The opening shots of 70 Acres in Chicago, a documentary which details the history of the infamous public housing complex Cabrini-Green, pan over a green and bustling oasis. In the documentary, which depicts the housing project in 1979, marching band members follow a young man waving the American flag, a group of young girls in matching green and red skirts hula in sync on the pavement, and a tennis court and swimming pool border the now-demolished high-rises.
“Everybody was just family,” Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. of the 27th Ward and former resident of the Cabrini towers told the Gate. “The community was always surrounded by Christian organizations helping young people, and there was always government help. But when the drugs and cocaine came around, things started deteriorating,” he added.
Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Cabrini’s culture of violence escalated. The death of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis in a gang-fueled crossfire made national headlines in 1992, marking when this great experiment in urban public-housing became a public symbol of its failure. Minister Walter Johnson, who pastored at a church near Cabrini for eighteen years, witnessed Cabrini’s collapse firsthand, and spoke to the Gate about what he saw.
“I suspect that the government starved the community by pulling back resources to create the untenable situation where people ended up being generationally stuck in public housing,” said Johnson. “People were placed in poor conditions, with no safety supports, and no economic empowerment opportunities to move in and move out.”
The situation came to a head in 2000, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley enacted the Plan for Transformation. The goal of the plan was to tear down the city’s high-rises and replace them with twenty-five thousand units of mixed-income housing developments, built using both government and private sector funding. This was part of an effort to get public housing residents out of poverty deserts like Cabrini and into environments that were more conducive to upward mobility. The Cabrini community’s reaction to the move was mixed—despite the rampant violence, many residents were reluctant to leave their homes and friends. Theresa Welch, who visited the towers frequently throughout the 1990s, and currently resides on Division Street near the site of a former Cabrini tower, knew many such individuals. “Some people acted like they didn’t want to leave the area, because this is all that they knew,” said Welch.
However, others jumped at the opportunity to get out of the projects, incentivized by guaranteed Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) vouchers that paid for private residency in other neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. Former Cabrini resident George Brown recalls, “They were paying these people $5,000 to move out; some of them moved out in December [before the first demolition].”
Faced with the threat of eviction, those who wanted to remain in the Cabrini community rallied. Members of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council (LAC), a coalition of residents advocating for their homes’ betterment, protested in front of the buildings and row houses (low rise buildings) on Division Street. But their efforts were ultimately fruitless. While the row houses remained untouched, the last high-rise was demolished in 2011.
Today, on the intersection of Larrabee and Division, three children toting North Face backpacks recline on the ground-floor lobby of a Target near the entrance of the store’s covered parking lot. One of them emphatically describes their location over the phone to an Uber driver. Parents bustle in and out of the automatic doors periodically to pick up kids. The Target store’s shift-manager told the Gate that the store is close to an elementary school that opened in 2009, and that the students mostly come to get pizza and wait to catch a ride home.
Stores line the block across from the former site of the Cabrini-Green homes.
The Target also sits besides an empty 6.9-acre lot of neatly trimmed grass—the former site of one of the Cabrini high rises. It’s an unexpected expanse of green, especially given the hustle and bustle of the Target next door—there’s also a police station, Perman Wine Collection, fire station, and sleek new apartment building on the same intersection as the store—but it’s not the only empty lot in the area. It’s hard to imagine the Cabrini towers once stood in these fields, until former residents animate them for you.
“When we were going to Building 35, we had to go down the alleyway between Clybourn and Larrabee, and duck inside the car because there was so much gang activity,” recalls Carmen Brown, who frequently visited family in the towers, and now lives in the area herself. Brown is largely positive about how the area has changed since then. “It’s totally different now! I never would’ve thought it would come to this.”
But others continue to oppose the tower’s removal. The LAC filed a lawsuit against the CHA in 2013, alleging that the organization had failed to fulfill its promise that Cabrini low-rises would be maintained entirely as public housing. Ultimately, the lawsuit successfully raised the mandatory minimum percentage of building space reserved for low-income residents to 40 percent in the row houses. The lawsuit had also temporarily halted housing development on the sites of former towers until its resolution, according to journalist Mina Bloom, who has covered both Cabrini and the Chicago public housing sphere at large.
Since then, the CHA has approved Brinshore-Michaels as its development partner for a site on Oak and Larrabee, nearby to the Division and Halsted site. They plan to build a mixed-income community with 104 units.
But the site on Division and Halsted near the Target will remain empty for now. The CHA rescinded their request for project proposals for the site, originally made in January of 2016, in May of last year. “Given the scope of the proposed redevelopment of that parcel, we believe that more time is needed to consider how best to approach the large mixed-use residential and commercial development that is envisioned by the city and CHA for that site,” a spokesperson for the CHA told the Gate.
Between the development and the development pause, it’s hard to say how former Cabrini residents feel about the towers’ removal today, since the CHA lost contact with many former residents in the years following the towers’ demolitions. But it’s easier to speculate that Cabrini of the early 1990s would have been well-served by the new hub.
“As much as people say they shouldn’t have taken the buildings down, I feel that it’s always come to a certain time period where you have to have change. And change is good,” said Carmen Brown. “It's just that I believe it could have been sooner.”
All featured images are courtesy of the author, Alia Shahzad.
Alia is a second-year majoring in a currently undetermined social science. She's Institute Chair of the IOP's Women in Public Service Program, an assistant projectionist at Doc Films, and served as Fellows Ambassador for journalist-author Dawn Turner last year. Over the summer, she interned at London-based public policy platform Apolitical researching gender-based public procurement and sexual health curricula. She enjoys hiking Illinois' national parks and the thought and occasional action of writing creatively.