In 1929 a treatise by sociologist Harvey Zorbaugh famously depicted the Near North Side of Chicago as divided into The Gold Coast and the Slum. 1 Within a generation the public housing development Cabrini-Green, built in stages from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, would replace that slum — all too literally, as it turned out. For while in its early years the Cabrini project, which consisted of low-rise and high-rise housing, served as a clean and modern alternative to the horrific conditions of the neighborhood known as “Little Hell,” Cabrini-Green itself would suffer a protracted decline — to the point where it became the slum it had been meant to cure. By the early 1990s Cabrini-Green had come to symbolize the systemic failures of postwar public housing, and it was then that city officials and local developers initiated a second cycle of renewal.
As a result, over the past two decades, gentrification processes have finally began to erase the harsh distinction between “Slum” and “Gold Coast,” even as low-income residents have struggled to find a place for themselves in a transforming urban order. Instead of crime-ridden slums and squalid housing projects, this latest round of housing has featured Starbucks-fringed mixed-income communities with vaguely pastoral names like North Town Village, Mohawk North and Parkside of Old Town. For the redevelopment phases completed before 2008, all boded well for developers; more recently the great recession has turned their pro formas into a form of wishful thinking.
Looking across a century of the housing that occupied this same benighted acreage, we can see striking parallels between Cabrini-Green’s slum-clearance origins in the 1930s and ’40s and the more recent fate of this site under the Chicago Housing Authority’s ongoing Plan for Transformation. The successive efforts to reform the Near North Side, and to do so via the mechanism of public housing, reveal much about our national attitudes toward housing — and about our attitudes toward which people should be housed.
In the first phase of the public housing experiment, the planners of Cabrini-Green promised a modern and modernist alternative to the slum (because Chicago Can Build, in the words of a 1950 Chicago Housing Authority report); in the second phase, the CHA promised a New Urbanist-style alternative to public housing (because Chicago can also destroy). Introduced in 2000, the Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation (which has been aided considerably by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI redevelopment agenda) resembles the earlier slum-clearance program in the crucial component of tenant selection: in the early ’40s and more recently the housing programs have entailed intensive screening of prospective residents.
In between these two dramatic phases of demolition/construction, the CHA charted a different course. Encouraged by federal policies, the Authority permitted public housing truly to become welfare housing — the last chance for the city’s poorest residents. In this middle period, from the mid 1960s until the early 1990s, the Authority dramatically reduced tenant screening. By the mid-1990s, however, the reform impulse kicked in again. In this most recent round of clearance and building, as was the case decades earlier, city leaders aimed to replace the existing population with a less distressed and fragile community: in effect, to replace the poor with the less-poor — and to purge the very poorest. It has been the role of design (and designers) to signal that this large-scale social engineering has been accomplished.
Chicago’s leaders praised first the development of Cabrini-Green and then its redevelopment for changing the image of one of the city’s most notorious districts — for creating, at least early on, what seemed a successful instance of a modern public housing project, and then, decades later, for remediating the first failure with what seems a successful example of post-public housing neighborhood reclamation. That said, it is worth asking: How have such successes have been measured, and by whom? And given that each transformation has required significant public funding, it seems also worth asking: How have these development and redevelopment agendas treated low-income tenants? In each era, public housing officials and their private sector partners have used the mandate to create better housing not only to serve a less-impoverished constituency but also to assert that the wholesale clearance of substandard housing and dangerous neighborhoods is, in itself, a benefit to those who are freed from having to live in such conditions — that is, to those whose homes and neighborhoods are being destroyed.
Between 1910 and 1930, Chicagoans referred to the heart of the Little Hell slum as “Death Corner,” a wholly understandable moniker given that the intersection of West Oak Street and Milton Avenue was the scene of well over 100 unsolved murders. For two decades, Chicago police remained “hampered at every turn by the silence of the Italian colony” — a reference to the large Italian-American population in the neighborhood. Typically, as one newspaper story put it, victims would be “murdered before an audience that vanished with the last pistol flash, much as a loon dives beneath the sheltering water just at the moment the hunter’s gun spits out its flame and shot.” 2 Death Corner, as the district’s “central gathering place,” had gained the “international reputation of being the site of more murders than any other territory of equal area in the world.” 3 By the early 1920s, murders in Little Hell continued at the rate of more than 30 per year — more than one-third of the city’s total, although Italians made up only five percent of the population. By this point, many Death Corner victims were casualties of the Prohibition-era “alcohol rivalries” between the bootlegging gangs of Giuseppe “Joe” Aiello and the infamous “Scarface” Al Capone, leader of Chicago’s most powerful mob. 4 As notorious as Cabrini-Green would become, the violence of Little Hell may well have been worse.
