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.”