Article — From the May 2012 issue

The Last Tower

The decline and fall of public housing

( 2 of 5 )

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.

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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