Housing Issue 2018 | Lit

The Personal Histories of Public Housing

Ben Austen’s detailed history shows the story of Cabrini-Green is as relevant as ever

In 2010, when the last families were moving out of Cabrini-Green and the last tower was being prepared for demolition, Ben Austen, a magazine writer and South Side native, began researching this end of an era for a Harper’s article. In a recent interview with the Weekly, Austen reflected that the more he dug in, he realized that this was “not just an important Chicago story but one of the most important Chicago stories…the whole history of the city exists within it.” Seven years and hundreds of interviews later, Austen would document that history in a deeper way with High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

The title calls for some clarification: High-Risers is more a biography of one prominent housing project than a study of American public housing more broadly. Cabrini-Green’s uniqueness in the public housing landscape—its enclosure within areas of white affluence, its notoriety in the American imagination—suggests that the fate of American public housing can’t be told through the story of Cabrini-Green alone. Yet while Austen mentions other public housing projects only in passing, he ties the history of Cabrini-Green to broad economic, political, and social trends that played a pivotal role in the creation and undoing not only of Cabrini-Green, but also of much of America’s public housing. By looking at how deindustrialization, acts of Congress, and popular perceptions of public housing affected Cabrini-Green, Austen hints at a history of all public housing.

Austen’s narrative starts with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)’s 1950 appraisal of ‘Little Hell,’ the mostly Italian slum on the Near North Side. The housing situation there was borderline catastrophic, featuring cramped houses, often two to a lot, with many lacking showers and private toilets and almost all relying on coal stoves for heat. As “landlords overcharged for their firetraps,” the area suffered from higher incidences of infant mortality, sickness, and crime than the rest of the city.

The CHA considered it its duty to remedy the situation. Austen gives us some context for why the CHA built large high-rises. “‘If it is not bold,’” said Elizabeth Wood, the then-head of the CHA, “‘the result will be a series of small projects, islands in a wilderness of slums beaten down by smoke, noise, and fumes.’” Lawrence Amstadter, one of the architects, would later reflect, “‘We thought we were playing God in those days…We thought we were doing a great thing, doing a lot of innovative design things.’” A half-century later, the rhetoric would sound eerily similar as the CHA proposed to replace the high-rises it had built in the fifties and sixties—now symbols of public housing’s decline—with mixed-income developments and Section 8 housing vouchers. Julia Stasch, who was in charge of seeing through the Plan for Transformation, as it was called, spoke of a “ ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity…to improve the lives of thousands of people.’ ”

We are soon introduced to one of our main characters, Dolores Wilson. In the 1950s, she lived with her husband Hubert and her children in a divided basement unit on the South Side, one of the infamous ‘kitchenettes’ that later featured in the work of Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and Gwendolyn Brooks. The place was unsafe—a man once tried breaking in through a window, and the threat of a deadly fire loomed over every moment. After a down payment on a South Side development fell through, Dolores started looking at public housing options.

An early moment illustrates how this history will be told. After considering and applying for apartments in older projects, like Ida B. Wells and Altgeld Gardens, “That’s when [Dolores] looked at Cabrini. After its 1950 survey…the CHA razed the slum…demolishing the 2,325 units of substandard housing there; in their place, the agency erected fifteen separate towers that stood seven, ten, and nineteen stories tall, a total of 1,925 apartments.” Just like that, Austen sneaks in the sentences announcing the construction of the Cabrini-Green high-rises into Dolores’s explorations of safe housing options for her family. By placing the stories of people at the forefront of the narrative, Austen invites us to  bear witness history, not a lecture. He narrates how parents fought to improve conditions at overcrowded Jenner Elementary; how residents lobbied an unresponsive CHA to fix broken elevators and replace lights; and when Hubert started a drum and bugle corps called the Corsairs that practiced on the fields adjacent to the high-rises.

Austen carefully intersperses these stories with the conditions that shaped life at Cabrini-Green. At first, the criteria for being admitted to public housing were strict, initially prioritizing “working families with young dependents.”

“Very poor families, those who were unemployed, unstable, or unseemly—the new public housing wasn’t intended for them,” Austen writes. “The subsidy wasn’t charity or humanitarian assistance; the developments were supposed to revitalize the slums, not replicate them.”

