Goodbye to Cabrini-Green

At one point it was the most notorious public housing address in the nation.

At one point it was the most notorious public housing address in the nation.

The Cabrini-Green housing complex – most notably its high rises – was infamous. High-profile crimes shocked the nation, and many of the residents lived in fear of gangs, drugs and the police, while penned in behind wire fences.

In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority began a process of breaking down the high-rises and dispersing the residents. People were moved out of the dilapidated, poorly maintenanced buildings into new low-rise buildings or townhomes, or, told to move to other neighborhoods, some completely out of the city. At one point, there were 13,000 residents in Cabrini-Green – a small city unto itself. But there no civic amenities on that property and residents said that police patrols routinely found other places to go.

That process culminated last week, as the last family moved out of the last high-rise building at Cabrini-Green. It was bittersweet for many former residents, who carry fond memories of the complex, even as they had no hesitation to get out.

The hulking high-rises were a reminder of a public housing philosophy that has long since been discredited. Stacking families on top of each other for 30 floors was never a good idea, and doing so without allocating the resources to make sure those facilities were taken care of was not just folly, it was deadly.

It’s not that flowers didn’t grow in Cabrini-Green. At a recent Windows of Opportunity, Inc. gala celebrating CHA alumni, current and former honorees – from movie-maker Reuben Cannon to Cook Gent Herb Kent to City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman to Ald. Walter Burnett – regaled the audience about their public housing roots. Quite a few of these accomplished citizens called Cabrini-Green home for part of their lives.

But the perception of Cabrini-Green was that it was an unforgiving place, where danger lurked on every stairwell, where feral gangs terrorized the residents and where good things did not happen.

The perception was fueled by crime stats and headlines that made people around the country wonder how anyone could bear to live there. Those perceptions prompted the mayor of the city move into the complex to show that they were safe. They weren’t, but Mayor Jane Byrne racked up points with the citizens with her stunt.

There were tears from some of the last residents, as movers carried their belongings out, so they could move to newer public housing. For some, Cabrini-Green has been home for decades, so leaving the complex behind has been traumatic.

Now they are empty, and await a date with the wrecking ball, ending an era.

The dismantling of the housing projects across the city have had the political side-effect of displacing thousands of voters – dissipating the strength of the Black vote in those neighborhoods – many of which are now becoming gentrified, as the city recognizes that the land where these high-rises were located was prime real estate.

Once the land is cleared, different residences will spring up in the place of Cabrini-Green, residences that will appeal to those people who want to reclaim the city. We urge those elected officials and community representatives to be vigilant in making sure that whatever redevelopment comes to that area, Black residents, poor residents, are still a part of the mix. Perhaps, even the name, Cabrini-Green can be resurrected with a positive spin.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender

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