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?”

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.