Cabrini-Green is a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing development on Chicago's North Side, bordered by Evergreen Avenue on the north, Sedgwick Street on the east, Chicago Avenue on the south, and Larrabee Street on the west. At its height, Cabrini-Green was home to 15,000 people, living in mid- and high-rise apartment buildings. Over the years, gang violence and neglect created terrible conditions for the residents, and the name "Cabrini-Green" became synonymous with the problems associated with public housing in the United States.
As of 2008, around 4,700 residents remain in Cabrini-Green. Most of the buildings have been razed and the entire neighborhood is being redeveloped into a combination of high-rise buildings and row houses, with the stated goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood, with some units reserved for public housing tenants. Controversy regarding the implementation of these plans has arisen.
According to the CHA, the early residents of the Cabrini rowhouses were predominantly of Italian ancestry. By 1962, however, a majority of residents in the completed complex were African-American. White flight from the complex escalated over the following decade; by the 1970s, its population was almost entirely black.
Residents lived with substantially subsidized rents. However, many neglected their units and vandalized common areas both in and around the buildings. This behavior resulted in most law-abiding residents with any financial resources moving out, leaving behind the extremely poor, petty criminals, gang members, and drug dealers.
Unlike many of the city's other public housing projects like Rockwell Gardens or Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green was situated in an extremely affluent part of the city. The poverty-stricken projects were actually constructed at the meeting point of Chicago's two wealthiest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Less than a mile to the east sits Michigan Avenue with its high-end shopping and expensive housing. The buildings' proximity to these affluent areas made Cabrini-Green a lucrative site for illicit drug sales; in the absence of other employment opportunities, intense competition in this underground economy fostered gang formation and violence. Specific gangs 'controlled' individual buildings, and residents felt pressure to ally with these gangs in order to protect themselves from escalating violence.
During the worst years of Cabrini-Green's problems, vandalism increased substantially. Gang members and miscreants covered interior walls with graffiti and damaged doors, windows, and elevators. Many residents urinated in the hallways which were rarely cleaned. Rat and cockroach infestations were commonplace, rotting garbage stacked up in clogged trash chutes (it once piled up to the 15th floor), and basic utilities (water, electricity, etc.) often malfunctioned and were left unrepaired. On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas of the façade, and pavement instead of green space—all in the name of economizing on maintenance—created an atmosphere of neglect and decay. The high "open galleries" were enclosed with steel fencing the entire height of the building to prevent residents from throwing garbage over the edge, from falling, or from being thrown off (giving the visual appearance of a large prison tier, or animal cages, which further enraged community leaders).
In 1996, the federal government mandated the destruction of 18,000 units of public housing in Chicago (along with tens of thousands of other units nationwide). In response, some Cabrini-Green tenant activists have organized to prevent themselves from becoming homeless and to protect what they and their supporters see as a right to public housing for the city's poorest residents. The activists succeeded in obtaining a consent decree guaranteeing that some buildings will remain standing while the new structures are built, so that tenants can remain in their homes until new ones are available. The document also guarantees displaced Cabrini residents a home in the new neighborhood.
In 2001, a tenants group sued the CHA over relocation plans for displaced residents of Cabrini-Green under the city's Plan for Transformation, a $1.4 billion blueprint for public housing renewal. Richard Wheelock, an attorney representing the tenants, said the authority's demolition program had outpaced its reconstruction program, thus leaving families with few options beyond similarly or identically dangerous and segregated areas elsewhere in the city, or simply being forced out of the residences and becoming homeless.
Several infamous incidents contributed to Cabrini-Green's reputation. In 1992, seven-year old Dantrell Davis was killed by a stray bullet while walking to school with his mother. In 1997, nine-year-old "Girl X", was viciously raped and poisoned in a stairwell, leaving her blind, paralyzed and unable to speak. Members of the infamous street gang, the Gangster Disciples, who controlled most of Cabrini-Green, were ordered by the gang's leaders to find the person responsible for the crime and brutally assault him. The attacker, Patrick Sykes (who was not a gang member), was later apprehended by police and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Cabrini-Green was so feared by the Chicago Police during the 1990s that many refused to enter the complex for fear of their lives. Several officers reported that once inside the complex they had been verbally abused and spit at, and had rocks smashed through their patrol car windows. Many others had been shot.
An unanticipated result of the steel fencing installed to secure the previously open gangways was that it became difficult for police to see through the steel mesh from outside; in 1970, two policemen were killed by snipers.
