Less than a mile to the east sits Chicago’s widely-known Michigan Avenue with its expensive shopping and high-profile condos.

Meanwhile, the buildings' proximity to affluent areas made Cabrini-Green a lucrative site for illicit drug sales; in the absence of other employment opportunities, intense competition in this underground economy fostered gang formation and violence. Specific gangs “controlled” individual buildings, and residents felt pressure to ally with these gangs in order to protect them from escalating violence. During the worst years of Cabrini-Green's miseries, residents endured rat and cockroach infestations, rotting garbage in trash chutes, the stench of urine and insecticide in hallways, malfunctioning elevators, graffiti on walls, as well as problems with basic utilities, such as bursting pipes. On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas on the façade, and pavement instead of green space—all in the name of economizing on maintenance—created an atmosphere of neglect and decay. The high porches proved to be dangerous, and for safety reasons, the CHA enclosed the entire height of the buildings with steel fencing to prevent residents from falling or being thrown off. This gave the entire housing project the appearance of being a large prison or animal cage, which further angered and embarrassed community leaders.

Active Tenants

In response to these problems, residents have organized over the years both to pressure the city for assistance and to protect and support each other. In 1996, tenant activists had a new challenge when the government mandated the destruction of 18,000 units of public housing in Chicago, along with tens of thousands of other units nationwide. In response, some Cabrini-Green tenants organized to protect themselves from becoming homeless and to protect what they and their supporters see as a right to public housing for the city's poorest residents. The residents succeeded in obtaining a consent decree guaranteeing that some buildings will remain standing while the new structures are built, so that tenants can remain in their homes until new ones are available. The document also guarantees displaced Cabrini residents a home in the new neighborhood.

Further, in 2004, a tenant group sued the housing authority over relocation plans for displaced residents of Cabrini-Green under the city's Plan for Transformation, a $1.4 billion blueprint for public housing renewal. Richard Wheelock, an attorney representing the tenants, said the authority's demolition program had outpaced its reconstruction program, thus leaving families with few options beyond similarly or identically dangerous and segregated areas elsewhere in the city. People were simply being forced out of the residences and becoming homeless.

The Neighborhood with the Worst Reputation

Though Chicago has had many ill-fated public housing projects, including the Robert Taylor Homes and the Stateway Gardens on the south side of the city, Cabrini-Green's name and its problems were the most publicized, especially beyond Chicago. The widespread familiarity may have developed in part because Cabrini-Green was surrounded by wealthy neighborhoods. As a result of this location, wealthy Chicagoans were more aware of Cabrini-Green than they were of other projects that were farther removed from their view and daily routes of travel.

Several infamous incidents contributed to Cabrini-Green's reputation. In 1992, 7-year old Dantrell Davis was killed by a stray bullet while walking to school with his mother. In 1997, 9-year-old "Girl X," as she was dubbed at the time and whose real name was Shatoya Currie, was brutally raped and poisoned in a stairwell, leaving her blind, paralyzed and mute. Members of the infamous street gang, the Gangster Disciples, who controlled most of Cabrini-Green, were ordered by the gang's leaders to find the person responsible for the crime and brutally assault him. Currie’s attacker, Patrick Sykes, who was not a gang member, was later apprehended by police and sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Cabrini-Green was so feared by the police during the 1990s that many refused to go into the complex for fear of their own lives. Several Chicago police officers had reported that once inside the complex, they were verbally abused, spit at, had rocks smashed through their cars and many had been shot. Also, an unanticipated result of the steel fencing installed to secure the previously open porches was that it became difficult for police to see through the steel mesh from outside; in 1970, two police officers were killed by snipers set off from within the neighborhood compounds.

In an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, then Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into a fourth-floor apartment in 1981. Though she was backed by police and bodyguards, she stayed for only three weeks. This event, too, contributed to public perception of Cabrini-Green as the worst of the worst of public housing in the entire nation. While many non-residents regarded Cabrini-Green with almost unalloyed horror, long-term residents interviewed by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2004 described mixed feelings about the end of the Cabrini-Green era.  They told the reporter that, in the face of their shared hardships, many residents had developed bonds of community and mutual support. They lamented the uprooting and scattering of that community and worried about what would become of the residents who were being moved out of the old buildings to make way for new development.