The saga of Cabrini-Green begins not with the Chicago Housing Authority, which was founded in 1937, but with the Metropolitan Housing Council, which had commenced operations three years earlier, under the leadership of Elizabeth Wood (who would become the CHA’s first executive secretary). Soon after starting up, the MHC dramatically set out the challenges that confronted Chicago in the Great Depression, in a campaign that used both text and graphics. With “bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters and building material men” all “out of work,” vast areas of the city stood ready for massive transformation. Caught between the “soot, noise, and dirt” of the downtown Loop and the “dead subdivisions” of the outer suburbs, the MHC called for rebuilding “36 square miles” of a city marred by “hobo land” and “auto junk yards.” The audacity of the proposed venture — 36 square miles was a substantial percentage of the entire built-up city — underscored the urgency. 5
Chicago officials couldn’t clear all 36 square miles but, in the early 1940s, they razed the core of Little Hell to build the Frances Cabrini Homes, and made plans to take control of the surrounding area as well, including Death Corner. Meanwhile, in the late 1930s, the CHA established the elaborate screening processes that would be so integral to its activities, with the goal of ensuring that only those judged to be the most worthy among low-income applicants would be selected for occupancy. Its 1940 Manual of Operations laid out the requirements, making clear that the Authority wanted tenants who were U.S. citizens living in a “natural family unit,” with children under age 17. The CHA would reject those who showed “credit irresponsibility” or “evident criminal or anti-social tendencies.” Application screening entailed a home visit, as well as verification of information from employers, creditors, social agencies and the police department; the coding of applications also permitted outright rejection for what the Authority termed “Insufficient or Unstable Income.” Ultimately, the CHA sought assurance that “the family will be able to carry the rent in the project.” 6
The agency’s vetting policies were only reinforced when, in December 1941, just before Cabrini-Green began construction, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany, at which point the Cabrini-Green project was repurposed to provide 586 housing units for war workers and the families of servicemen. Such a policy shift, while justified by the war effort, set in motion a lingering pattern of exclusion, as the CHA sought to attract and retain tenants who were low-income — but not too low-income. To the consternation of the surrounding neighborhood, no one from the cleared slum received apartments in the new project, which consisted of row houses, and the CHA’s rents were more than double the rates that had been proposed in 1940. Cabrini’s neighbors and their lawyers complained but got nowhere. Over the years the CHA often claimed that nobody was too poor to get into public housing, but right from the start, with the creation of Cabrini Homes, this was demonstrably not the case (even when one evaluates data on the housing that was explicitly low-rent, not the units commandeered for war workers). In a letter to federal officials in 1945, Elizabeth Wood admitted that fully one-third of those living in the substandard housing that had been demolished had incomes too low to be considered for public housing, since they could not credibly be expected to be financially responsible tenants. 7
During the 1940s and 1950s, proponents could plausibly praise the new public housing for its lower rates of crime, delinquency and disease. It did not seem to matter that the re-planning of the neighborhood had also coincided with the careful vetting of what would be an entirely new population of upwardly mobile new residents. Public housing advocates frequently compared delinquency rates between the old slums and the new public housing, but the comparison was problematic; for it was the successive forces of displacement and replacement that occasioned the transformation. Public housing did not reform delinquents; it replaced them.
In the postwar era the Chicago Housing Authority continued to develop the Cabrini project; but instead of the low-rise townhomes it had earlier favored, it executed a series of mid-rise and high-rise structures set amid expansive open spaces and accommodating 1,900 more units. (This decision was ostensibly justified for reasons of economy, though it is likely that the CHA could have achieved nearly the same costs and densities by continuing to build low-rise developments.) By 1962, with the addition of 1,000 units in the adjacent high-rise William Green Homes, the project became known as Cabrini-Green; it was now substantially complete, and contained in total 3,600 apartments. 8
To some extent, this new pattern followed the template of what became known as postwar urban renewal, turning dense networks of neighborhood streets into modernist superblocks. More often, though, such “renewal” entailed replacing “slums” and “blighted areas” with uses far more upscale than public housing. Chicago had not yet parceled out the Little Hell acreage to private developers; that would come later. At this point the CHA’s public housing served upwardly mobile poor families while displacing less reputable households; into the 1960s Cabrini-Green housed tenants whose rising wages provided them with incomes that were nearly half the median for the area. They were certainly poor, but hardly the “extremely-low-income” families that would inhabit Cabrini-Green during its most notorious years.
