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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.”

I visited Carol Steele—or Miss Steele, as everyone called her—one afternoon at a Cabrini row house that had been converted into the tenant-board offices. Up until 2010, the CHA’s redevelopment plans had earmarked the row houses for preservation. Having passed the viability tests that condemned the neighboring high-rises, the row houses were, if not New Urbanist showpieces, passable low-rises with stoops, yards, and public gathering spaces. By 2010, the city had renovated 146 of the nearly 600 units and begun clearing out the remaining homes, but then suddenly stopped work, allowing blight to spread. White shutters and hanging flowerpots decorated the rehabbed homes, but they were outnumbered by column after column of boarded-up units. Last year, the status of the row houses was changed to “to be determined,” and in September the CHA evicted an additional thirty-five families living in un-rehabbed units. Julia Stasch, an architect of the Plan for Transformation under Daley and now the vice president of U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation, which has pumped $61 million into the plan, said of this change: “Pockets of poverty on the perimeter of the mixed-income make it that much harder to create new norms, to create new community. It diminishes the potential of what we’re trying to achieve.” When I asked Steele about the future of the row houses, she said, “We’re going to be going to court here in a few minutes.”

Steele grew up in the neighborhood soon after the row houses were built. Named for Mother Francesca Cabrini, the first American to be canonized, the row houses were constructed to provide affordable living for World War II veterans who came to this industrial area along the Chicago River in search of factory jobs. An early experiment in integrated housing, Cabrini quickly filled with working-class families. In a book about this era, tellingly called When Public Housing Was Paradise, a white resident recollects, “With an integrated project we were all one big family. . . . It was a real village.” “It was the United Nations over here,” Steele told me. In 1958, when the Cabrini Extension towers were built on the south side of Division—fifteen cherry-colored high-rises known as the “reds,” with nearly 2,000 apartments—Steele and her family were among the first tenants. Four years later, the William Green Homes (named for a former president of the American Federation of Labor), eight “whites,” among them 1230 N. Burling, went up on the north side of Division, bringing the project’s total to 3,600 units, with an official peak population of 15,000.

Unlike the low-rises, Chicago’s tower-and-garden projects were built primarily for the rush of black migrants from the South. There were 278,000 African Americans in Chicago in 1940; by 1960, there were 813,000. White aldermen refused to allow public-housing construction in their wards, so the new projects were set within the city’s existing “black belt.” Elizabeth Wood, the progressive head of the CHA, saw an opportunity to replace the area’s dangerous tenements. The projects, she said, would be “bold and comprehensive,” forming more than mere “islands in a wilderness of slums.” Even the austerity of their modernist designs—now an emblem of the impersonal warehousing of the poor—then heralded all the promise of a refreshingly new age.

But Chicago’s projects were underfunded and poorly maintained almost from the start. The ratio of children to adults in these developments was ruinously high, and well-intentioned laws regarding maximal allowable income for public-housing residents ultimately forced out the most stable rent payers in the population. The projects were further undone by gangs, crack, and a federal drug policy that turned many residents into felons. By 1995, Chicago housing projects made up eleven of the country’s fifteen poorest Census tracts.

That Cabrini-Green became a symbol for the worst of these systemwide—and, really, nationwide—failings has much to do with its prime location, just a few minutes’ walk from Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile to the east and tony Old Town and Lincoln Park to the north. Cabrini residents called their home the Soul Coast on the Gold Coast. Although white Chicagoans were unlikely to pass through black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, they probably drove or even walked past Cabrini-Green. The city’s news teams needed only to head into their own backyard to report on project life. The heinous crimes that occurred there—by neither type nor frequency unique to Cabrini—became causes célèbres. Snipers in a Cabrini high-rise killed two police officers crossing a nearby baseball field in 1970. After a few deadly months at Cabrini in early 1981 in which eleven residents were murdered and thirty-seven wounded, Mayor Jane Byrne moved into one of the towers to promote new safety initiatives. For her three-week stay, Byrne brought along a massive security detail, and residents say she welded shut one of her apartment’s two entrances. In 1992, a stray bullet killed seven-year-old Dantrell Davis as he and his mother walked hand in hand from their Cabrini building to the nearby school. The murder prompted the Chicago Tribune editorial page to demand: tear down the cha high-rises. The housing authority sealed off four of the towers, including the one from which the shot was fired. President Clinton’s housing secretary, Henry Cisneros, declared, “The national system of public housing is on trial in Chicago.”

