by Siobhan O’Connor in Good Magazine, March 2008
For decades, the Cabrini-Green projects represented the worst of urban blight. Now, in the most massive public housing overhaul the country has ever seen, Chicago is tearing them down. But when you get rid of the slums, where do you put the people?
Gregory Jones, his head shrouded in a thick black hoodie, doesn’t look up as he trudges past a tidy row of condominiums that stands on the site of his boyhood home. All week, violent winds have whipped cold rain around Chicago, but his oversized leather jacket, which hangs almost to his knees, manages to keep him dry. He shuffles along the pavement, past a brand-new police station, and across Division Street, to a section of the Cabrini-Green housing projects known as the Whites—“Whites” because the eight buildings once gleamed, a symbol of a city’s problems solved. Now, the three remaining towers have turned ashen. From the burned-out windows, the last remaining residents of Cabrini can glimpse both the past and the future: empty parking lots on one side; snaking rows of identical town houses on the other.
Growing up, this is where Gregory, now 22, spent his weekends. He was an only child, a neighborhood rarity, but had plenty of friends and cousins to play with in the Whites. It was home to his great-grandmother, his maternal and paternal grandmothers, his friends, and all the girls with whom he liked to flirt. It was also where he played baseball—not the most popular sport at Cabrini-Green, but one that suited an athletically gifted kid who didn’t want to be another point guard. It gave him something to do other than hang out with older guys, who were invariably getting into trouble. “It was heaven,” he says.
It was here, crossing these same streets 17 years ago, that Gregory fled from gang gunfire with his father and mother. He remembers the bullets striking at their feet, slashing the pavement. “My mother tripped when she was running across the street,” he says. “I thought she’d been hit, and I was screaming and screaming…I mean, if it happened now, it wouldn’t really be anything, but I was 5.”
Gregory’s childhood ended the day before his 10th birthday, when his family was evicted from their apartment, his mother in the grips of a crack addiction. Two years later, his good friend, known as “Girl X” in the papers, was raped, beaten, and poisoned in a Cabrini-Green stairwell. Though eclipsed by the JonBenet Ramsey murder in Colorado, the 1997 incident made national headlines, bringing even more attention to the blighted project, which, after years of neglect by the local housing authority, was desperate for an answer to its problems.
You hear it all over the city, from anyone you care to ask: Mayor Richard M. Daley has a vision for downtown Chicago, and through sheer force of will, he is making it come to pass. On his watch (if he has his way) Chicago will blossom from a workingman’s town, where the streets are deserted before happy hour ends, to a cosmopolitan destination on a par with New York. To do this, the city will bid to host the 2016 Olympics; it will “solve” its crime and gang problems; it will even reinvent public housing as we know it. And to do that, Chicago will have to tear down the worst of it.
Cabrini-Green is Chicago’s best-known housing project, and was the first to see the wrecking ball. At its height, Cabrini was home to 15,000 residents spread over 15 red-brick high-rises (the “Reds”), eight 16-story towers (the “Whites”), and a patch of street-level row houses. The row houses, built in 1942, were originally home to Italian immigrants; 15 years later, the high-rises began to go up to accommodate the growing number of Southern blacks moving to Chicago. Before long, Cabrini-Green became a segregated black ghetto with a reputation for crime, poverty, and urban decay.
By 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority was entrusted with a $1.4 billion budget to overhaul its public housing, with much of the initial funding coming from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Finally, after decades of neglect and agency corruption, the CHA—which had been taken over for a time by HUD—would begin dismantling its public housing system in a strategy called the Plan for Transformation or, more simply, the Plan.
The Plan was originally scheduled for completion next year, but the deadline has been extended to 2015, due in part to tenant litigation and the drying up of federal funds. When it’s done, 25,000 public-housing units will have been razed or rehabilitated across the city. The impact of the Plan on the city’s landscape is already unmistakable. Cabrini-Green, once a massive cluster of high-rises and row houses just a 10-minute walk from the elegant stores of Michigan Avenue, is mostly gone. A handful of buildings remain, surrounded on all sides by new condominiums and booming retail stores. Twenty percent of these condos have been set aside as affordable housing; a third will be public housing. The rest are selling for up to $850,000 a piece. Since the Plan launched, in 2000, more than $2 billion in residential property has been sold within two blocks of Cabrini.
