Cabrini-Green is/was 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 15,000 people, living in mid- and high-rise apartment buildings. Over the years, gang violence and the city's neglect created terrible conditions for the residents, and the name "Cabrini-Green" became symbolic of the problems associated with public housing in the United States.
In 2005, only about 5000 residents remain. 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.
Buildings & residents
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").
According to the Chicago Housing Authority, the early residents of the Cabrini rowhouses were predominantly of Italian ancestry, although by 1962 the majority of those living in the completed Cabrini-Green complex were African-American. Cabrini-Green is zoned to Jenner K-8 School for K-8 and Wells High School, both operated by Chicago Public Schools.
How problems developed
At first, the housing was integrated and many residents held jobs. This changed in the years after World War II, when nearby factories closed and laid off thousands. At the same time, the cash-starved city began withdrawing crucial services like police patrols and routine building maintenance.
As a result, the buildings became more 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. In other words, the increasing poverty and decreasing services formed a self-propagating spiral.
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 a depressing atmosphere of neglect and decay. The high "open galleries" proved to be dangerous, so eventually, the Housing Authority enclosed the entire height of the buildings with a steel mesh, which increased the perception that the residents were imprisoned.
Tenant activism in response
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 federal 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 have 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.
These guarantees are controversial. Opponents contend that no one has a "right" to public services, that public housing is inefficient use of resources which would be better organized by private developers, and that public housing is ultimately detrimental to the city and to residents themselves. Supporters contend that the guarantees are not being honored.
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, the city's poshest shopping street, 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" was brutally raped and poisoned in a stairwell, leaving her blind, paralyzed and unable to speak. The latter attack was so brutal that gang members were allegedly ordered to find the person responsible for the crime and beat him senseless. The attacker, Patrick Sykes, was later apprehended by police and sentenced to 240 years in prison.
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.
It is worth noting that, 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.
That story is still unfinished, but in any case, these interviews demonstrate that not everyone has the same perspective on Cabrini-Green.
Current Status and City 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 (excepting the 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, demolition of the Cabrini Extension ("the reds") began in 1995 and was completed in 2002; part of the site was added to Seward Park, and construction on new, mixed-income housing on the Cabrini Extension will begin in 2005.
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 Meyer sausage factory, the former headquarters of Montgomery Ward, and 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 process for relocating residents is currently under litigation; the suit alleges that many residents are hastily forced into substandard, "temporary" housing in other slums, do not receive promised social services during or after the move, and are often denied the promised opportunity to return to the redeveloped sites. 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.
Cabrini-Green in Television and Movies
The 1975 film Cooley High was set in and around the Cabrini-Green projects, though primarily filmed at another Chicago-area housing project. The real-life Cooley High School served students from the Cabrini-Green projects, and acquired a formidable reputation in the 1970's as a school overrun with violence, crime, and drug use.
Cabrini-Green was the setting for the film Candyman, made in 1992. The film chronicles the legendary life of the infamous Candyman (played by Tony Todd), a black slave 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 on the site that 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.
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.
Also, the film White Boyz (1999) starring Danny Hoch also had a majority of the final scenes of it's movie done in Cabrini Green. It is also referred to throughout the movie.
1850 - Shanties first built on low-lying land along Chicago River; population predominantly Irish. Acquires "Little Hell" name due to nearby gas refinery, which produced shooting pillars of flame and various noxious fumes.
1929 - Harvey Zorbaugh writes "The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side," contrasting the widely varying social mores of the wealthy Gold Coast, the poor Little Sicily, and the transitional area in between. Marshall Field Garden Apartments, first large-scale (although funded through private charity) low-income housing development in area, completed.
1942 - Frances Cabrini Homes (two-story rowhouses), with 586 units in 54 buildings, completed. Initial regulations stipulate 75% white and 25% black residents. Holsman, Burmeister, et al, architects. (Named for Frances Cabrini, an Italian-American nun who served the poor and was the first American to be canonized).
1958 - Cabrini Homes Extension (red brick mid- and high-rises), with 1,925 units in 15 buildings, is completed. A. Epstein & Sons, architects.
1966 - Gautreaux et al vs. Chicago Housing Authority, a lawsuit alleging that Chicago's public housing program was conceived and executed in a racially discriminatory manner that perpetuated racial segregation within neighborhoods, is filed. CHA was found guilty in 1969, and a consent decree was issued in 1981.
October 13, 1992 - Seven-year-old Dantrell Davis is fatally shot while walking to school with his mother. Some of the shots came from 500-502 W. Oak Street.
1992 - Candyman is released, the story taking place at the housing project.
1994 - Chicago receives one of the first HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) grants to redevelop Cabrini-Green as a mixed-income neighborhood.
September 27, 1995 - Demolition begins.
January 9, 1997 - Nine-year-old "Girl X" found in a seventh-floor stairwell at 1121 N. Larrabee Street after being raped, beaten, choked, poisoned with insecticide and scrawled on with gang symbols. Her attacker allegedly stepped on her throat. She was left for dead but survived, though the attack blinded her.
1997 - Chicago unveils Near North Redevelopment Initiative, a master plan for development in the area. It recommends demolishing Green Homes and most of Cabrini Extension.
1999 - Chicago Housing Authority announces Plan for Transformation, which will spend $1.5 billion over ten years to demolish 18,000 apartments and build or rehabilitate 25,000 apartments. Earlier redevelopment plans for Cabrini-Green are included in the Plan for Transformation. New library, rehabilitated Seward Park, and new shopping center open.
- Cabrini-Green's official web page
- Cabrini-Green's rap page
- Chicago Housing Authority: Cabrini-Green Homes
- Cabrini Residents Human Rights Page
- Residents' Journal (written, produced & distributed by Chicago Public Housing residents; archives contain many articles on activism at Cabrini-Green, particularly around the plans for redevelopment).
- Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing
- Voices of Cabrini (Documentary film)
- CBS News: Tearing Down Cabrini-Green
- Chicago Tribune: Cabrini-Green Columns
- North Town Park site plan (redevelopment of Cabrini Extension site)
- Map of Cabrini-Green Area at Google Maps
The Encyclopedia of Chicago has very detailed background information on the history of public housing and the Near North neighborhood:
- Encyclopedia of Chicago entry on Chicago Housing Authority
- Encyclopedia of Chicago entry on Near North Side
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