As Steele recounted Cabrini’s history for me, we were joined by Charles Price, who had managed several of the high-rises. Price, a nattily dressed man of late middle age, with a handlebar mustache, a pinstripe suit, and green alligator-skin boots, brought Steele a lunch of Chinese food. While they ate, they talked about the many pop-culture depictions of Cabrini-Green, which, they felt, misrepresented life there. Steele rolled her eyes as she mentioned a 1975 dime novel called The Horror of Cabrini-Green, narrated by a sixteen-year-old high-rise resident named Bosco who shoots up, fights, rapes, and murders his way through the book. During one brutal stretch of pages, a boy playing atop an elevator is cut in half, a police officer is set on fire, and Bosco and his buddies break into the local church and kill the priest. Steele and Price brought up the movie Cooley High, sometimes called the black American Graffiti, about students at the vocational school of that name that once stood beside Cabrini, and also Good Times, the 1970s sitcom ostensibly set in the “reds” (the buildings are shown in the opening and closing credits, but the project is never named). Thirty years later, on The Bernie Mac Show, the comedian protagonist is forced to take in his sister’s kids because she’s a crackhead from Cabrini. “I should have left y’all at Cabrini-Green,” Bernie Mac says of his nieces and nephew. “A bunch of animals. Like you ain’t got no home training.”

The scary “Cabrini-Green” vision of project life certainly plays some part in the now widespread sentiment that public-housing residents are undeserving of government “handouts.” This disdain helped ensure that Chicago’s projects really did become unlivable, as the CHA neglected to repair and refill many units when they became vacant (what a successful lawsuit filed against the agency in 1991 called “de facto demolition”), which allowed gangs and squatters and decay to settle in.

Price recalled how on a Jamaican vacation not too long ago an Australian man spotted Price’s Bulls cap and declared that he knew just two things about Chicago: Michael Jordan and Cabrini-Green. Price revealed that he actually worked at the housing project, and the Aussie’s eyes just about popped out of his head. “Oh my God! Do they walk on all fours there?” Steele cried, mimicking a half-wit’s surprise.

Shortly before the demolition of 1230 N. Burling began, the CHA held its rotating monthly board meeting in an old field house that sits in Seward Park, within sight of the condemned tower. I heard about the meeting from a former Cabrini resident, Willie “J.R.” Fleming, who told me he had helped organize a protest of the day’s proceedings. What Fleming called the Plan for Devastation could be considered a success, he said, if the metric was forcing poor people off prime real estate and moving them to areas where there were even fewer jobs and transportation options, where crime, gang activity, and schools were worse. Between 2000 and 2010 the city’s African-American population decreased by 181,000, or 17 percent. Fleming saw the housing fight at Cabrini as part of a much larger battle, and he’d started an organization called the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, which partnered with other groups across the city “to enforce our human right to housing.” (Months later, he would train Occupy Chicago protesters to take over foreclosed homes.) Fleming doffed a fedora, revealing long cornrows with a patch of snowy white on top. “This is what activism gets you,” he said.

At 8:30 A.M., when the board meeting was scheduled to start, two dozen protesters marched into the gymnasium. Carrying signs, they sang a refrain: Like a tree that’s standing by the water/ Black, white, and brown, we shall not be moved. They were residents and supporters of a housing project called Lathrop Homes, a development in a well-off section of the North Side that was next in line to be demolished. Unlike other condemned projects, however, Lathrop consisted solely of low-rise buildings with gardens and front porches; its tenants included not just the very poor but also a range of lower-income earners. The residents didn’t want to be forced into the private market or into temporary housing, especially since they doubted they’d be able to return to whatever replaced Lathrop; nor did they agree that market-rate apartments were needed in the redeveloped community, as the surrounding area was already full of market-rate condos. William Wilen, a public-interest lawyer who has represented CHA residents for nearly forty years, summed up for me the pervading distrust in the “transformation” process: “If you were going to plan redevelopment from a tenant point of view, what are the odds you’d say, ‘What I want you to do is force me out, even though I may not want to go, then tear my building down, then make me wait fifteen to twenty years for a replacement unit’?”