Residents who have moved into the mixed-income developments seem to love it. Jeremy Smith, an upbeat, alert 25-year-old who lives with his mother, talks about an improved quality of life, even though he sometimes gets the cold shoulder from their neighbors. But Jeremy appears to be an exception. Recent research shows that two-thirds of the Housing Authority tenants who apply for mixed-income units are finding their applications denied, for a growing number of reasons (poor credit, a history of late rent payment, family members with criminal records). When the Plan came to Cabrini, all lease-abiding residents were given a legal “right to return” to a new apartment on-site, but those who didn’t want to wait years for a new home, or who feared they wouldn’t qualify, could take a rent subsidy voucher, called a Section 8, and live elsewhere. More than 80 percent of the tenants who opted for this voucher have moved to areas of Chicago more segregated, isolated, and poor than Cabrini had been.
Despite its flaws, the Plan has enormous support, and not only in Chicago. “We are pointing the way to the future for the rest of the country,” says the Housing Authority’s Bryan Zises. And, indeed, the rest of the country is paying attention: Miami announced recently that it will pursue a similar strategy, joining other American cities already following Chicago’s lead. What this will mean for the country’s urban poor is not yet known—whether plans like this will deliver their promise of safe, improved shelter, or merely serve as city-sponsored gentrification schemes, reducing the amount of safe housing available to the country’s neediest people. Public-housing advocates express concern about the implementation of such a national-scale strategy before the real human costs can be measured.
“Like all large plans, this one has winners and losers,” says Lawrence Vale, a public-housing expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The Plan works best for those people who are already well equipped for self-transformation, because they have job skills, good health, and more extensive social networks, so that they are more likely to benefit from alternative housing opportunities. For others, exiting public housing may simply replace one inadequate living situation with another.” As Vale suggests, Chicago’s Plan is working to create two classes of the extremely poor. On one side are people like Jeremy, who’ve inched higher, toward better living conditions. On the other are people like Gregory.
Gregory likes his new neighborhood. Never mind that Englewood has the highest murder rate in Chicago, or that an average of 26 serious crimes were reported here every day last year. He says he hears the occasional shot ring out at night, but that he feels safe. “Like the suburbs,” he says.
He lives in a small, crowded house that his girlfriend’s mother rents with the housing voucher that replaced her Cabrini-Green apartment. There, he and his girlfriend are raising three young children, one of them biologically his. Ten more people share the space, a gray sliver of a building set back from the curb on a quiet block. He’s still a stranger to the neighborhood, which appeals to him. “Nobody knows me here,” he says.
“I like it like that. I didn’t move here to make friends.”
The new scenery feels like a blessing, for now. “I feel like I got rescued, because a lot of things happened while I was [in prison]. Three of my friends were killed in eight months. That’s when we lost Slim.” Slim, a talented, charming rapper, took Gregory under his wing several years ago, and encouraged him to channel his energy into music instead of drugs and gang violence. When Slim, sitting in the driver’s seat of his car in a Cabrini parking lot, was shot in the chest in March, 2005, Gregory took it as a warning.
“Every death was getting closer and closer to me. Everything bad started happening again when I came back from prison, so I had to sit back and slow down, take care of my kids, find my purpose. I did my dirt, but I know a lot of guys that did way worse. Cabrini forced me to slow down.”
Today, in the spitting cold rain, Gregory is back at Cabrini, visiting with friends in the lobby of 1230 North Larrabee. Some days are harder to be back than others. He’s determined to stay out of trouble, which can be tough for some young men at Cabrini, where it’s easy to find friendship, and work selling drugs, in the gangs.