Any full assessment of the decline at Cabrini-Green after 1965 would require far more space than is available here, but it is possible to identify some key dimensions. One is the difference between the low-rise and high-rise housing; the row houses enjoyed relative and prolonged success, while the high-rises were challenged almost from the start. But no matter the housing type, the deeper troubles accelerated after the riots in the spring of 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and were further intensified by the sniper killings of two white Chicago policemen in the project in the summer of 1970. And if Cabrini-Green’s violence could sometimes be racialized in black-white terms, it was more often expressed in black-on-black crime, usually gang related. By the 1980s every building had gained a nickname and each had gang associations — e.g., “the rock,” “the castle,” “bank roll,” “scamplife,” etc. — with the top gangs of “the reds” and “the whites” often divided (ironically) by Division Street. In 1982 Mayor Jane Byrne famously (and temporarily) moved into one of the “red” high-rises, which led to some security improvements; but these proved fleeting, and management and maintenance continued inexorably to decline. 9 Despite the violence, however, many residents continued to value their community, with its dense networks of family, friends and informal support systems. To them, Cabrini-Green was a community with problems, but not a “problem community” or a “slum.”
The failures of Cabrini-Green (which was only the most notorious of the city’s public housing projects) were widely understood to be attributable to the systemic management malfunctions of the Chicago Housing Authority. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the CHA enjoyed a brief revival during the early part of the tenure of executive director Vince Lane, epitomized by the cover of Chicago Tribune Magazine in July 1990, with its headline: Can This Man Save the CHA?. Lane famously introduced a series of “sweeps” intended to rid the high-rises of drug-related crime; but the gains were short lived, and the costs of patrols diverted funds from other needed investments.
Then, most dramatically, in the fall of 1992, Cabrini-Green residents experienced the tragic killing of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, shot by a stray bullet while walking hand-in-hand with his mother from his Cabrini apartment to the school across the street. When I mapped the site of Dantrell’s murder, I found that it was only about 200 feet from the erstwhile Death Corner. The killing of Dantrell Davis coincided almost exactly with the birth of HUD’s HOPE VI program, which aimed to redress the failures of postwar public housing. Not surprisingly, the CHA selected Cabrini-Green as the focus of its first HOPE VI application, specifically targeting the funds to Cabrini Extension North — exactly where the murder had happened. Although the CHA was awarded a HOPE VI grant as early as 1993, the agency has faced persistent challenges in implementing the federal funding; nearly two decades later, this first phase of redevelopment on the Cabrini site has still not been completed.
The delays have come from many sources. Internal upheaval at the troubled authority caused HUD officials to oust Vince Lane in 1995 and seize control of the CHA. Cabrini residents (and their lawyers) have become increasingly organized and activist. Although residents had participated in the first HOPE VI proposal, they were marginalized in a later version of the plan prepared by the now HUD-managed authority. Announced in 1996, this updated plan provided only 325 replacement housing units targeted to extremely-low-income households; at the same time the city proposed a broader Near North Redevelopment Initiative (underwritten by tax increment financing) which aimed to remake the larger neighborhood, with public housing scattered throughout smaller-scaled mixed-income developments. In response the Cabrini-Green tenant association sued; litigation delayed the redevelopment process for years, until a consent decree was signed in 2000. (This judgment resulted in real gains for public housing residents, with the number of units reserved for very low-income households increased from 325 to 700; it also enabled the Cabrini tenants organization to become a significant partner in the HOPE VI portion of the redevelopment. 10)
At the same time, in the late ’90s — even as the legal issues were being wrangled — private developers commenced and completed several mixed-income communities on the fringes of the Cabrini site. Most of these reserved a few units for ex-Cabrini residents, typically about 10 to 15 percent of the total — but these experimental developments clearly mirrored the new course that HOPE VI was also charting. Old Town Village West, for instance, offered up a dramatic contrast between its aspirational brick-clad row houses and the looming, lingering presence of the Green Homes to the north (since demolished). North Town Village, initiated in 1998 and occupied during 2001-2002, was the first serious attempt at a fuller-scale mixed-income development. Located adjacent to the Cabrini-Green, where demolition of the high-rises had just begun, North Town consists of 50 percent market rate units (both rental and ownership), with 20 percent “affordable” units subsidized by Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and 30 percent of the units reserved for ex-Cabrini residents. The developer of North Town’s affordable housing component, Peter Holsten, insisted that the income mix be fine-grained and genuine.