Despite the Lathrop group’s dramatic entrance, the meeting didn’t get under way for another two hours, when the CHA board members finally arrived. Lewis Jordan, the CEO of the housing authority, took his position at the center of a table at the front of the gym. There were several procedural matters, and then the floor was opened for public comments. A few people held forth passionately within their allotted two minutes. Carol Steele brought up the future of the row houses, saying it was about time to rehab all the units there. A teenage girl from Lathrop announced that she was being displaced from her community and made to feel like less of a person and young American. Most speakers, however, seized their moment at the microphone with far more dramatic élan, the two-minute mark being merely a prompt to shift rhetorical gears. My time’s up? You should start on time! A well-heeled Lathrop neighbor yelled at the officials seated a few feet in front of her—“Your mandate is to provide public housing, not to transfer public land to private hands!”—while audience members loudly echoed her cries. Another speaker charged the CHA and its developers with racial racketeering, inside dealing, and refusing to put black folk to work. “Train us!” someone behind him demanded. One man called out the board member to Jordan’s left, Myra King, a twenty-year resident of a low-rise housing development on the South Side and the chairwoman of the group that oversees all the city’s remaining tenant boards. He said few tenants had been given construction jobs or other work as promised in the Plan for Transformation, and yet somehow “your daughter and boyfriend got jobs. So we asking you to step down.” King nodded, her face a clenched mask. Jordan and the other commissioners stared ahead, glassy-eyed.

Outsiders to Chicago, a city known for its indomitable political machine, might not expect its operators to subject themselves to such lashings from the rabble. But this restive theater has long been commonplace at public meetings there, even those chaired by Mayor Daley (and now the city’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel). These eruptions may actually be part of the mechanism, a relatively benign outlet for an underclass that often feels acted upon by larger, intractable forces. Later, when I met with Lewis Jordan at the CHA’s downtown offices, he shrugged off what he considered the performance piece of the board meeting, assuring me that Lathrop residents already were included in the planning process and that some of the loudest screamers were themselves on the working group determining the development’s fate. Jordan, affable and attentive with me, was the fourth CEO under the Plan for Transformation. He had dutifully carried out the marching orders of the plan, tweaking them little even as the housing market in Chicago collapsed. Having grown up in Chicago public housing himself, he described the job he inherited in terms of a relay race. “I can’t question how the guy behind me handed off the baton. I just know I got it now and I’m running like hell, and if I get the chance to cross the finish line I will.”[1]

[1] In June, Jordan resigned after it was alleged he’d improperly used his CHA credit card (for fairly routine and modest work-related purchases). The revelations came amid protests over his agency’s efforts to drug-test public-housing residents, including seniors.

For many years the CHA was one of the least efficient and worst-run city agencies, a sinecure for the bottom rung of patronage appointees. In 1995, federal officials took over the city’s mismanaged housing system, ceding control only once Chicago began drafting the Plan for Transformation. But in 2003, an independent monitor determined that relocation under the plan had gone too fast and was underfunded. Each of the counselors contracted to find tenants new homes handled more than a hundred cases at a time. Of the thousands of residents relocated from public-housing high-rises in the plan’s early years, the majority had ended up in areas of highly concentrated black poverty. The CHA has since improved its relocation process, reducing counselors’ case­loads, hiring a new social-services provider, and adding job-training opportunities. Even in 2009, though, the CHA had to place a full-page advertisement in the Chicago Sun-Times announcing that it didn’t know the whereabouts of some of the former residents it was supposed to be tracking, and would the following 3,200 people please get in touch.

I visited Peter Holsten, the developer who built and managed most of the mixed-income housing around Cabrini-Green, at his offices just west of 1230 N. Burling. Photos of Mayor Daley, Barack Obama, and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry hung over his desk. In addition to the new developments, Holsten operated rehabbed public housing around the city. “I’m a believer that with strong management you can have any kind of housing,” he told me. The architect Holsten hired to design some of the mixed-income housing at Cabrini, Peter Landon, had presented a proposal to the CHA years ago that would have preserved sections of high-rise Cabrini-Green. His low-cost rehab, in 1999, of Archer Courts, a then-blighted project of seven-story buildings in Chicago’s Chinatown, replaced the chain-link fencing that surrounded the open-air walkways on each floor with frosted glass, creating spaces where residents now look out at the Chicago skyline and at their children in the playground below. The redesign transformed how tenants and neighbors conceived of the building, without displacing a single resident or expensively overhauling the layout of the individual units. It was a public-housing success story. For a Cabrini rehab, Landon looked at the “reds,” the towers south of Division, and suggested a more varied, less densely populated “infill” design in which a couple of the buildings would be replaced by gardens and two- or three-story structures. But the mandate from Washington at the time was for wholesale demolition, for putting an end to failed housing projects. “The political will was not there to do it,” Holsten said.