The walls are painted a deep, oily red, and the rows and rows of gutted mailboxes are a reminder of the hundreds of families the building once housed. It will be demolished by the end of the year. Now it’s at about half capacity, not counting squatters, who make up a large but unknowable number of the people still here.
In the lobby, nine men have convened, among them Michael Jones, who still lives in the building. “It’s all happening too quickly,” he says. “I feel bad a lot.” He shifts his gaze to his feet. In the darkened lobby, his face disappears under the hood of his red sweatshirt, emblazoned with a skull. “You can’t help but feel bad when it’s all you know all your life. Sure, everything is subject to change, I know that, but they’re changing it too quick. It’s happening too fast.”
Two pretty women push past with shopping carts, looking beyond Gregory, toward the elevator. “Oh, you don’t say hi?” says one guy flirtatiously, to laughter.
That was Toyoun Hampton, Gregory’s best friend. He’s about six inches taller than Gregory, handsome and broad, with an easy demeanor. Gregory’s the more retiring of the two, quieter and more guarded, but they play off each other well. Most of the time it’s a joke a minute, but the mood has turned somber. “This is our hangout,” Toyoun says flatly, gesturing around the lobby. “We ain’t got nowhere else to go. … The hardest part for us is the past, going forward. Trying to get forward.” Even for those who have moved away, the stigma, real or imagined, of growing up at Cabrini-Green weighs on them. But people like Gregory and Toyoun also face issues other public-housing residents don’t. For them, moving into a mixed-income unit isn’t an option—nor is a Section 8 voucher. Their options for subsidized housing ran out when they committed their first felonies. Their family members can’t even take them in without risking eviction. And since being on a lease is out of the question, so are their rights to public housing. So Toyoun, like Gregory, lives with his girlfriend.
It’s Thanksgiving, and the rain has turned into a light snow, blanketing the short brown grass planted last year where five other high-rises stood. A fresh-faced couple dressed in expensive-looking sweat suits bounce through the last steps of a jog to Starbucks, which sits 20 yards from one of Cabrini-Green’s most dilapidated buildings. Down the block, outside the boarded-up Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, Jeremy Smith stands before one of his favorite murals, rubbing his hands against the chill. “I don’t understand who would do that,” he says. “That was one of our best.” The mural, a vibrant depiction of Cabrini-Green residents, arms outstretched, some hugging, reads, “This is for my people of Cabrini Green. They can tear down the buildings but…” The rest of the sentiment lies obscured behind a splatter of white paint.
Jeremy lives just two blocks away, but he doesn’t feel like being home alone on Thanksgiving, so he’s out walking around his old stomping ground. His mother, Geraldine, had to work today, and he knows better than to try to entertain at home again this month. A few weeks ago, his birthday gathering of five friends was cut short by a visit from the police, summoned by neighbors who had reported him to the development’s central office. It comes with the territory in Orchard Park, a mixed-income development that abuts Cabrini and has strict rules about playing loud music, socializing outside, and having company. There is still a rare but looming risk of eviction. “We don’t want any more trouble,” he says.
To get their apartment, Jeremy and his mother were willing to submit to a required criminal background and credit check, as well as to routine, unannounced house inspections. His mother, as head of the household, is also required to maintain a 30-hour workweek, and can be asked to show proof of child care. Despite the strictures of Orchard Park, Jeremy knows how lucky he is to have a home there, seeing friend after friend rejected for a spot nearby.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist who has covered Chicago public housing for over 20 years, thinks there’s a reason for that. The Chicago Housing Authority, he writes, has “consistently failed to give tenants the necessary resources to help them qualify for a new unit,” a failure he attributes, in part, to the underfunding of service programs.
Bryan Zises at the Housing Authority says it invests $25 million a year in social services—job training, help with relocation—but concedes that the agency is limited in how much it can help its highest-need residents. “Above and beyond adequate financing,” he says, “public housing is not supportive housing and was never intended to be. There is not a strong supportive-housing system nationwide, so public housing has become burdened with the problem.”
