Before I get down to the nitty gritty, I want to start off with a reference to my favorite movie, Cooley High the 1975 feature film produced and released by American International Pictures and written by Eric Monte (co-creator of Good Times).
Starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and featuring a Motown-produced soundtrack, Cooley High, set in 1964 Chicago, explores the adventures and relationships of two black high school students, whose carefree lives take a turn for the worse through several twists of fate.
The film is considered a classic of black cinema and features G.C. Cameron's hit single "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" as a theme song. "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" was covered in 1991 by Motown act Boyz II Men, who named their first LP, which contains the cover, Cooleyhighharmony in honor of this film.
ABC had planned a television adaptation. The pilot was poorly received, and ABC had Monte retool the show. As a result, Monte created the TV show What's Happening!!, which was loosely based on Cooley High and ran from 1976 to 1979.
Monte based the film on his experiences in the real-life Cooley High School that served students from the Cabrini-Green public housing projects in Chicago. While the film was set in and around the Cabrini-Green, it was primarily filmed at another Chicago-area housing project. He has said that he wrote the film to dispel myths about growing up in the projects: "I grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project and I had one of the best times of my life, the most fun you can have while inhaling and exhaling".
Cabrini-Green is a public housing development on Chicago's North Side, bordered by Evergreen Avenue, Sedgwick Street, Chicago Avenue, and Larrabee Street. At its height, Cabrini-Green was home to 20,000 people, living in 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.
Currently, fewer than 5,000 residents remain in Cabrini-Green. Several 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. The plan, and the way it is being implemented, has proven to be controversial.
Cabrini-Green was composed of four sections, built over a twenty-year period: the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses (1942), Cabrini Extension North and Cabrini Extension South (1958), and the William Green Homes (1962) (see Chronology below). The construction reflected the "urban renewal" approach to United States city planning in the mid-twentieth century. The Extension buildings were known as the "reds," for their red brick exteriors, while the Green Homes, with reinforced concrete exteriors, were known as the "whites." Many of the high-rise buildings originally had exterior porches (called "open galleries"). It is a popular destination for urban exploration.
According to the Chicago Housing Authority, the early residents of the Cabrini rowhouses were predominantly of 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 overwhelmingly black.
Poverty and organized crime have long been associated with the area: a 1931 "map of Chicago's gangland" by Bruce-Roberts, Inc. notes Locust & Sedgwick as "Death Corner": "50 murders: count 'em." 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, failed 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 Green Homes, the newest of the Cabrini-Green buildings) were built on notoriously stingy budgets, with attendant problems with construction quality and durability.
As a result, the buildings are very dangerous and neglected, and there was an exodus of residents who had any resources or options. Only the most marginalized and destitute residents remained. Such a resource-poor population could not effectively exert political pressure on the city, so the city increasingly neglected its obligations to residents.
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. Reportedly, specific gangs 'controlled' individual buildings, and residents felt pressure to ally with these gangs in order to protect themselves from escalating violence.
During the worst years of Cabrini-Green's miseries, residents endured rat and cockroach infestations, rotting garbage in trash chutes (once piled up to the 15th floor), the stench of urine and insecticide in hallways, malfunctioning elevators, graffiti on walls, as well as problems with basic utilities, such as frequently 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 "open galleries" proved to be dangerous, and the Housing Authority for safety reasons enclosed the entire height of the buildings with a steel mesh, which increased the perception that the residents were imprisoned. (page3)
Though Chicago has had many ill-fated public housing projects (such as the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side and Rockwell Gardens to the west), Cabrini-Green's name and its problems were most well-known, especially beyond Chicago.
The widespread familiarity may have developed in part because Cabrini-Green was surrounded by wealthy neighborhoods, notably the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park just blocks away. Reportedly, residents of Gold Coast high-rise condos could see the flash of gunfire in Cabrini-Green. Oak Street, one of the city's most posh shopping streets, came to a dead end at the doorstep of the project. 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 daily routes of travel and activity.
Several infamous incidents contributed to Cabrini-Green's reputation. In 1992, seven-year old Dantrell Davis was killed by a stray bullet while walking to school with his mother. In 1997, nine-year-old "Girl X" (later identified as Toya Currie) was brutally raped and poisoned in a stairwell, leaving her blind, paralyzed and unable to speak. Members of the infamous street gang, the Gangster Disciples, who controlled most of Cabrini Green, were ordered by leaders to find the person responsible for the crime and brutally assault him. The 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 90's that many refused to go into the complex for fear of their lives. Several Chicago Police had reported that once inside the project they had been verbally abused, spit at, some had rocks smashed through their cars, and many others had been shot..