Holsten described the building of affordable housing as his life’s work. “I want all the kids in my developments to go to college,” he said, “and the heads of the households to be employed, and for the cycle of poverty to be broken.” One of Holsten’s employees is a woman named Niki Clay, who had grown up in a Cabrini high-rise and, in 2002, relocated to a Holsten mixed-income apartment. While I was speaking with Holsten, Clay brought him a stack of papers to sign, and he introduced her as a public-housing resident with a surprising work ethic and a promising future. He asked her to tell me what it was like to live beside market-rate families. She definitely felt safe in mixed-income housing, she said, but it was a strangely quiet place. She had to learn to be more reserved. “I’m used to a community where you ring someone’s doorbell and say, ‘Hi, I’m Niki, I’m your neighbor, I have two children.’ That isn’t this environment.” I asked whether she ever celebrated her kids’ birthday parties at home. No, she went to Chuck E. Cheese’s. What about a get-together with friends? Nope, neighbors might complain. A family gathering? A cookout? “I don’t want any trouble,” she explained. “I just stay low-key.”

Clay was part of the grand experiment of mixed-income housing. Pressed into the same building, and even the same floor, were conflicting American ideologies of self-sufficiency and social obligation, home ownership and public assistance. (Never mind that the entire HUD budget last year was just over a third of what the federal government loses annually on mortgage-interest tax deductions, the vast majority of which are claimed by the nation’s top 20 percent of earners.) To qualify for the few available spots, families needed to be drug free and have good credit, no police record, and no lapsed payment on rent or utilities. The acceptance rate has been incredibly low.

The families that made it in are required by the CHA to work thirty hours a week or enroll in job training or school for a comparable amount of time (the housing authority arranged for city colleges to be free to tenants). Public-housing residents found other rules applying to them but not to the condo owners next door especially onerous: regular home inspections and drug tests; restrictions on owning dogs, barbecuing, gathering in public areas, and hosting guests. Last year the CHA discussed requiring all parents in public housing to submit their children’s report cards to the agency. Condo boards tended to set policies that affected every resident, including those who didn’t own their units and who had no voice in the condo association. At Westhaven Park, a mixed-income community that replaced the Henry Horner Homes on the city’s Near West Side, market-rate families felt threatened when their new neighbors hung out in groups in the lobby, so the condo board simply removed all the furniture from the area. Linda Jones, a former Cabrini resident who was awarded a unit in a mixed-income development, said that the double standards sometimes made her think she was living in a prison. “They can get buck wild, but as soon as we get buck wild, they want to send an email blast to the CHA to complain,” Jones said. “You can’t have two different sets of rules.”

Holsten acknowledged that some of the condo owners in his buildings weren’t cut out for the eclectic mix of inner-city Chicago. He said it would have been better if some had stayed in the more “homogenous” areas they came from, but now they were underwater on their mortgages and stuck. “To be real honest with you,” he added after collecting his thoughts, “I’ve met some of the owners over there and they’re assholes, fucking assholes. I’ve got owners, and they’re great. But there are some assholes. They’re prejudiced.” Nine years into the social experiment, Linda Jones felt better about the dynamic in her community. “They used to think we were nasty, but we proved them wrong,” she said of her white neighbors. Now these neighbors often asked her to regale them with stories about Cabrini-Green in the bad old days.

Deborah Hope lived in the Cabrini row houses for nearly twenty years before moving to a fourth-floor unit in the newly built Parkside of Old Town. Her tidy apartment overlooks the 1230 N. Burling plot. Hope is almond-eyed and smooth-skinned, and on the day I visited her she wore her thick braids tied up in a red, yellow, and black scarf. Her eight-year-old grandson had professed illness that morning and had been allowed to stay home from his charter school. He disappeared into a back room as Hope sat across from me in her living room and launched into a two-hour uninterrupted account of “all the horrible things.”