The consequences of the agency’s limitations are evident to Jeremy everywhere he looks. Many of his family members have left the public-housing system, either moving to other areas in Chicago, or leaving the city altogether. “It’s definitely changing the way we want to live,” he says. “It’s fucking up my Thanksgiving. As you can see, I’m by myself today. If I could have all my cousins over for Thanksgiving, I would. We wouldn’t blast the music, but it would be people coming in and out on a minute-by-minute basis. Unfortunately, I can’t do that.”
Veering past a gang-occupied street, Jeremy walks a few blocks east, to a subsidized housing project called Marshall Field Gardens, where his brother Jason is hanging out at his girlfriend’s apartment. Marshall Field Gardens is one of the countless sites all over the city where Cabrini-Green residents have landed. Many went to southern and western suburbs, either temporarily or for the long haul. Marshall Field Gardens, despite its reputation for roughness and the dark dizzying staircases, is appealing because of its proximity to Cabrini, and to downtown.
There’s a security station at the entrance, where visitors are supposed to be signed in by whomever they have come to see before they can pass through the bulletproof doors; on the counter is a sign-in sheet with no names on it.
The development has been compared, generously, to college quadrangles—four identical buildings centered on a barren courtyard. Today, just past security, eight young men huddle together, nodding hello as Jeremy walks by.
“I burned the roast,” says Jason’s girlfriend with an easy laugh, gesturing at a massive spread laid out in foil pans on her counter—baked chicken, stuffing, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread. Over heaping plates, the brothers reminisce about the good old days. The New City YMCA, where Jeremy played sports for free after school, has come down, and the basketball courts—the great equalizer, where rival factions of the Gangster Disciples would come together to play—have been replaced with a Blockbuster, two Starbucks and a grocery store that has its own sushi station. “Those courts brought the community together,” says Jason. “All of this thrown out for condos.”
“Growing up, we never had to worry about people breaking in, either,” he continues, “because there was 24-hour security. And I’m not talking about the police.” But at Marshall Field Gardens, the neighbors are strangers and Jason’s 4-year-old son, nicknamed Lil 50 for his love of the rapper 50 Cent, has been beaten up a handful of times in as many months. Here, the open-door policy of Cabrini has been replaced with another. On the inside of the front door, Jason’s girlfriend has posted a sign that reads, “do not open the door for anybody.”
Thanks to a stern mother and great after-school programs, one of which Jeremy now works for, he stayed out of the gangs. “My mother didn’t play that stuff,” he says. “I snuck out when I could, but it wasn’t much.” He moved around to a few different high schools, eventually graduating from a school in the posh neighborhood of Lincoln Park. He’s now in college studying business administration, and makes music in his spare time. “When you go to school with diverse students, you learn their culture, they learn from you,” he says. “Then you know there are different people out there from what you saw all your life.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, a plethora of free programs were aimed at kids in the neighborhood, but today there are fewer and fewer free programs to keep them busy. Even Seward Park, where the kids played sports and massive block parties were held, has gotten a makeover. Its lawns are manicured, and the parks department now charges fees to use the sports facilities, prohibitive to most Cabrini families. There’s even a hip-hop dance class that costs $114 for ten weeks.
“There used to be these community stores where you could go in and get what you need, and it was priced to people like my family,” Jeremy says. “But now it’s these furniture stores that are real exquisite. There was also a community Laundromat that’s gone, and barbershops, candy stores, because they can’t keep up with the [rents].” Nor can many of the tenants afford the prices. Jeremy and his mother talk a lot about wanting to buy a house, elsewhere in Chicago. His dream right now, though, it to leave entirely, and move to Florida, where his girlfriend lives. “My baby,” he calls her.
Of course, mixed-income developments like Orchard Park are in and of themselves neither good nor bad. The problem, says Lawrence Vale, is that while they’re usually touted as a strategy to uplift residents, they function more as a way for cities to fund redevelopment and gentrification. “The problem we have as a nation,” says Vale, “is that policy makers and city officials tend to be better at mixing out the poor than mixing them in. There are examples of very successful public-housing transformations—such as the Commonwealth Development in Boston—that have yielded safe, well-designed, and well-managed communities without resorting to income-mixing and inclusion of market-rate housing.”
