The 20 year battle to demolish Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing project

Some of the Cabrini-Green towers (background), during demolition in 2005. Image: Paytonc/Flickr/Wikimedia.

In March 2011, the last public housing high-rise in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green was torn down. For many in the city, it was a relief. Cabrini-Green had come to symbolise the violence, social ills, and miserable living conditions that struck fear in their hearts.

But for the people who had lived there, the moment was bittersweet. As horrible as life there had been, it was still their home. 

Surprisingly, this demolition was supposed to have happened much earlier: plans to destroy the complex go back as far as 1995. But residents ended up opposing the demolition: they didn’t like the thought of losing their homes, and the community that had been built in the neighbourhood. Perhaps more importantly, they were afraid the city wouldn’t live up to its promise to provide them with replacement housing.

The community’s opposition drew out the destruction of the towers into a process that lasted over two decades, ending only when the last one was finally demolished in 2011. What was supposed a quick demolition to a much-hated development morphed into a complex, multifaceted social transformation of Cabrini-Green and the neighbourhood around it. That process has been been documented in depth in 70 Acres in Chicago, a new documentary with nearly two decades’ worth of footage taken on the site.

Little Hell

Located northwest of Chicago’s central “Loop”, on the western edge of the Near North Side, Cabrini-Green was initially meant to revitalise its generally run-down surroundings. Before its construction, it had been the site of poorly built informal housing, populated primarily by Italian immigrants. The poor conditions, coupled with the fact that it was located near a flame-spewing gas refinery, prompted some to nickname the area “Little Hell”.

A reflection of mid-century housing ideals, Cabrini-Green was initially made up of a series of row houses. Eventually it grew to include eight 15-storey high rises, for a total of 3,607 housing units at its peak. Though the housing was initially seen as a welcome replacement to the neighbourhood that had been there before, cost-cutting measures taken during the construction of the towers led to quick deterioration, and there was little money budgeted for desperately needed maintenance.

The deterioration of the housing development was also worsened by prevailing racial biases in Chicago and the rest of the country. Though Cabrini-Green was initially integrated and populated in part by the Italian families that had originally lived in the neighbourhood, an official segregation policy led it to become almost exclusively black. That in turn became an implicit excuse for denying the estate the funds it needed for maintenance, social services, and policing.

By the 1990s, Cabrini-Green had become every bit as hellish as the neighbourhood that preceded it. Warring gangs controlled residential tower blocks, residents were routinely harassed by drug traffickers at the entrance to buildings, and garbage lined the hallways. Conditions were so horrific that the development was literally used as the backdrop for a horror movie in 1992.

Given the housing development’s abysmal reputation, it was hardly surprising when, in 1995, the city’s housing authority announced that Cabrini-Green’s eight towers were to be vacated and torn down.  This came as part of a broader plan by the housing authority aimed at tearing down notorious housing projects throughout the city.

Cabrini-Green in context: the red area is the estate; the "Loop", to the south, is Chicago's central business district. Image: Google. 

At the time, few people suspected the housing authority’s plan would take 20 years to carry out. Ronit Bezalel, the director of the film 70 Acres in Chicago, originally intended to make a film that took on the city’s plans to tear Cabrini-Green down. Though these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, they inspired the creation of a unique historical record of the city.

Bezalel says she was fascinated by Cabrini-Green ever since moving to Chicago from Montreal. “When I arrived in Chicago in 1994, I was dumbfounded by the city’s segregation,” she says. “In Montreal, we were a city divided by language. But Chicago’s racial segregation was unlike anything I had experienced.”

While studying film, her commute on the city’s elevated train system took her past Cabrini-Green. By chance, one of the assignments in her class on documentary filmmaking took her to the area nearby. “People told me to avoid Cabrini – that it was too dangerous. So of course, this made me more even curious,” she recalls.

During this project, Bezalel met Mark Pratt, a resident of Cabrini-Green who was also a student at Columbia College, where she was studying. This collaboration turned into a much longer 30 minute documentary, which Bezalel presented as her master’s thesis, and which featured Pratt as both producer and subject of the documentary. The documentary, Voices from Cabrini, received recognition across the country; Bezalel picked up a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant for her efforts and was named one of the “top 10 women of the 21st century” by Newsweek.

But the fight at Cabrini-Green continued. And instead of moving on to other projects, Bezalel decided to continue to film the projects as demolition slowly moved forward. “The story kept evolving and it seemed premature to stop filming,” she says. “It wouldn’t have done the story justice to end in the middle of the demolitions.”

Fight the good fight

Her film takes a personal approach to life in Cabrini-Green, continuing the stories of residents that began during her earlier film and following their lives even after the towers came down. She was particularly moved when she met Raymond McDonald, a young boy growing upon the estate, whose grandmother allowed him to adopt a puppy named Chopper to console him after many of his friends moved away. When McDonald eventually moved away himself, Chopper inspired him to start his own dog training business.

In addition to its community life, Bezalel found that many Cabrini-Green residents preferred living there, due to its location. Compared with other public housing residences in Chicago, such as the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green was centrally located with easy access to multiple transportation lines. Perhaps this spurred on residents as they fought the destruction of the residences: while the last tower was destroyed in 2011, the Robert Taylor Homes had been torn down four years earlier.

And its location may have been the reason the city was so anxious to destroy Cabrini-Green: the area nearby is rapidly gentrifying. The convenience of transit connections and the rise in stature of the rest of the Near North side have spurred new private developments on the former Cabrini-Green site. Though some of the new residential units created will be dedicated to affordable housing, many others will be market rate.

Meanwhile, many former Cabrini-Green residents have been forced to move farther outside the city. Bezalel says it has been incredibly difficult to find comprehensive data on where former residents have been relocated to, though many have found new homes in Chicago’s south and west sides. This lack of data makes it difficult to establish whether the Chicago Housing Authority has kept its promise to find homes for former residents.

The destruction of Chicago’s public residences was seen by many as a positive development – the Huffington Post called the destruction of Cabrini-Green the “end of an ugly era”. But the public dialogue has more recently tended toward questioning how productive this was. The book High Rise Stories and a photo essay at NPR by Patricia Evans paint a nuanced picture of life in residences such as the Robert Taylor homes.

Bezalel’s film is a solid addition to this field, possibly becoming the definitive account of life during the last days of Cabrini-Green. After an initial screening in August, the film will screen again from November 13 to 19 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and is set to be released on DVD at the end of the year.

Like many of Cabrini-Green’s former residents, Bezalel is torn about the area’s future, bothered by the fact that so many of the people she got to know during her project will never get their old homes back. When asked what lessons should be taken from Cabrini-Green, she says her feelings are best summed up by an article by MIT professor Lawrence Vale: “Is it fair that so few of those who suffered through the worst conditions should be invited back to enjoy the improvements?”


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.