A new account of the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green

Journalist Ben Austen has a new book titled High-Risers that chronicles the development and tearing down of the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s north side:

But what caused Cabrini-Green to deteriorate almost immediately after its opening? In “High-Risers,” Austen suggests the repeated, systematic failure of the institutions and people enlisted to run Cabrini-Green fueled its notoriety and downfall. “In every area we examined, from finance to maintenance, from administration to outside contracting, from staffing to project management, from purchasing to accounting, the CHA was found to be operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray,” wrote Oscar Newman in the book “Defensible Space,” which Austen quotes. “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

And yet, Austen’s book is not a detailed deconstruction of the causes of Cabrini-Green’s difficulties. Instead, he uses a novelistic structure to weave a tale about the other side of Cabrini-Green: its inhabitants.

Austen offers the stories of a few Cabrini-Green residents as they move in and out of the projects. There is Kelvin Cannon, a highly intelligent and charismatic resident who grows from precocious and superstitious kid to convicted criminal to high-ranking gang member in only a handful of years. There is Willie J.R. Fleming, who leaves Cabrini-Green after relocating to south suburban Dolton with his mother, only to return less than a year later. The quiet of the suburbs proved too uncomfortable for Fleming, who, despite the promise of a college athletic career, squanders it all away back in Cabrini-Green after throwing a punch…

Austen writes with a lyrical, poetic affection for the four main characters. Here we see there are as many Cabrini-Green origin stories as there were people living in Cabrini-Green. To merely stereotype is to willfully ignore each resident’s humanity. Austen deftly tells the stories of Wilson, Fleming, Cannon and another woman, Annie Ricks, without distance, bringing readers intimately into their lives. It is compelling writing, sure to separate Austen’s work from other, more anthropological examinations of Cabrini-Green.

Rarely does public housing in the United States, let alone a notorious project, receive much attention from journalists, scholars, or the public. Yet, this is a unique site. This kind of change does not occur often in American urban neighborhoods: poor black neighborhoods are not typically the target of gentrification efforts.

The story of this project is still not complete: even though the high-rises are no longer there and the buildings and neighborhood now there are hard to distinguish from other up-and-coming Chicago scenes, there are still public housing residents present (in addition to former residents who are now elsewhere) as well as memories (which could fade with generations but that could also remain in more institutionalized forms like a public housing museum in Chicago). Like many other urban neighborhoods, Cabrini-Green may be erased from a map or largely from sight but it may continue to shape not only that particular space but the whole city.

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