Starting Over

The CHA, under a ten-year Plan for Transformation enacted in 2000, plans to demolish almost all of its high-rise public housing, including much of Cabrini-Green (except the original row houses, which will remain). By the 1990s, developers had converted thousands of acres of former industrial lands near the north branch of the Chicago River and directly north, south, and west of Cabrini-Green to office, retail, and housing. Speculators began purchasing property immediately adjacent to Cabrini-Green, with the expectation that the project would eventually be demolished.

Finally, in May of 1995, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took over management of the CHA and almost immediately began demolishing vacant "reds" buildings of the Cabrini extension intending to make Chicago a showpiece of a new, mixed-income approach to public housing. Shortly thereafter, in June 1996, the city of Chicago and the CHA unveiled the Near North Redevelopment Initiative, which called for new development on and around the Cabrini-Green site. Demolition of the Cabrini extension was completed in 2002. Part of the site was added to Seward Park, and construction of new, mixed-income housing on the remainder of the site began in 2006.

The number of people actually living in Cabrini-Green currently is down to less than 5,000, plus an unknown number of squatters occupying "vacant" apartments that are slated for demolition. New housing built on the 70-acre Cabrini-Green site will include 30 percent public-housing replacement homes and 20 percent "workforce affordable" housing, while many adjacent developments, almost all targeted at luxury buyers, include 20 percent affordable housing, half targeted as public-housing replacement, with a goal of 505 replacement units built off-site.

The Plan for Transformation's relocation process was the subject of a lawsuit, Wallace v. Chicago Housing Authority, which alleged that many residents were hastily forced into substandard, "temporary" housing in other slums, did not receive promised social services during or after the move, and were often denied the promised opportunity to return to the redeveloped sites. The lawsuit was settled in June 2006, as the parties agreed to two relocation programs for current and former CHA residents: First, CHA’s current relocation program, encouraging moves to racially integrated areas of metropolitan Chicago and providing for case-managed social services, would be applied to families initially moving from public housing; and second, an agreed-upon modified program run by CHA’s voucher administrator, CHAC Inc., would encourage former CHA residents to relocate to economically and racially integrated communities as well as give them increased access to social services.

Crime has dramatically decreased as the area's population has shifted. In the first half of 2006, only one murder occurred. Since most of the new housing post-dates 2000, no census figures are yet available, but the area is no longer predominantly Black. As of July of 2006, foundations are being built at Parkside, the first development on former public housing land. Demolition of Cabrini-Green continues slowly and is expected to be completed by late 2008. Plaintiffs in Wallace and others allege that CHA's hasty removal of residents has exacerbated socioeconomic and racial segregation, homelessness, and other social ills that the Plan for Transformation aimed to address by forcing residents to less-visible but still impoverished neighborhoods, largely on the south and west sides of the city.

 Cabrini-Green in Pop Culture

  • The 1975 film Cooley High was set in and around the Cabrini-Green projects, though primarily filmed at another Chicago-area housing project. The actual Edward J. Cooley High School was located on the 800 block of West Scott Street in Chicago and was demolished in the late 1970s. The area around the former Cooley High School is, as of 2007, zoned to Lincoln Park High School.

  • Cabrini-Green was the setting for the film Candyman, a 1992 horror film based on a story by Clive Barker. The film chronicles the legendary life of the infamous Candyman (played by Tony Todd), a Black man who was brutally killed because of a love affair with the daughter of a local (and white) plantation owner. In the film, Candyman was killed at the site on which the future Cabrini-Green would be built (though this plot line would later be changed in the sequel), and within the film the residents of the housing project are under his sway, though most consider him nothing more than a figment of the collective imagination. The main character, Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen), was researching the urban legend of Candyman and her journey took her to Cabrini-Green, though the housing project was only used for long distance and aerial shots according to online trivia of the film.

  • Danitra Vance, Saturday Night Live's first black female repertoire player (first appearing in the show's 1985-1986 season), had a recurring character named Cabrini-Green Jackson, a poor, black, teenage mother who acted as a motivational speaker to young, unwed mothers.

  • The sitcom Good Times (1974-1979) was ostensibly set in Cabrini-Green. Although Cabrini-Green was never mentioned by name as the housing project in which the Evans family of Good Times lived, exterior shots of Cabrini-Green were shown in both the opening and closing credits sequences of the sitcom.

  • In the latter half of the 1980's, the backstory of DC Comics character Amanda Waller, leader of the third incarnation of the Suicide Squad was initially tied specifically to Cabrini-Green.