New Near North
By the turn of the new century Chicago’s real estate market had become super-heated, and these new mixed-income communities had a spectacular start. In June 2000 — on the very first day the sales trailer for North Town Village opened for business and three months before construction began — 47 homes had sold in the first seven hours. By the end of the week, that number had almost doubled, with some units selling for as much as $475,000. One young white couple, Mark and Amanda Tomlinson, interviewed on 60 Minutes, described the scene in the trailer: “It was just a feeding frenzy in there. I mean, everyone was screaming and yelling. One lady yelled at her husband, ‘Just buy whatever’s left! It doesn’t matter what it looks like!’” In August, real estate analyst Tracy Cross rated North Town Village as “the hottest-selling location in Chicago, surpassing other new residential developments by 50 percent.” By January 2001, before a single unit had opened, the development had achieved national visibility. 11
At the same time, Holsten’s team struggled to find ex-Cabrini residents who were both eager and eligible, and who would enable them to fill their quota of 30 percent — in this case 79 units. As Holsten acknowledges, “We were given a whole bunch of names to look at by the Housing Authority, and we picked and chose the best.” He estimates that it’s only about “one out of five that work out OK.” Sometimes potential tenants resisted the company-wide policy of requiring annual drug testing (a rule that applies to market-rate as well as subsidized residents, which is partly why it hasn’t yet been legally challenged), while others worried about credit checks, criminal records of family members, landlord references — precisely the same sort of criteria that kept many households out of public housing in the 1940s. Others were now well settled and simply did not want to make another move — hardly surprising given that in many cases it had been several years since their displacement from Cabrini-Green, where the demolitions were proceeding. 12 At heart Holsten’s struggle to find suitable low-income tenants underscores the central question facing all developers who choose to work at the margins of empathy: How do you protect the property — financially, socially, physically — without excluding the low-income tenants who are the intended constituency?
Meanwhile — after the three years of haggling over the HOPE VI proposal and the four years of litigating to reach a consent decree — the process of redeveloping the Cabrini-Green site had stalled again. The impasse centered on disputes between residents and developers (led again by Peter Holsten) over the control of management and social services. At the same time the developer team was fraught with internal discord about how to spatially distribute the mix of incomes — for example, should public housing residents be eligible for the most desirable types of townhomes? It took until 2005 to get a contract signed. All the while, with many of the buildings already demolished, the site was emptying out — it had become a wasteland, albeit with great views of downtown. But eventually, in 2008, on the grounds of what had been Cabrini-Green, Phase One of the experimental community called Parkside of Old Town was opened — just as the real estate market was about to collapse.
Undaunted, the developer’s marketing brochures and websites emphasized the advantages and amenities of the new development, hoping to make Cabrini-Green no more than a distant memory or, even better, an unknown irrelevancy. Yet the real estate crash has dramatically affected who actually came to live in Parkside. The Holsten team had intended the development to have the same 50-30-20 mix of incomes as in North Town Village — yet so many would-be condo-purchasers canceled their deposits after the crash that the market-rate share long remained half-empty, while some market-rate residents who bought in early on have felt trapped, frustrated and angry. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the public housing residents quickly moved into their full share of the units. This resulted in community tensions, where many market-rate residents felt misled about the intended mix, and where many ex-Cabrini residents chafed at the rule strictures of the private management company. 13
Even beyond the pressures of the recessionary real estate market, the former site of Cabrini-Green — the last of the old high-rises was demolished in the spring of 2011 — still bears the traces of past conflicts. A street sign marking the honorary Dantrell Davis Way flanks a lot that remains empty, awaiting the next phase of Parkside. On one recent visit, I simply could not bring myself to show Peter Holsten the map indicating the Death Corner murders that had once taken place on his carefully manicured site — especially since the new community, too, has seen its first murder. Still, there seems little doubt, given the momentum of the city, that in the coming years the former site of Cabrini-Green will fill up with new housing; and there is equally little doubt that not much of this housing will serve the residents who once lived in the vanished projects. The cycle has continued.