It all began, Hope said, when she was ten years old and her mother moved the family into the projects, to Rockwell Gardens on the West Side. That was the start of the disasters for them, the murders and drugs and alcohol and what they call the felonious society. Her sister was stabbed to death in the elevator, and Hope, at thirteen, took charge of raising her eight-month-old nephew. She pointed to a portrait of her sister on the wall above the dining room table, a pretty girl of eighteen, heavy-lidded, seated in a rattan lounge chair. A photograph on top of Hope’s television showed a brother who had died of AIDS. She counted off fifteen family members—including the sister, another brother, an aunt, and two of her own children—who got killed by guns or knives.

Hope later moved into an apartment on the North Side, in an all-white neighborhood. Yuppieville, she called it. They paid full rent, $1,500 a month, no assistance, food stamps, or medical card. She was raising four kids at the time, working three jobs, one for American Airlines at O’Hare, another at a skating rink, and the third as a school crossing guard. Hope would come home to drop off money and head right back out, riding the train or a bike. Then her mom died, at the age of fifty-two, Hope’s age now. And her brother went to prison, for being a “menace to society,” the court said. He got twenty years for selling drugs. Hope said there were weak men and strong men, and her brother was strong. He taught her about drugs, meaning that if he caught her doing any he would fuck her up, break her legs. He kept her scared straight, and even today she didn’t smoke or drink any hard stuff. But her landlords found out about her brother and said they didn’t want that kind. They raised the rent up so high Hope couldn’t manage, and she ended up in eviction court. She was given two weeks to get out and either head into emergency housing or be homeless. She didn’t want to go back to the projects, but she had no other choice.

She thought it was 1990 or 1991 when she moved into the row houses, because her son died in ’93. He got killed hanging out in the old neighborhood, in Yuppieville. He was standing in the wrong place, someone’s drug turf. Hope was in Texas at the time, and when she got back her son was dead.

Back then the row houses were cleaner than the other projects. Bullets used to fly through her window, but at least the streets were swept. Hope talked about all she had to do to raise her children there. She mentored them, volunteered at their schools, sat with them at tutoring, found a way to buy them the right clothes and books. Then they’d walk out the front door and the beatings would start. They’d get busted in the head, punched in the eye. She had BlueCross BlueShield, but it still cost extra to pay for stitches or buy medicine. She couldn’t take them to the emergency room if the rent was due, so she sewed them up herself. She learned how to do all that. Her children, the ones still living, were now thirty-four and twenty-five, and she thought the beatings they got at Cabrini permanently messed them up. You can get only so many beatings and keep on saying, “I am somebody,” Hope said. She’d like to blame someone for the attacks on her kids, and if she could sue someone, it would be the people who didn’t manage the property right, the city that allowed the violence to go on in the street. But the police were down there now. Security walked around right where her children were attacked. The city was always in charge of Cabrini, Hope said, but it just didn’t enforce anything. She believed the projects were designed for more black people to get murdered, for more black-on-black crime, for AIDS and lupus and heart attacks and diabetes to kill people off. And most of the rest were sent to jail. You could count on your hands and toes how many survived all that drama.

Then the rehab thing started in the row houses, and Hope was moved from her upstairs unit to the ground floor. That’s when they started breaking into her house. She couldn’t sleep because of all the crackheads and dope fiends outside her window. You never knew when they were going to come in. One day they stole everything they could steal. They even took a couch, walking down the street in the middle of the day and supposedly no one saw it. Plenty of times she cried to the managers, who told her she could move into the projects, meaning the towers. Those buildings were coming down first, so she’d be relocated sooner or have a chance for the new developments. But to her, everything about the projects stunk. So she stuck it out in the row houses. In the projects, she thought she would have been trapped, or forgotten. She was glad the change came, the Plan for Transformation, because how it was before was horrible.

When she was accepted into Parkside of Old Town, she had to undergo a background check and a drug test. At that point she didn’t care if they wanted to draw blood. She understood that mixed-income housing couldn’t accept everybody. Inspectors visited her new place about six times a year, sometimes without warning. With so many of her people dead, she made the inspectors sit and talk. “Okay, Miss Hope, gotta go,” they’d tell her, and she’d say, “Let me tell you something else, honey,” with them already halfway out the door. Her son was barred from visiting her there after he was put on probation for a drug charge. If Hope wanted to see her son now, it had to be somewhere other than her apartment. She wasn’t about to play games with the new developers.