  • The 1994 film Hoop Dreams chronicles the life of Cabrini-Green youth William Gates (along with Garfield Park resident Arthur Agee) in pursuit of his dreams to someday play in the NBA.

  • In the sitcom The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006), Bernie's two nieces and nephew Vanessa, Bryana, and Jordan Tompkins lived in Cabrini-Green with their mom before they moved in with Bernie and Wanda.

  • In the 1999 film Whiteboyz, a group of white hip-hop fans from Iowa come to Cabrini-Green to buy drugs.

  • The book Cabrini-Green in Words and Pictures (compiled by David T. Whitaker, 2000) tells the story of this community from the perspective of those who lived there. Through interviews with three generations of residents, young and old share thoughts and memories of a place they called home.

  • In the 2001 Film Hardball, an aimless young man (played by Keanu Reeves) struggles with alcoholism, gambling and ticket scalping. Desperate for cash, he secures a loan from an acquaintance by agreeing to coach the Little League team of the Cabrini Green. His new job gives him purpose and he starts to turn his life around.

  • The 1990 futuristic fictional comic book series Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons begins in Cabrini-Green. As of the opening of the story in 1995 the neighborhood has already been enclosed in a gigantic walled and roofed structure, turning it into a prison for its impoverished residents, reflecting the decision to enclose several buildings in steel mesh. The enclosure is demolished years later by direct order of Howard Nissen, the future United States President, who does so after being informed of the horrible living conditions by the story's protagonist, Martha Washington, who grew up there.

  • The 1999 documentary, Voices of Cabrini: Rebuilding Chicago's Public Housing (by Ronit Bezalel and Antonio Ferrera) is a half-hour look at the redevelopment/demolition of Cabrini through the stories of its residents. The film interviews resident Mark Pratt and his son Trevonte. In addition, Cabrini Green Barber George Robbins is also interviewed and eventually has to move out of the community.

  • In Alex Ross's Kingdom Come miniseries, he created a background character named Kabrini, a green monster in chains whose name is basically a joke referring to Cabrini-Green.

    Sources:; Chicago Housing Authority website "Cabrini-Green Homes;” Saulny, Susan. "At Housing Project, Both Fear and Renewal". New York Times March 18, 2007; Gottfried, Keith E. "Remarks of the Honorable Keith E. Gottfried, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development." Presentation at the Multi-Housing World Conference and Expo, September 21, 2006. Page 3; Schmich, Mary. "Buildings stand because a leader stood her ground" Chicago Tribune Web Edition July 9, 2004; Chicago-Kent College of Law. "Media Advisories" February 28, 2005; THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS vs PATRICK SYKES Circuit Court of Cook County case No. 1-01-2942. June 30, 2003; Schmich, Mary. "Future closes in on Cabrini" Chicago Tribune Web Edition July 4, 2004; Business and Professional People for the Public Interest website. "Public Housing Transformation: Physical Planning, Relocation, Social Services, and Mobility Counseling Families Left Behind;" National Center on Poverty Law. Poverty Law Library. "Wallace v. Chicago Housing Authority: Chicago Housing Authority and Housing Advocates Settle Lawsuit over Resident Relocation."

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Wednesday, January 23rd 2008 at 9:33AM
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Very interesting. I have always been terribly intrigued and horrified by the conditions in this housing (if you can call it that) development. I have read everything I could on it I think. I wish I could talk with people that lived there and people who are involved with the new development. I have heard conflicting opinions on the new development going up on the grounds. I think CG sounds like a terrible place, but also one of familiarity after a while I suppose. Stockholm syndrome?

I am white, but I believe these ghettos are absolutely designed to 'hold' African Americans in 'their place'. Wanna get out? Work like a dog and maybe you will. But probably not. We wouldn't have allowed that to happen to white people. Not to that magnitude. I think of it this way. It reminds me of the movie "A Time To Kill" with Samuel Jackson and Matthew McConaughy­. Matthew gets the jury to close their eyes when they are thinking of Jackson's daughter being savagely murdered and they are about to let her killers go free. And Matthew says to them, "Now close your eyes... and pretend she's white." Ohh, the jurors say, now we get it. Too bad human beings have to think of someone having the same history and value system in order to be compassionate.

Tuesday, February 8th 2011 at 4:24PM
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