There’s a tendency with public housing to focus only on the blight, but Jeremy is a reminder that places like Cabrini are not all crime and vice and misery. Many residents agree that while they’re happy to get away from the decaying buildings and the violence, their biggest losses are the invisible support systems that made their lives liveable—favors exchanged in a kind of social bartering, shared child care, extended family within shouting distance, church pastors who had been there for 35 years, friendship. This loss, too, is part of the Plan’s legacy.
“I don’t sleep,” says Gregory. “Ever.” It isn’t anxiety, exactly, that causes his insomnia—more that he feels he has some catching up to do. “How I look at my life now is, I’m supposed to be a lot of places I am not,” he says quietly.
His last job was an off-the-books gig at a pizza place, where he worked for several months, moving up the ranks quickly. “I called in one day to ask for a day off and my boss was like, ‘You can have lots of days off, I sold the place,’” he says. Since then he’s been unemployed, and with two felonies and little legitimate work experience under his belt, looking for a job can feel like an exercise in frustration. But he’s hopeful. He is charming and quick. “If I can get even an interview, then I’m good,” he says.
Now he spends a lot of his time writing and recording hip-hop music, under the name Lil One. He has natural talent, and an ease with words and rhythm; growing up he wrote poems, and now he wants to find a way to merge the two a little more. On his songs, his slick sense of humor is front and center, but when he speaks of the hurt his mother’s addiction caused him, you can feel it.
“It’s a hell of an outlet as opposed to what we used to do,” says Romance Harris, another guy from Cabrini who records with Gregory, “which is you feel pain, you go out and cause pain. That was a way of venting. Now I will write my sorrow on paper, and express myself like that.”
Gregory says much the same. “Coming up, I was real good at baseball, I did well in school, and had a full ride to Western in Michigan, but I let it all slide by these streets,” he says. “It comes down to, you have to find your purpose, and now I feel like I know my purpose. I had to sit back and slow down, take care of my kids, and get back to the music thing. I feel like we have a real story to tell that people need to know. I don’t even want a Grammy, I just want a way out.”
Unlike generations before them, many of Cabrini’s 20-somethings don’t want to stick around to see what Chicago looks like after the Plan for Transformation. They want out entirely. Which is perhaps part of the idea—the Plan has indeed shaken up generations stuck in a cycle of poverty, living in buildings that were always intended to be temporary housing. But there are thousands among Chicago’s urban poor just like Gregory, who have not seen transformation as much as elimination. In a sense, they’ve been wiped off the map, wondering if, had their buildings stood elsewhere, on land less valuable, they would they still have a home.
Lawrence Vale points to the past for insight into where this is headed. “Back in the ’30s and ’40s, public-housing construction and slum clearance were seen as two sides of the same coin. The idea was that everyone would benefit—slum dwellers would be relieved of their unsanitary and unsound living conditions and residents of the new public housing would gain access to modern dwellings. … [But] displaced slum dwellers were rarely offered places in the new public housing built on the sites of the slums; instead, the housing authorities picked people who would be more desirable tenants, those with stable incomes and two-parent family structures. Sixty years later, it is the public housing residents who are perceived as the slum dwellers of our age. And now, they too are not often welcomed back into the new housing that is ‘too good for poor people.’ The overall result has been a kind of purging of the poor.”
Miles from Cabrini-Green, at his girlfriend’s house in Englewood, Gregory is relaxing at home. “I don’t want to stay here too long,” he says. “I want to go somewhere warm but not too warm—I’m dark enough as it is.” He laughs, then pauses to think. “Mostly I wantto go somewhere where it isn’t cold all the time, with no crime, no problems. I want to just see something new. I don’t know—Kentucky, West Virginia… Atlanta could be nice.”