Remembering Cabrini Green

NPR’s Long Goodbye for Infamous Public Housing Project caught my ear this morning. Cabrini Green is in the news again, as the city of Chicago prepares to move the last two families out and tear down the last standing high-rise.

I lived in Cabrini Green for a while during my college years, learning at least as much from Cabrini Green and friends I made there as I did from the University of Chicago, at the other end of my hour-long bus-and-subway commute.

Like many of the people in the high-rises, I came to Chicago straight off the farm. Drinking coffee and whiskey and dancing were all new experiences for me. Singing in a gospel choir on Sunday morning was different from my country Catholic upbringing. I learned to be wary of cops and Cobra Stones. I went door to door, precinct organizing for one unsuccessful grassroots independent political campaign after another. I got robbed a few times. I  learned about rat traps and steel wool and rat poison, and the futility of all three.

My time in Cabrini was more than 30 years ago, and people in Cabrini were already predicting that they would be removed from what was then and is now some of Chicago’s most valuable real estate, walking distance from the Gold Coast and the Loop. The only real surprise is that it took this long.

I understand the logical arguments, and even agree with them. High-rises are not good places for families with small children, Cabrini Green (and other high-rise housing projects) were warehouses (at best) or concentration camps (at worst) for poor, black families. They were segregated, isolated, and often permeated by violence, gangs and drug dealers.

But that’s not the whole story, as the residents interviewed by NPR point out. Cabrini Green was also a place of community, where people raised families and supported one another. The row houses where Miz Thornton and Miz Hendley lived had front stoops and tiny yards where people could sit and visit. The high-rises were tougher, but even in this rocky ground, human relationships grew.

I spent only a few years in Cabrini. Kenneth Hammond, who was interviewed by NPR, lived their his whole life. Living there for 41 years, he says he felt the community was “like one big family.”

People in a family take care of each other. Moving people out of their community takes away their support systems.

Roosevelt University professor D. Bradford Hunt told NPR:

“I would say that some residents are better off. … They’ve moved into these new mixed-income communities. We know that they feel safer. We know that their housing conditions are better.”

But Hunt says some Chicago public housing residents are in new communities, just as high crime and high poverty as the one they left, and without the friends, family and community network of support they had in Cabrini.

And that’s the crux of the problem: destroying high-rises leaves lots of people out in the cold. Replacement housing in mixed-income communities never has enough room to accommodate all of the  public housing residents displaced by the urban renewal/people removal projects. Tearing down buildings is easier than building up communities.

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