Article — From the May 2012 issue

The Last Tower

The decline and fall of public housing

Forty years ago, when U.S. cities began abandoning high-rise public housing, blasting crews would fill a tower with explosives and in a few monumental booms all would be reduced to rubble and rolling clouds of dust. It was as swift as it was symbolic. Now the demolitions are done by wrecking ball and crane, and the buildings are brought down bit by bit over months. This gradual dismantling seemed especially ill suited to the felling, in March 2011, of the last remaining tower at Cabrini-Green. Described almost unfailingly as “infamous” or “notorious,” this Chicago housing project had come to embody a nightmare vision of public housing, the ungovernable inner-city horrors that many believe arise when too many poor black folk are stacked atop one another in too little space. For the end of Cabrini-Green, I imagined something grandiose and purifying—the dropping of a bomb or, as in Candyman, the 1992 slasher film set in Cabrini’s dark wasteland, a giant exorcising bonfire. Instead, as I watched, a crane with steel teeth powered up and ripped into a fifth-floor unit, causing several feet of prefabricated façade to crumble like old chalk. Water sprayed from inside the crane’s jaws to reduce dust.

1230 N. Burling. © Paul D’Amato

The fifteen-story high-rise was known by its address, 1230 N. Burling. Already stripped of every window, door, appliance, and cabinet, the monolith was like a giant dresser without drawers. The teeth tore off another hunk of the exterior, revealing the words i need money painted in green and gold across an inside wall.

Chicago was once home to the second-largest stock of public housing in the nation, with nearly 43,000 units and a population in the hundreds of thousands. Since the mid-1990s, though, the city has torn down eighty-two public-housing high-rises citywide, including Cabrini’s twenty-four towers. In 2000, the city named the ongoing purge the Plan for Transformation, a $1.5 billion, ten-year venture that would leave the city with just 15,000 new or renovated public-housing family units, plus an additional 10,000 for senior citizens. Like many other U.S. cities, Chicago wanted to shift from managing public housing to become instead what the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) called “a facilitator of housing opportunities.” The tenants of condemned projects were given government-issued vouchers to rent apartments in the private market, or were moved into rehabbed public housing farther from the city center, or wound up leaving subsidized housing altogether.

The centerpiece of the plan, though, was an effort to replace the former projects with buildings where those paying the market rate for their units and those whose rents were subsidized would live side by side. Since 1995, when the federal government rescinded a rule that required one-to-one replacement of any public-housing units demolished, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded billions of dollars to cities nationwide to topple housing projects and build in their stead these mixed-income developments.

During his twenty-two years as Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley had moved Lake Shore Drive and created Millennium Park, but he believed the Plan for Transformation represented his most sweeping effort to reshape the city’s landscape. Daley proclaimed that mixed-income housing would reconnect shunned sections of the city to services and investment, and that these developments would allow poor African Americans who had lived in social and economic isolation to reap the rewards of a middle-class lifestyle. “I want to rebuild their souls,” he said.

In 1995, residential property sales in the two-block radius around Cabrini-Green totaled around $6 million. By the start of the Plan for Transformation, according to an analysis by the Chicago Reporter, annual sales had reached $120 million, and total sales from 2000 to 2005 neared $1 billion. The neighborhood looked like nothing I remembered from my years growing up in Chicago in the Seventies and Eighties. Down the street from 1230 N. Burling stood a mixed-income development of orange-bricked condos and townhomes called Parkside of Old Town. Its squat buildings were outfitted with balconies and adorned with purple ornamentation and decorative pillars. There was a new school, a new police station, a renovated park, and a shopping center with a Dominick’s supermarket and a Starbucks. A Target was expected on the site the last tower would soon vacate. Later, I would warm up two blocks south in @Spot Café, where employees from Groupon’s nearby corporate headquarters streamed in to pay full price for lattes and panini.

Today, what seems harder to fathom than the erasure of entire high-rise neighborhoods is that they were ever erected in the first place. For years the projects had stood as monuments to a bygone effort to provide affordable housing for the poor and working-class, the reflection of a belief in a deeper social contract. And although that effort had by most accounts failed, the problems represented by the likes of Cabrini-Green persist, and nothing remotely adequate has been built to replace what has been demolished. Chicago has yet to complete the Plan for Transformation’s 15,000 family units, and even that number would fall woefully short of need: when the CHA opened its public-housing waiting list in 2010, more than 215,000 families applied. Since only about a third of the units in the mixed-income buildings are reserved for public-housing tenants, hundreds of these developments would have to be built all across Chicago—in a market glutted with foreclosures and short on buyers. In numerous cases the cleared sites that public-housing residents hoped one day to repopulate were still vacant lots. Only 2,100 former public-housing residents, and fewer than 400 from Cabrini-Green, currently live in mixed-income buildings citywide. Most of the others were uprooted and replanted in unfamiliar areas no less uniformly poor and black—though now they had to manage without the support networks and extended family that had surrounded them in public housing.

The night before the wrecking ball got started on 1230 N. Burling, I joined fifty former Cabrini residents who had gathered outside the building. The tenants huddled around a marching band of local teens, the tack-tack-clap of drums and cymbals ringing in the air, the flag-waving majorettes visible from blocks away. Carol Steele, a stout woman in her sixties who was bundled in a large black coat and Cossack hat, asked me, “If you get rid of the high-rises, where is there going to be enough land to put all the people?” Steele was the president of the tenant board for the Cabrini row houses, a group of two- and three-story buildings that is the final surviving portion of Cabrini-Green. She said, “You don’t get rid of the neighborhood for the crime, unless it’s a land grab.” A man in his early twenties named Will, who wore a red windbreaker and a red White Sox cap and didn’t want to give his last name, had relocated to the city’s Far West Side, “where nobody talks to you, and you don’t know your neighbors.” He nodded toward the condemned tower. “A lot of stuff went on over there,” he said, somewhat apologetically. “I know it played a part in it coming down. But it ain’t quite as simple as that. It’s a place you been your whole life. It’s like the memories and families just scrubbed.”

Mike McClarin, a 1230 N. Burling tenant of thirty-five years, explained to me that the residents there had been poor but mostly did the right thing, that they wanted no more and no less than other citizens. McClarin went on to say that he had a message for the mayor, for President Obama, for all of America, and if we stepped away from the others at the vigil, he’d recite it to me. “It’s not just buildings. It’s not a place, it’s a feeling,” he began in verse, his eyes locked on the vacated high-rise, where on top floors windblown ceiling fans spun eerily. “Since we all confess, to be raised in Cabrini was a blessing. . . . Cabrini is down but not out. Have no doubt, Cabrini is God’s goods stretched out.”

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is a contributing editor of<em> Harper's Magazine. </em>His article "Southern Culture on the Skids" appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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