But as time went on, these requirements changed and demographic shifts—including Chicago’s declining population—influenced who was able and willing to live at Cabrini. Congress passed laws that were, in theory, well-meaning, making it easier for people without reliable sources of income to get into public housing and making it harder for working families who could afford other options to remain. But the net effect, as Austen notes, is that people who paid rent left and were replaced by people on welfare who paid reduced amounts, cutting into the CHA’s finances. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget faced regular cuts.

Austen narrates the difficulties faced at Cabrini-Green—and by extension, other similar public housing projects—that contributed to its problems and played a role in its demise. Businesses and industries that had offered jobs to low-income residents around Cabrini-Green moved elsewhere or closed down. Mothers on welfare had a financial incentive to avoid having partners live with them so as to continue receiving payments. Cabrini-Green soon became a housing project isolated from the surrounding area by race and wealth, with fragmented families, badly in need of regular maintenance that the CHA couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for, and filled with children. On seventy acres of land, in the early sixties, there were 14,000 children for 6,000 adults. 

We meet some of these children early on and they accompany us throughout the book. Kelvin Cannon was born and grew up in Cabrini, running around with the other kids and learning how to be and look tough. Later he joined the Gangster Disciples and became the point man for his entire building. J.R. Fleming, who grew up in the suburbs, had considered a football career. But after a summer spent in Cabrini, he discovered freedom—he drank, smoked, went out with girls, and forgot those aspirations. “It still felt to J.R. like everyone was either family or like family,” Austen writes.

Little moments from the lives of our characters bring them to life on the page. When Hubert was arrested for a burglary he didn’t commit and spent several nights in jail, Dolores baked him cookies with tiny “I love you” notes baked inside. On the first day of school, Kelvin couldn’t stop crying in front of the white teacher—“Although Kelvin had sprinted past countless white people on the streets of the Near North Side, he’d never before exchanged two consecutive sentences with one.” Annie Ricks, another main character who, along with her thirteen kids, was the last person to leave Cabrini-Green in 2010, was made homeless in the late eighties when her house burned down. She walked seven miles through the snow to Cabrini-Green and demanded to be given a vacant apartment. Eventually, the woman in the office, who had been unwilling to consider the unofficial request, acquiesced to Annie’s insistence.

But what comes across as exceptional in Austen’s storytelling is not so much the humanity of the residents—they were trying to make it, just like everyone else—but the inhumanity with which others treated Cabrini-Green. Already the projects were at a disadvantage simply for being what they were. An anecdote early on sums up the American attitude to public housing: “The architect Lawrence Amstadter had wanted to install metal numerals and letters, explaining that it would actually cost less to do so. But he was told the metal gave off the appearance of being pricier,” and so the addresses were painted above the front entrances.

The inhumanity and ignorance are most evident when Austen narrates how media outlets reported on the violence and deplorable conditions at Cabrini-Green. In part due to its proximity to Chicago’s affluent downtown, the project gained outsized notoriety in the city and beyond for being poor, violent, and of course, Black. News outlets reported on the latest murders in grisly language—one CBS Evening News story called it “a public housing hell-hole of poverty and crime.” Even crimes committed next to but outside of Cabrini-Green were reported as having occurred in the project. “‘If you stubbed your toe at Cabrini-Green, it was in the news,’ Dolores complained.”

City officials fared no better. When Mayor Daley announced his Plan for Transformation in 1999, the initiative meant to demolish the high-rises, he proclaimed he wanted to “rebuild their souls.” (‘What’s wrong with my soul?’ we might imagine a Cabrini resident asking.) Or when Mayor Jane Byrne took part in a political publicity stunt and stayed in a Cabrini apartment for nearly three weeks, she called the project “ ‘a cancer that can spread to every neighborhood in the city.’”

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Listen to Weekly contributing editor Adam Przybyl and radio editor Erisa Apantaku interview High-Risers author Ben Austen for SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:

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While some residents played up the danger and grime—when Kelvin spent time in lockup, people reacted with respect when they learned he was from Cabrini—many spoke to the positives of living there. When Hubert passed away, Dolores was offered the option of taking a housing voucher and moving out to the suburbs. But she declined. “’I’m in the projects, but that’s my home. I love my home just like you love your home.’” One of Annie Ricks’ kids, on that last day in 2010, tried to tell a reporter: “There was more good than bad.”

By juxtaposing residents’ stories with those of the media, Austen looks at the consistent failure of newspapers and television to accurately portray what was going on inside the projects. People outside of Cabrini-Green seemed more interested in creating and maintaining a certain image of the project than actually finding out what went on inside. “What lifestyle is it that residents want to protect there anyway?’” reads one Tribune column, demonstrating both ignorance of and indifference to the answer.