In an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, then Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into a fourth-floor apartment in 1981. Backed by a number of police officers and a substantial personal bodyguard detail, she stayed for only three weeks. This incident, too, contributed to public perception of Cabrini-Green as the worst of the worst of public housing. As a security measure, the rear entryway of the unit Byrne stayed in was welded shut. This had the unforeseen impact of creating a fortification for gang members when Byrne left. Many other gangs copied this technique in other units.
While many non-residents regarded Cabrini-Green with almost unalloyed horror, long-term residents interviewed by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2004 described mixed feelings about the end of the Cabrini-Green era. They told the reporter that, in the face of their shared hardships, many residents had developed bonds of community and mutual support. They lamented the uprooting and scattering of that community, and worried about what would become of the residents who were being moved out of the old buildings to make way for new development.
Over time, Cabrini-Green's location became increasingly desirable to private developers. Speculators began purchasing property immediately adjacent to the projects, with the expectation that the complex would eventually be demolished.
Finally, in May 1995, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took over management of the CHA and almost immediately began demolishing vacant "reds" buildings in Cabrini Extension, intending to make Chicago a showpiece of a new, mixed-income approach to public housing. Shortly thereafter, in June 1996, the city of Chicago and the CHA unveiled the Near North Redevelopment Initiative, which called for new development on and around the Cabrini-Green site. Under a ten-year Plan for Transformation officially enacted in 2000, the city plans to demolish almost all of its high-rise public housing, including much of Cabrini-Green (except the original rowhouses, which will remain). Demolition of Cabrini Extension was completed in 2002; part of the site was added to Seward Park, and construction of new, mixed-income housing on the remainder of the site began in 2006.
Subsidized development of mixed-income housing on vacant or under-used parcels adjacent to Cabrini-Green, including a long-shuttered Oscar Mayer sausage factory, the former headquarters of Montgomery Ward, and an adjacent senior housing project named Orchard Park, began in 1994. New market-rate housing now almost completely surrounds the remaining public housing.
Cabrini-Green once housed 15,000 people but as noted above, this number is now down to around 2,000 (plus an unknown number of squatters occupying vacant apartments that are slated for demolition). New housing built on the 70-acre Cabrini-Green site will include 30% public-housing replacement homes and 20% "workforce affordable" housing, while many adjacent developments (almost all targeted at luxury buyers) include 20% affordable housing, half targeted as public-housing replacement, with a goal of 505 replacement units built off-site.
In February 2006, a unique partnership between CHA, Holsten, Kimball Hill Urban Centers and the Cabrini Green LAC Community Development Corporation began a 790-unit, $250-million redevelopment of the 18-acre Cabrini Extension site, to be called Parkside at Old Town. Plans for demolition and redevelopment of Green Homes are still under negotiation, while the original Cabrini rowhouses are currently undergoing rehabilitation.
The Plan for Transformation's relocation process was the subject of a lawsuit, Wallace v. Chicago Housing Authority, which alleged that many residents were hastily forced into substandard, "temporary" housing in other slums, did not receive promised social services during or after the move, and were often denied the promised opportunity to return to the redeveloped sites. The lawsuit was settled in June 2006, as the parties agreed to two relocation programs for current and former CHA residents: (1) CHA's current relocation program, encouraging moves to racially integrated areas of metropolitan Chicago and providing for case-managed social services, would be applied to families initially moving from public housing; and (2) an agreed-upon modified program run by CHA's voucher administrator, CHAC Inc., would encourage former CHA residents to relocate to economically and racially integrated communities as well as give them increased access to social services. Some former CHA residents have moved out of Chicago, to nearby suburbs such as Harvey or to other housing developments in nearby cities, such as Aurora, East St. Louis, Gary, Indiana, or Danville, Illinois. New residents have successfully moved into CHA replacement housing, and to date residents of the mixed-income developments have reported fewer problems.
Crime has dramatically decreased as the area's population has shifted; in the first half of 2006, only one murder occurred. Since most of the new housing post-dates 2000, no census figures are yet available, but the area is no longer predominantly African American. Demolition of Cabrini-Green continues slowly and is expected to be completed by late 2008. Plaintiffs in Wallace and others allege that CHA's hasty removal of residents has exacerbated socioeconomic and racial segregation, homelessness, and other social ills that the Plan for Transformation aimed to address by forcing residents to less-visible but still impoverished neighborhoods, largely on the south and west sides of the city.