Recently two families on her floor had large gatherings. One was a wake for a child who died of asthma. The other was a wedding celebration. Both events were crowded and got a little rowdy; beer was drunk and bottles were broken. The next day, Hope said, the public-housing family with the dead child got an eviction notice slipped under its door. The market-rate unit with the newlyweds got nothing. They even made a rule that public-housing people could have parties only between eight in the morning and eight at night. “Where do parties end at 8 p.m.?” Hope wanted to know. When she saw her white neighbors in the hallways or foyer, she always greeted them. “Have a tremendous Thursday! See you on fantastic Friday!” It was how she spoke to everyone. But none of them ever spoke back. Sometimes their dogs would run up to her, Hope said, but that’s because animals can always tell when a person is nice.

Before, when she lived in the row houses, she had floods, rats, roaches, undesirable people. She couldn’t stand to deal with all that. Where she lived now was better. But it was lonely. She didn’t see it as a home. She wanted me to understand that. She was trying to make it feel like a home, but it mostly felt like a hotel.

One afternoon I met Mark Pratt at Jenner Elementary, the Cabrini-Green school rebuilt as part of the Plan for Transformation. Pratt had worked a variety of jobs at Jenner and was a producer of the documentary Cabrini Green: Mixing It Up, about the decades-long redevelopment of the project. Pratt moved to Cabrini-Green as a child, in 1972, and, until March 2012, his mother lived in a row house, surrounded on each side by vacant units, mold spreading in the shared walls. In the 1990s, he served on Cabrini’s tenant board, consulting with architects and lawyers about the possible redevelopment plans. But in 1999 he secured a bank loan and moved with his wife and young children to a single-family house on Chicago’s South Side. “I tried to do what was right for the people in the buildings and the neighborhood,” he told me. “But a rift formed in our leadership. I started seeing promises broken. I just wanted out.”

A basketball tournament was taking place in Jenner’s new gym, and middle-school teams from around the city had come to the former Cabrini-Green. Pratt hoped the tournament would showcase Jenner, which was still at less than half its capacity. He took me on a tour of what was left of the neighborhood, showing me a picture of Cabrini-Green by what had been cut away from it. One lot was where a cluster of nineteen-story “reds” once stood, including one the Cobra Stones gang had renamed the Palace. Nearby was an empty field that had been the site of the elementary school Pratt attended. Pratt pointed out the ghost town of the boarded-up row houses; a recently rehabbed baseball field where students from Walter Payton magnet high school were practicing; a forest of gleaming high-rises leading to the lakefront, thrown up just as the projects were starting to go down; the most elaborate Parkside townhomes, some unsold and uninhabited; and the more humble mixed-income units from which friends of his had been evicted. “It’s all surreal to me,” he said.

This winter, a few months after Rahm Emanuel announced a budget deficit of $636 million, and as the foreclosure crisis showed no signs of ending, the CHA said it would “recalibrate” its twelve-year-old Plan for Transformation. When I spoke with Charles Woodyard, the new head of the CHA, he said he was going to continue to invest in the existing mixed-income communities. He also mentioned the possibilities of a higher proportion of low-income families filling up mixed-income buildings and of public-housing residency coming with a time limit. What the CHA wouldn’t be able to do, he assured me, was construct new units for the 40,000 families who made it on the agency’s waiting list, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of other Chicagoans in need of affordable housing. Money for social-safety-net programs nationwide has disappeared. “In America, housing is not a fundamental right,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Julia Stasch told me.

Mark Pratt and I circled back to Jenner’s main entrance, where he warmly greeted a former student and spoke excitedly to a mom about his favorite television show, the biker-gang drama Sons of Anarchy. Just before we parted, I brought up a scene in the Cabrini-Green documentary, filmed in 1999, where he explains his decision to leave the project to his then eleven-year-old son, Trevonte. “Why are you quitting?” Trevonte demands, pleading with his dad to keep the family at Cabrini. Looking back, Pratt thought it silly to believe he should have listened to an eleven-year-old. Yet when they moved, Trevonte ended up traveling to and from school on his own, returning to an empty house. He skipped classes, got involved in gangs and drugs. At Cabrini, Pratt believed, none of that would have happened. Trevonte’s grandmother, his uncles and aunts, they would have all watched out for him. His older cousins would have seen him hanging out and ordered him to get his butt back home. “That’s community,” Pratt said. “I didn’t think it through. I thought we were in a nice house, a new community. I made a terrible mistake.” He shook his head. “Leaving Cabrini was the worst decision I ever made in my life.”

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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June 2010

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