Commentary — May 7, 2012, 10:09 am

The Death and Life of 1230 N. Burling

Ben Austen is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His article on Cabrini-Green, “The Last Tower: The decline and fall of public housing,” appears in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s.

The last tower to stand at Cabrini-Green, a fifteen-story high-rise known by its address, 1230 N. Burling Street, was opened in 1962 and torn down in 2011. There were 134 families living there at its peak occupancy, then fewer than fifty, and, for a short time before its demolition last year, only the household of Annie Ricks, her children bouncing balls in their top-floor unit, blaring music, with no neighbors around to object. On the Cabrini-Green Facebook page, former residents reconnect, posting competing memories of the movies that were projected onto 1230 Burling’s façade, the unlicensed candy store that was operated out of a first-floor apartment, or the slick jackets they wore as members of the Junior Police Explorers.

In 1981, a group of teens who had formed a band convened a practice in 1230 Burling’s downstairs rec room. Maybe the kid with the .357 Magnum mistook the drummer, Larry Potts, for someone else; pointing the gun into an open window, he shot Potts in the head. Not long after, Cora Moore and nine other residents, almost all of them women, started a tenant patrol, hoping to push out gang members who had been charging residents to ride the elevators. They sat up nights in the lobby, replaced hallway lights, and repaired fire doors. Eventually, the Department of Housing and Urban Development trained them as professional security guards. They were even paid for their efforts. Then, under a Reagan initiative, they signed a contract with the Chicago Housing Authority to manage the building themselves, handling 1230 Burling’s security, maintenance, tenant screening, and leasing. Their mission statement proclaimed, “We, the residents of the 1230 North Burling Resident Management Corporation, will provide management programs and services, social, educational, cultural, and spiritual, to better the lives and conditions of the 1230 North Burling residents.” Urine still sometimes pooled in the stairwells and elevators could go unfixed, but the building was relatively functional, generally considered cleaner and better operated than the other Cabrini towers, standing in opposition to the argument that high-rise public housing could never succeed.

From 1999 to 2007, several members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, all of them white men, took up residence in a second-floor apartment, joining the tenants’ fight to stave off redevelopment while subscribing to the Maoist maxim to “be in close contact with the people.” During that time, a video shot from an upper-floor apartment captured police officers as they punched and kicked four handcuffed tenants outside the building. Angry residents emerged from the tower, and additional officers arrived from the precinct across the street to combat what was turning into a riot. One of the beaten men, Dave Anderson, who was thirty at the time, sued the city and eventually won a settlement. A girlfriend had once stabbed Anderson in the belly outside a Cabrini grocery store, but nothing like this had happened to him before. He and the others had returned home after a funeral and were just sitting in a parked van when the police yanked them out, maced them, and started whaling away.

A 150,000-square-foot Target is now going up at 1230 N. Burling. A few former tenants are hoping to land jobs building the store or working in it once it has opened. Its customers will include some four hundred Cabrini-Green residents living in new mixed-income developments nearby, as well as those who remain at the 150 rehabbed Cabrini row houses a couple of blocks to the south. Kenneth Hammond, who raised his children in 1230 Burling, relocated to one of the row houses in the months before the building came down. A tenant leader, he told me he had lived at Cabrini-Green all of his forty-two years and never thought about leaving, since he wanted to make the community strong right here. Looking at the 1230 Burling site in disbelief, he said, “All of this for a Target.”

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More from Ben Austen:

From the May 2012 issue

The Last Tower

The decline and fall of public housing

From the October 2010 issue

Southern culture on the skids

Racetracks, rebels, and the decline of NASCAR

From the June 2010 issue

In the Loop

Obama’s hometown takes Washington

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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