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?”


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.