Nearly 50 years ago, fresh off the farm, I walked my almost-17-year-old self into the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. Cabrini-Green became my first urban experience, the first place I learned about neighborhood and community and belonging in a city. Other people called the projects “dangerous” or “the notorious Cabrini-Green projects.” For me, they became the place that I learned to dance, worked on political campaigns, sang in the church choir, tutored children, and kissed a boy for the first time.
I also learned hands-on lessons about power and politics and economics. I heard the elders say that Cabrini wouldn’t last, that the land was too valuable, too close to downtown, and that the projects were just a placeholder until the rich and powerful got around to dividing it up and developing it. They were right. That day has come.
On February 8, the Chicagoist headlined “2 Bedrooms In Cabrini-Green’s New High Rise Start At $3,200 A Month.” According to the article, Cabrini-Green is “becoming something of a goldmine for developers who have planned new, luxury high rises for the Near North Side area not far from where the dilapidated public housing towers once stood.”
Some of those towers were 19 stories high, packed full of families with small children. “Tot lots,” hard-surfaced playgrounds with few amenities, adjoined parking lots. Elevators broke down frequently. High-rise public housing was a bad idea from the beginning, the wrong way to house families and children.
While Cabrini-Green was known for its high-rises, the first buildings in the public housing project were more human-scale and more humane row houses. These town-home like buildings had tiny yards in front of each door, and lower density that made it easier for neighbors to interact. Now they, too, are going. Last September, the Chicago Tribune reported on a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) win over the tenant organization. Okay – they called it a settlement, but it’s not exactly a victory for tenants:
“The rowhouses at Oak and Larrabee streets are the final remnant of the Cabrini-Green development. The last of the high-rise apartments was torn down in 2011. As the neighborhood improved, CHA leaders repeatedly said the agency would keep the rowhouses standing, rehabilitate them and continue to use them for public housing.
“The CHA overhauled 146 of the 586 rowhouses then abandoned the effort in 2011, with officials saying they instead wanted to turn the rest of the site into mixed-income housing. The remaining 440 rowhouses were fenced off and have sat unused for years.”
The settlement of the tenant lawsuit provides that CHA will leave the 146 units in place and guarantee that 40 percent of the new housing to be built on the site will be public housing.
Like Chicago, the Twin Cities is in the midst of a low-income housing crisis. In the Twin Cities, rental vacancies are less than three percent, and affordable rental vacancies below two percent. The average apartment rental in the Twin Cities is more than $1000 per month.
In both cities, public housing means that tenants pay a percentage of their total income as rent. In both cities, low-rise public housing was built more than half a century ago. Cabrini-Green’s 586 roughhouse apartments were built in 1942. Glendale’s 184 townhome units were developed in 1952.
Like the tenants in Cabrini-Green, Glendale residents say that the public housing authority has failed to maintain their homes and now wants to sell off the conveniently located, increasingly valuable property to a private developer.
Cabrini-Green, the housing project, had lots of problems, but its problems were not its only story. There was also community, especially in the row houses. And there were places for poor people to live, even if they didn’t have a lot of money. Glendale residents also feel a sense of community, which is evident in their participation at Defend Glendale meetings.
That’s the public housing model. It’s far from perfect, but it offers affordable shelter. Private “redevelopment” does not. As the Chicagoist article about Cabrini-Green’s new luxury high-rise concluded concluded, “we can’t help but see the promises of these luxury developments coinciding with the displacement of Chicago’s working class and the hastening demise of its affordability.”
More News Day articles about Glendale public housing in Minneapolis:
- Listening to Glendale voices (1/11/2016)
- Glendale residents want insulation, not blankets (12/15/2015)
- Fighting to save Glendale housing in Minneapolis (12/13/2015)
- Privatizing public housing in Minneapolis: the Glendale problems (7/7/2015)