An unanticipated result of the steel mesh (described above) was that it became even harder to police the buildings, since it was difficult for police to see through the steel mesh from outside; in 1970, two policemen were killed by snipers.
In an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into a fourth-floor apartment in 1981. Backed by police and bodyguards, she stayed for only three weeks. This incident, too, contributed to public perception of Cabrini-Green as the worst of the worst of public housing.
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.
Recent history and future plans
The Chicago Housing Authority, 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 rowhouses, which will remain).
While Cabrini-Green was deteriorating during the postwar era, causing industry, investment, and residents to flee from its immediate surroundings, the rest of Chicago's near north side underwent equally dramatic upward changes in socioeconomic status. Cabrini-Green's location became increasingly desirable to private developers.
First, downtown employment shifted dramatically from manufacturing to professional services, spurring increased demand for middle-income housing; the resulting gentrification spread north along the lakefront from the Gold Coast, then pushed west and eventually crossed the river.
Then, in the 1980s, the Lower North Side industrial area (just across the river from the Loop, west of famed Michigan Avenue, and south of Cabrini-Green) was transformed into "River North," a focus of arts and entertainment.
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.
Indeed, in May 1995, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took over management of the CHA and almost immediately began demolishing vacant buildings in Cabrini Extension ("the reds"), 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 Cabrini Extension was completed in 2002; part of the site was added to Seward Park, and construction on new, mixed-income housing on the remainder of the site began in 2006.
Subsidized development of mixed-income housing on vacant or under-used parcels adjacent to Cabrini-Green (for instance, the sites of a long-shuttered Oscar Mayer sausage factory, the former headquarters of Montgomery Ward, and Orchard Park, an adjacent senior housing project) began in 1994, and new market-rate housing now almost completely surrounds the remaining public housing.
Cabrini-Green once housed 15,000 people but this number is now down to about 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% public-housing replacement housing and 20% "workforce affordable" housing, while many adjacent developments (almost all targeted at luxury buyers) include 20% affordable housing, half targeted as public-housing replacement, with a goal of 505 replacement units built off-site.
The best-known redevelopment site so far is North Town Village, a 261-unit development completed in 2001 by a partnership with Holsten Real Estate Development and Kenard Corporation on city-owned but vacant land directly northwest of Green Homes.
In February 2006, a unique partnership between CHA, Holsten, Kimball Hill Urban Centers and the Cabrini Green LAC Community Development Corporation will begin a 790-unit, $250-million redevelopment of the 18-acre Cabrini Extension site, to be called Parkside at Old Town. Plans for demolition and redevelopment of Green Homes are still under negotiation, while the original Cabrini rowhouses are currently undergoing rehabilitation.
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: (1) 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 (2) 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.Wallace v. Chicago Housing Authority
Some former CHA residents have moved out of Chicago, to nearby suburbs or outside the region to other cities. Other residents have successfully moved into the replacement housing, and to date residents of the mixed-income developments have reported few problems. The entire redevelopment and relocation process remains highly controversial, more so at this highly sought-after site than at other CHA sites.
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 African American. As of July 2006, foundations are being built at Parkside, the first development on former public housing land. Demolition of the Green Homes 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 was the setting for the film Candyman, made in 1992. The film chronicles the legendary life of t...
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 open...
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 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. This is also when Reeves had his famous line, "whooooa," with a blank look on his face.
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. The website can be found at http://www.voicesofcabrini.com which I brought over for you.
As Cabrini Green is being torn down, it is important to photograph the community. So that in ten years, we can have a record of what used to stand in the area. Below are pictures taken after the documentary Voices of Cabrini was completed. They show further changes to the community, which are ongoing.
|The new Starbucks with a Cabrini Green building in background
Unfortunately, this says it all
|This building was once called "the palace". It was 19 stories tall.|
|This used to be a little league field at Cabrini|
Cabrini Green is often divided into three sections based on the type of buildings - the "reds", "whites" and "rowhouses". Each cluster of buildings has its own feel, each place is like a neighborhood unto itself.
|One of the "reds". These buildings (15 in all) were completed in 1958.
They are now the first buildings to be demolished
A "white" Cabrini Green building. Dedicated in 1962, there are
The rowhouses were the first Cabrini buildings. They were
What will happen in the future as the Cabrini buildings are torn down? Where will residents live? Many have taken section 8 certificates, some will move to the suburbs, a few will moved back to the area, and many more will be homeless. The question always remains...how many residents will move back, and what happens to everyone else?
North Town Village Today
The Encyclopedia of Chicago has very detailed background information on the history of public housing and the Near North neighborhood: