Ten years ago, the last building of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project was torn down.
During its lifetime, the 23 buildings housing more than 15,000 mostly black residents became a national poster child of everything that was horrible and hateful about American Public Housing. The ten year anniversary of its death is an appropriate time to reconsider some of its many alleged sins.
Was everything true as claimed about Chicago’s, and probably America’s, most notorious public housing project?
Did a gore-filled Hollywood blockbuster horror film set within its boundaries capture the dark spirit of its degeneracy?
Were the residents themselves so sick of Cabrini-Green’s drugs and violence that they were just as happy as the rest of Chicago to see the buildings destroyed one by one? If so, why did so many residents fight tooth and nail against its destruction, prolonging the demolition over a period of some 15 years?
Did tens of thousands of residents ejected from Cabrini-Green move on to the better housing, in better neighbourhoods, that a national housing voucher system promised for them?
Did Cabrini-Green not so much earn its horrific reputation as a “little hell” as inherit it from a time long before public housing, and long before Blacks were the majority in this particular Chicago neighbourhood?
Indeed, the history of Cabrini-Green can help answer some broader questions about the failure of American public housing as a whole. What special American evil clutches at the heart of the nation’s public housing, making it inevitable that public funding for low and moderately low income citizens can only end in disaster when many other countries have found, and continue to find, value in such a system of housing?
Is it racism?
Faced with the irresistible attraction of profits generated by the gentrification of Chicago’s downtown — indeed the gentrification of many American cities — have developers and their political allies deliberately engineered the failure of Cabrini-Greens all over America? Has the reputation of public housing been systematically destroyed, effectively selling millions of public housing tenants downriver in order to free up land necessary to fatten investor wallets?
Does Cabrini-Green sum up all that public housing in America can never become? Or is there buried deep within its notoriety the seeds of a future rebirth for public housing?
One overwhelming positive that cannot be easily denied about Cabrini-Green: it had a strong community, which flourished in spite of the project’s trials and tribulations, and which lives on today even though its physical foundation no longer exists.
The above questions and others are touched upon in a Cabrini-Green anniversary article/audio interview with Ben Austen, author of High-Risers, Cabrini-Green And The Fate Of American Public Housing. Read the article and/or listen to the more extensive audio interview at NPR’s WBEZ CHICAGO: What Cabrini-Green Can Teach Us About Public Housing