Mon December 6, 2010
Around the Nation

Long Goodbye For Infamous Public Housing Complex

Only two families remain in the last standing high rise in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing complex and they could move out as soon as Tuesday.

The move marks the end of an era in Chicago's troubled public housing history, as the Chicago Housing Authority has been gradually moving residents out and tearing down the high rises at Cabrini and other public housing developments in the city.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley praised the end of what he called a troubled era of public housing policy that warehoused large concentrations of poor people.

"It destroyed families," he said. "It moved people from rural communities into high rises. They had no supportive services and it completely failed."

D. Bradford Hunt, professor of social science at Roosevelt University in Chicago and author of, "Blueprint for Disaster; the unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing," says Cabrini has symbolized the failures of public housing.

"Because of its proximity to the Gold Coast in Chicago, because it's right down the street from some of the wealthiest communities in the city, it has been a magnet for the media, a magnet for police attention, a magnet for politicians," he said.

Then Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne drew worldwide attention to the housing projects in 1981 when she moved into one of Cabrini's high rises after nearly a dozen fatal shootings over the span of several weeks.

In 1992, 7-year old Dantrell Davis was shot and killed by a gang sniper as his mother held his hand and walked him to school between Cabrini high rises, one of several infamous incidents of violence over decades that garnered Cabrini-Green a reputation as one of the nation's worst public housing complexes.

But some residents say Cabrini-Green is not as horrible as the media makes it out to be, and they worry about their future as they lose their homes. Among them is 54-year old Annie Ricks, whose family is one of the final two still living here. A federal judge has given them until Friday to move out.

'It's Been Good To Me'

Ricks, 54, stands in the icy parking lot outside 1230 N. Burling, the last high rise still standing in long-troubled Cabrini-Green. She points to her apartment on the 11th floor of the 15-story building, behind the fenced-in exterior corridor that gives the building its prison-like look. A few floors below, janitorial staff in white protective suits clean out her neighbors' apartments.

Ricks thinks back to when she moved her family into Cabrini 21 years ago. She says that at first it was not the type of place she wanted to raise her family.

"There was like shooting over here and everything, and I was even over here when Dantrell, you know, got shot, and I wasn't used to, like the neighborhood and stuff like, because I never had to live, like in the projects," she said.

At its peak, the dozens of white block and red brick high- and mid-rise buildings of Cabrini-Green were home to close to 15,000 people. Ricks, who moved into Cabrini in the late 1980s, says despite her initial reservations, things got better. Now, she says, she doesn't want to leave.

"It's good to me," said Ricks, who raised 12 of her 13 children here. Though she and her neighbors know they have to move, they want to remain within the Cabrini neighborhood.

Residents Better Off?

Chicago Housing Authority officials say they are trying to do just that, providing relocation assistance to residents being moved out of this and other high rises around the city as part of its 10-year-old Plan for Transformation, which is replacing the densely populated, crime-ridden and sometimes squalid high- and mid-rise public housing units in Chicago with 25,000 new or renovated, mostly low-rise units. It's the most ambitious effort to redevelop public housing in the country and its emphasis is on putting residents in mixed-income developments across the city, but not always in the developments in which they used to live.

Kris Warren, the CHA's chief operating officer, says residents are better off.

"We know that the lifestyle of our families that have been able to move out of Cabrini-Green and our other high rises is 100 percent better," he said. "We stay in touch with those families; they are happy when we talk with them about their move. They actually wish sometimes that they had done this sooner."

Roosevelt University's Hunt calls the change a "radical transformation," but the results, he says, so far, are mixed.

Hunt says the high rises had to come down: They were too expensive to maintain. But, he says, it's not yet clear if all residents are better off.

"I would say that some residents are better off," he said. "They've moved into these new mixed-income communities. We know that they feel safer. We know that their housing conditions are better."

But Hunt says some Chicago public housing residents are in new communities, just as high crime and high poverty as the one they left, and without the friends, family and community network of support they had in Cabrini.

"I love Cabrini; you know, we was like, we were like one big family," said Kenneth Hammond, who has lived all of his 41 years here.

Hammond, who has worked for the Chicago Park District for the past 16 years in two of Cabrini's parks, moved out of 1230 N. Burling last week and into a rehabbed row house nearby. He says it hurts to watch the buildings he grew up around being torn down and many friends pushed out.

"It's really just a hurting feeling that you can kind of hear it in my throat that it's a hurtin' feeling among us," he said.

Hammond says he hopes the redeveloped Cabrini-Green will eventually bring more residents back home. But he knows for better or for worse, it'll never be the same. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.