The parallels across the decades are striking. In both the mid-century slum clearance era and the late 20th-century HOPE VI era, powerful downtown interests sponsored redevelopment initiatives that functioned to remove many of the lowest-income households from proximity to the central business district and to replace them with more upwardly mobile households. In both eras, private sector players partnered with city leaders to take creative advantage of new federal housing programs. In both eras, these new programs — the public housing enabled by federal legislation in the 1940s, the neighborhood redevelopment sponsored by HOPE VI starting in the 1990s — empowered local officials to recast a neighborhood plagued by crime and poverty as an intractable problem that could be solved through site clearance and rebuilding. In the early 1940s, Elizabeth Wood and her associates at the CHA insisted that Little Hell was a “slum” that could — and should — be removed, much as Mayor Richard M. Daley and HUD would later characterize Cabrini-Green. In the early 1940s, the exigency of the world war and fears about a suburbanizing middle class prompted urgent implementation of plans; in the 1990s the persistent violence of the projects and the prospect of capitalizing on the rapidly gentrifying surrounding neighborhoods inspired equally concerted action.
And in both eras, the existing residents of the district initially thought the new housing would be for them, but, with HOPE VI as with slum “rehousing,” they ultimately learned that the brand-new dwellings were meant chiefly for others with higher incomes or greater capacity to survive the socio-economic scrutiny of the managers. And finally, then as now, the city’s housing officials told the displaced residents that their removal from distressed housing was chiefly for their own good. Today we know almost nothing about the fate of those who were displaced from Little Hell in the late ’30s and early ’40s, except for the fact that none of them ended up in the Cabrini Homes or any other public housing, and that no other forms of assistance or subsidy were offered to them. In the more recent clearance, however, the situation is more complex.
One key distinction now is that many displaced residents have the option of moving — of using Housing Choice Vouchers that will subsidize their rent in privately owned dwellings elsewhere in the city, or else moving to other non-redeveloped public housing. Moreover, due to years of activism and litigation, Cabrini-Green residents have gained more control — and a more secure foothold in the Cabrini replacement housing — than many of their counterparts at other public projects that are part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s broad Plan for Transformation.
And yet, nearly 20 years into the redevelopment, there exist fewer than 400 replacement public housing units, counting both the Cabrini site itself and the mixed-income communities in the broader neighborhood. With nearly 3,000 deeply subsidized apartments already torn down, the 586 Cabrini row houses — the low-rise housing that has so far survived the clearance — seem likely to fall next. The CHA assures ex-Cabrini residents forced from vacated and demolished buildings that they can enter the lottery for replacement units on site and in the neighborhood; but all the existing apartments reserved for public housing residents are already occupied, and the prospect of achieving the 700 units mandated in the consent decree depends upon the completion of the glacially implemented new construction on the Cabrini Extension North site — still unfinished from the HOPE VI grant of 1993. And even if new units do materialize, the screening processes — even under the more liberal terms negotiated though the consent decree — ensure that most ex-Cabrini households will not be welcomed. 14
Cabrini residents continue to fight for maximum inclusion in the new Near North Side, even as their leaders age and their numbers dwindle. If the CHA’s goal is to eliminate at least two-thirds of the neighborhood’s public housing apartments, and if fewer than one in three housing units in the mixed-income developments is targeted to public housing residents, and if only one in five Cabrini households can pass the scrutiny of even well-intentioned developers like Peter Holsten, then there is ample evidence to see Cabrini’s transformation as a second purging of the poorest — a new chapter that is at least as dramatic as the replacement of Little Hell by Cabrini Homes. And as in the earlier chapter, little effort is being made to record or assess the fates of those who have left Cabrini for other options. For the moment, with its vacant land and uncertain future, Cabrini cannot really conceal the traces of the difficult decades. The heady marketing of Parkside of Old Town cannot fully expunge the dark memories of an older town
The saga of Cabrini-Green compels us to engage some hard and fundamental questions. It is not enough to ask: who benefits from public housing redevelopment? We must also ask: how we measure such benefits and who gets to do that measuring? Once again, and not for the last time, a predominantly low-income community is being sacrificed to build a higher-income one. While no one should doubt the horrific violence of either Little Hell or Cabrini-Green at their gangland nadirs, is it fair that so few of those who suffered through the worst conditions should be invited back to enjoy the improvements? As in other cities across the nation, Chicago’s public housing has been the instigator, simultaneously, of emplacement, replacement, and displacement. Developers succeed in placing upscale new uses; a haunted housing authority succeeds in replacing deteriorated housing on a perpetually haunted site; and residents get displaced from their homes and communities.