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?”


Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.