CHICAGO — To some, Cabrini-Green’s infamous high-rises were a symbol of urban blight – towering testaments to the failure of Chicago public housing to safely give shelter to the poorest of the poor. But to the last residents being rousted from the last building, Cabrini-Green was simply home.
The closure of Cabrini’s high-rises this week marks the end of an ugly era in public housing. The 70-acre development was initially hailed as a salvation for the city’s poor that was emulated nationwide. But it quickly decayed into a virtual war-zone, the kind of place where little boys were gunned down on their way to school and little girls were sexually assaulted and left for dead in stairwells.
With just one building set to fall, mixed-income townhouses, shops and other redevelopment will go up in Cabrini-Green’s place, erasing from the landscape the island of poverty that the high-rises had become. Cabrini sits literally in the shadows of downtown’s gleaming skyscrapers. A few blocks east or west, handbags sell for more money than Cabrini residents pay in rent for a year.
The Cabrini-Green development began on Chicago’s North Side in 1942 with row houses named for St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Roman Catholic patron saint of immigrants. A few years later, high-rises and mid-rises were added. Eventually Cabrini housed as many as 13,000 people.
But the buildings weren’t well-maintained, and crime, gangs and drugs soon became rampant.
The complex drew nationwide attention in 1981, after a gang war killed 11 residents in three months. Then-Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband moved into a Cabrini apartment for three weeks to publicize her efforts to clean up the area.
In 1992, a Cabrini resident hiding in a vacant 10th-floor apartment shot and killed 7-year-old Dantrell Davis as he walked to school holding his mother’s hand. Five years later, a 9-year-old girl known as Girl X was found raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell with gang graffiti scribbled on her body.
The Chicago Housing Authority developed a sweeping plan to overhaul public housing and move away from the high-rise model of warehousing the poor.
Along with changing the city’s public housing system, the transformation plan has brought the political legacy of the powerful Daley family full circle. The elder Mayor Richard J. Daley is blamed for overseeing development of the high-rises decades ago, while his son, the current Mayor Richard M. Daley, has spent the last decade tearing them down and relocating residents.
Remaining residents were being moved out this week, with the last high-rise slated for demolition in January or February. The Chicago Housing Authority originally gave them until January to move, but the date was shifted back as families moved and the building dropped below what officials consider to be a safe occupancy level.
Alther Harris, 67, has lived in Cabrini for more than 30 years and considers it home. She moved to Cabrini’s last high-rise a year ago from a building that has since been demolished. She said the series of recent moves have been “very, very stressful,” she said.
“You can’t clean up right, you can’t cook right, you can’t eat right because you know that day is coming,” said Harris, who lives with her daughter and three grandchildren. “It keeps a person’s mind confused not really knowing what’s coming next.”
The housing agency said in a statement late Tuesday that it was “continuing to work with the remaining families” at the last building, including those who have resisted the move.
Harris is being moved to a nearby public housing townhome with three bedrooms. She said it’s too small for her family, but she doesn’t have much choice.
Former Cabrini residents also have been offered vouchers for private apartments. And housing officials said they would be able to return to the Cabrini area once the new buildings are done.
Kenneth Hammond said the townhome he was offered wasn’t done being rehabbed and had boards on its door and cracked windows. The private apartment he and his family were shown looked nice during the day, but the neighborhood turned unsafe at night, he said.
“What we as residents want to do is be accommodated right and leave the building with pride and dignity,” Hammond said. “We just want to be treated fairly.”
Brenda Lockett can sympathize with residents who don’t want to leave the high-rises behind. She remembers being terrified when first told that she’d have to move, and she pledged to hold onto the building’s beams as it was being demolished.
But six months after moving into a townhome with her husband and three youngest children, she said she couldn’t be happier.
“We moved from the pit to the palace,” she said. “I can live here until I get old and gray.”