Austen shies away from outright political analysis or commentary, but he often presents the history of Cabrini-Green in such a way that invites subtle questions with no easy answers. When over a thousand homes on the West Side were burnt down in the wake of the 1968 riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the CHA sent more than a thousand people to vacant apartments at Cabrini-Green, unwittingly introducing gangs such as the Cobra Stones and the Gangster Disciples to a project that had had little to do with them. Drugs streamed in and the blacktop between high-rises became known as the “Killing Field” for the number of people shot from unseen snipers above.

What was the CHA to do besides give available homes to the people made homeless? “But it is one thing to operate a housing program and another to run an emergency shelter,” Austen notes. “At the very least, a sudden influx of homeless families required a boost in managers and services meant to assist them. Yet none of those things accompanied them to Cabrini-Green.” Placing that responsibility on an organization that was already facing huge budget cuts and running inefficiently seems like its own kind of irresponsibility.

Austen paints a bleak picture of the CHA, the organization tasked with taking care of its public housing projects and people inside of them. Austen notes that the CHA was one of the most inefficient and poorly managed institutions in Chicago, but according to some HUD metrics, it was also considered one of the worst public housing agencies in the country even as its New York counterpart dealt with more than a hundred thousand more units units. Maintenance workers, sometimes appointed through the city’s mysterious patronage system, loafed on the job. The housing project went long stretches without adequate repairs until it landed in the media spotlight for whatever reason, at which point the city poured in to shore up security and evict squatters. Austen notes that during Byrne’s stay at Cabrini, “More work went on at the housing project in two weeks than had occurred in the previous two years.”

Sometimes the inefficiencies and indifference added up in personal ways, too. Dolores was assured that on the day of her move from Cabrini-Green to a different housing project, she would be provided with boxes; but movers didn’t bring enough and ushered her out anyway. “Dolores cried as a lifetime of mementos went into the trash. She lost every letter she ever received. She lost her wedding photos and pictures from her trips to Jamaica with Hubert.”

Then there are the forces that seemed to actively work against Cabrini-Green residents. Some police officers terrorized and brutalized Cabrini-Green residents with illegal searches and frequent arrests. Since at least the 70s, when the idea of demolishing the high rises was first given a platform by politicians, the threat of losing their homes to real estate developers who were already investing in the surrounding neighborhoods loomed over residents’ heads. In the nineties, those plans become more defined and the threat loomed larger.

Cabrini-Green fought back. Residents banded together to pressure the CHA into undergoing maintenance and demanded more funds from the city. Activists created the Coalition to Protect Public Housing and organized protests, and the city reacted by creating committees that included them in the process. But at the last minute, residents were shut out of the decision-making process, and their requests—carefully negotiated over many months and years—were summarily ignored and dismissed. When a city official admonished residents at a meeting for getting rowdy and interrupting her statements, a resident yelled back, “You interrupted a way of life, lady.”

Despite residents’ efforts, Cabrini-Green went the same way of the other high-rises. Families vied for mixed-income units, many of which the CHA had yet to build. Others took up housing vouchers and relocated to neighborhoods just as poor and dangerous as Cabrini-Green, only this time they were in unfamiliar territory without the support networks they had built up over the years and often seen as intruders and criminals by the neighborhoods that received them.

Some of them fought back in other ways. J.R. co-founded the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and, with other volunteers, spent time breaking into vacant homes owned by banks and refurbishing them. Though they were technically trespassing, he successfully moved in families in need of a home, some of them former CHA residents who had fallen through the cracks. He traveled (and continues to travel) to  United Nations and human rights conferences, arguing wherever he went that the country does not have a housing problem—there are at least five empty houses for every homeless person in America—but rather a moral and political one.

The Cabrini-Green homes are gone forever. The intense concentration of people and poverty, the killing fields, and the perpetually broken elevators are no more. Also gone are the bonds of family and community between thousands of people, the days and nights spent on the walkways or on the blacktop grilling, dancing, and talking. These joyful institutions and connections will need to be painstakingly rebuilt in new environments, if at all. Meanwhile, communities of color across Chicago—and the country—continue to be underfunded, scoured by police, and demonized in the media.

The high-rises are gone and, in time, the high-risers will go with them. But the lessons of Cabrini-Green still weigh on us all.

Ben Austen, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. $27.99. HarperCollins. 400 pages.

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