Cabrini-Green was the setting for the film Candyman, a 1992 horror film based on a story by Clive Barker. The film chronicles the legendary life of the infamous Candyman (played by Tony Todd), a black man who was brutally killed because of a love affair with the daughter of a local (and white) plantation owner. In the film, Candyman was killed at the site on which the future Cabrini-Green would be built (though this plot line would later be changed in the sequel), and within the film the residents of the housing project are under his sway, though most consider him nothing more than a figment of the collective imagination. The main character, Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen), was researching the urban legend of Candyman and her journey took her to Cabrini-Green. Exterior, hallway and stairway scenes were actually filmed in Cabrini-Green.
Danitra Vance, Saturday Night Live's first black female repertoire player (first appearing in the show's 1985–1986 season), had a recurring character named Cabrini-Green Jackson, a poor, black, teenage mother who acted as a motivational speaker to young, unwed mothers.
The sitcom Good Times (1974–1979) was ostensibly set in Cabrini-Green. Although Cabrini-Green was never mentioned by name as the housing project in which the Evans family of Good Times lived, exterior shots of Cabrini-Green were shown in both the opening and closing credits sequences of the sitcom.
In the sitcom The Bernie Mac Show (2001–2006), Bernie's two nieces and nephew Vanessa, Bryana, and Jordan Tompkins lived in Cabrini-Green with their mom before they moved in with Bernie and Wanda.
In the 1999 film Whiteboyz, a group of white hip-hop fans from Iowa come to Cabrini-Green to buy drugs.
The book Cabrini-Green in Words and Pictures (compiled by David T. Whitaker, 2000) tells the story of this community from the perspective of those who lived there. Through interviews with three generations of residents, young and old share thoughts and memories of a place they called home.
Although Cabrini-Green is often mistaken as the locale for the 2001 film Hardball starring Keanu Reeves, the movie was actually shot in the nearby ABLA homes.
The 1990 futuristic fictional comic book series Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons begins in Cabrini-Green. As of the opening of the story in 1995 the neighborhood has already been enclosed in a gigantic walled and roofed structure, turning it into a prison for its impoverished residents, reflecting the decision to enclose several buildings in steel mesh. The enclosure is demolished years later by direct order of Howard Nissen, the future United States President, who does so after being informed of the horrible living conditions by the story's protagonist, Martha Washington, who grew up there and whose father was killed by riot police while she was an infant while protesting the living conditions there.
Also in 1995, resident Pete Keller who is known to the community as "K-SO" ressurects "Voices of Cabrini" newspaper. K-SO takes the paper city wide and is reckognized by the Chicago Tribune, Suntimes, Washington Post and Utne Reader. Channel 7 does a segmeant entitled "Someone you should know" dealing with K-SO's community activism and paper. K-SO was featured in three documentaries and also allows one of them to share the same name as his paper "Voices of Cabrini;" also donating a soundtrack which plays at the end as the credits are displayed. K-SO's new book "CROSS THE BRIDGE" dealing with the raw facts about Cabrini was recently released on Amazon.
The 1999 documentary, Voices of Cabrini: Rebuilding Chicago's Public Housing (by Ronit Bezalel and Antonio Ferrera) is a half-hour look at the redevelopment/demolition of Cabrini through the stories of its residents. The film interviews resident Mark Pratt and his son Trevonte. In addition, Cabrini Green Barber George Robbins is also interviewed and eventually has to move out of the community. The website can be found at http://www.voicesofcabrini.com
At Cabrini Green's height when over 15,000 residents lived in the neighborhood, there were five neighborhood elementary schools operated by Chicago Public Schools, serving the neighborhood: Byrd Community Academy, Jenner Academy of the Arts, Manierre School, Schiller Community Academy, and Truth School. As of 2008, only three of the schools remain in use.
During the 2003–2004 school year, fifth-grade students from Room 405 at one of the neighborhood schools developed a comprehensive action plan to push the City of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education to fulfill an old promise of building a new school for the community. They cited that their school had no lunchroom, no gym, and no auditorium. The heat often did not work and students were forced to wear hats, gloves, and coats in the classroom, among many other inadequacies. As they researched reasons for the decrepit and shameful conditions of their school, they examined issues related to equity in school funding. To further their cause and implement their plan, the young activists wrote letters and emails, surveyed, petitioned, interviewed legislators, developed and produced a DVD, video documentaries, and a website in an effort to "get the word out" and garner support in hopes of seeing the new school built. Their fight for the new building garnered local and national attention.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago has very detailed background information on the history of public housing and the Near North neighborhood: