Demolishing public housing as spectacle in Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland is planning to blow up five 29-story public housing high-rises, the tallest buildings in the city, and broadcast the event live on local TV and set up a viewing in a nearby soccer stadium:

Glasgow has a novel plan for grabbing viewers for this summer’s Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: It’s going to blow up the city’s tallest buildings live on television. For the Games opener on July 23, Scotland’s largest city will demolish five towers (most over 290-foot high) in just 15 seconds, screening the explosions at the nearby Celtic Stadium.

This combination of celebration and mass destruction, announced Thursday, would be unusual in any circumstances. What makes Glasgow’s plans even stranger is that the towers being dynamited – part of a huge housing project called the Red Road Flats – were once the city’s pride. By uniting a cheering stadium crowd and TV cameras with explosives, the ceremony might come off as a sort of latter-day Disco Sucks, but for social housing…

Still, the city has been moving on. From the ’80s onwards, Glasgow started an ultimately successful re-branding of itself as a cultural and business center. The Red Road and its ilk became emblems of the run-down Glasgow that the city’s promoters wanted to forget. Demolition of the first few towers started back in 2012. Now the games will dramatize its final transformation in the most eye-catching way possible.

But is it really in good taste? This video, shared by the games organizers themselves, proves that many former residents still remember the place with affection. What’s more, the project isn’t totally uninhabited, as one tower, currently occupied by asylum seekers, will remain. For these people, witnessing a ceremony that enacts their neighborhood’s destruction as unfit for human habitation while leaving them on site, should feel uncomfortable at the least. A petition is going round against the plans, and there’s a sense among locals that they, rather than just the buildings, are the targets of a ritual purge to do away with a side of Glasgow officialdom would rather forget.

The whole process sounds similar to the demolition of public housing high-rises in American cities, starting with the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis in the mid-1970s (a good documentary about it here) and accelerating with the HOPE VI program that began in the mid-1990s. Of course, the buildings tended to get blamed for the problems at the complexes when there was a whole host of other issues involved including deindustrialization and residential segregation.

But, it does seem a bit odd to make this such a spectacle. It is relatively rare to demolish large buildings so I could understand how that might be interesting. In contrast, while the demolition of Chicago’s public housing buildings drew attention (particularly the last high-rises at Cabrini-Green), it seemed like the general public wanted to move on rather than celebrate the demolition. Instead of publicizing the demolition, why not devote some air-time to showing how the city is trying to tackle the larger underlying issues (unless, of course, they are not and the demolition is meant to be a distraction from the true issues)? As the residents at Cabrini-Green who fought the city’s plans argued, what is the point of demolition if there many other options planned down the road?

Putting together plans for the final redevelopment of Cabrini-Green

All the high-rises at Cabrini-Green are gone but the planning of what will replace them continues:

Next week, CHA officials will hold open houses for developers who will learn what parameters the agency has designed for construction of new housing and retail. The land boundaries are North Avenue to Chicago Avenue and Halsted to Orleans…

Last spring CHA unveiled Plan Forward as a way to wrap up the final stretch. Former CHA CEO Charles Woodyard resigned last fall amid sexual harassment allegations, but also because City Hall became disenchanted with the slow pace of progress.

The goal is for Cabrini construction to start by 2015 on the mostly vacant 65 acres. The Cabrini rowhouses will remain but not be 100 percent public housing – much to the chagrin of many residents. Of the 583 units, 146 have been redeveloped into public housing and will stay that way. The others are empty. Originally, CHA had planned to keep the row houses all public housing.

“We felt that in order for Plan Forward to work, in order to have a very vibrant community and what works for the residents to move toward self sufficiency, it was important to do mixed income. Not to leave that area to be the only secluded area that remained 100 percent public housing,” Brown said…

“We’re adamant that the row houses be rehabbed to 100 percent public housing like it was supposed to be,” [row-house resident activist] Steele said.

This seems like an appropriate path forward based on the prior history of redevelopment at Cabrini-Green:

1. The CHA’s difficult history continues with yet another new leader plus plans that stretch on longer than anticipated with funding problems.

2. The city continues its interest in mixed-income development which gives developers some great opportunities to build on the North Side (and profit) while also providing some public housing units but not having to provide for all of the public housing residents.

3. The public housing residents, particularly compared to some of the other Chicago housing projects, continue to speak out and challenge the city’s plans.

Sixty-five acres of land in this part of Chicago will be attractive to numerous people and I hope the public gets to see the competing proposals.

Update on public housing residents in Chicago mixed-income developments

Chicago and other cities have pursued ambitious plans in the last two decades to tear down public housing high-rises (like at Cabrini-Green) and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods where public housing residents and market-rate homeowners would live near each other. Here is an update of how this is working out in one mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago:

But the common thread that binds many of these theoretical effects is the same: For them to occur, residents of extremely different incomes must connect on a deeper level than hellos in the hallways. And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Joseph, along with Robert Chaskin of the University of Chicago, documented and analyzed the interactions of residents in two of Chicago’s new mixed-income developments. Far from job networking, most of the encounters between residents were paper-thin. Nearly 25 percent didn’t know a single neighbor well enough to ask them a favor or invite them into their home. In the rare instances of deeper exchanges, like “looking out” for a neighbor with an illness, these interactions occurred almost exclusively between people who were in the same income group…

Community building doesn’t need to mean picnics in the park, however, says Joseph. “It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone becoming friends and having dinner. It means a set of neighbors who appreciate the fact that living in a diverse place means having to build common ground with people who are different than yourself.” He calls this positive neighboring.

If positive neighboring is happening at Parkside, though, so is negative neighboring. The day I visited, a sign taped to one apartment window had a picture of a handgun pointed at me, along with the words, “I Don’t Call 911 — No Loitering.”  There have been reports of market-rate tenants being the targets of derogatory name-calling, and subsidized tenants having the police called on them anonymously for hosting parties. A feature in Harper’s magazine reported that when market-rate families felt threatened by large groups hanging out in the lobby at one mixed-use development, the management removed all the furniture. The same article described the fates of two different Parkside families that held loud gatherings at their apartments one night: The next day, the public-housing unit got an eviction notice; the market-rate unit did not. “They can get buck wild, but as soon as we get buck wild, they want to send an email blast to CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] to complain,” said one of the subsidized tenants.

Critics of the model have asserted that this is what happens when cities engage in “social engineering.” But it might be more accurate to say that the social engineering that the city was counting on isn’t happening. Parkside’s residents might have been more interested in a killer deal than building a community. (The market-rate condo prices, in the $150,000s, are a steal for the location, a mile from downtown and steps from the Gold Coast.) “Could it be — and could people be afraid to admit — that market rate buyers simply don’t want to live right next door to government subsidized renters?” asked one Internet commenter.

This seems to fit with other research that suggests that although people may live near each other, they don’t necessarily interact in ways that are helpful to both groups. This is a sort of “black box” still to be figured out by reserachers: in living with more middle- and upper-income residents, how exactly will public housing residents move up to the working class or middle class? Earlier research suggests this may take some time; kids benefit from going to better schools while adults have a harder time crossing pre-existing socioeconomic and social boundaries.

The article suggests that some look at these mixed-income neighborhoods and call them “social engineering.” Deconcentrating poverty is a goal worked at by a number of groups since sociologists like William Julius Wilson started talking about this in the 1970s and 1980s. HUD has pursued or promoted policies like these throughout the country. It is not like the market-rate residents don’t have a choice in this matter; the housing units can often be cheaper than comparable units nearby. For example, some of the market-rate units in the mixed-income neighborhoods on the former site of Cabrini-Green are quite cheaper compared to units in nearby Lincoln Park or other “hot” neighborhoods. Additionally, the city of Chicago is certainly happy that the public high-rises are gone as they attracted negative attention. (Whether the city cares about the fate of the public housing residents displaced from the high-rises is another story.) Overall, however, some social policy is needed in the area of housing as cities like Chicago offer have severe affordable housing shortages.

Chicago’s Lathrop Homes added to the National Register of Historic Places

I’ve discussed before the implications of public housing projects like Cabrini-Green disappearing. Essentially, the disappearance of these buildings means that some of our collective memory regarding public housing simply fades away. Therefore, I was interested to see that one of the earliest public housing projects in Chicago, Lathrop Homes, was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places:

For more than six years, residents, preservationists and community advocates have been pushing to save the Lathrop Homes from demolition and to rehabilitate the public housing complex.

Their efforts got a boost Monday when state officials announced that the site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places…

The listing does not automatically preserve Lathrop’s collection of low-rise brick buildings and ample green space, officials said. But it makes the site eligible for federal tax credits and financial incentives. The designation also triggers a review by state historic preservation officials if federal or state funds are used to demolish the site…

Built in the 1930s, Lathrop Homes were once celebrated because of their vibrant mix of residents, rich history and ornamental touches rarely found in public housing. Lathrop Homes were designed by architects like Robert S. DeGolyer and Hugh M.G. Garden, who were out of work because of the Great Depression.

In recent years, the 925-unit complex has become a battleground over the CHA’s plan to transform the homes into a mixed-income development. As of January, 170 units in the complex were occupied.

We’ll have to wait and see how much preservation takes place in the years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if the CHA drags its feet…such things have happened before.

It is interesting to note that the Lathrop Homes are on the north side of Chicago as was Cabrini-Green. I wonder how much this geography affected the ability and interest of residents in fighting to save the buildings.

If these buildings were preserved, how many people would be interested in visiting? In a related matter, does the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago generate much interest the buildings and people who lived in them? Here is how the museum describes its purpose:

The National Public Housing Museum is the first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to interpreting the American experience in public housing. The Museum draws on the power of place and memory to illuminate the resilience of poor and working class families of every race and ethnicity to realize the promise of America.

It sounds like there is potential here…although I don’t know how popular this might ever be, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing.

Summing up Mayor Daley’s mixed “public housing legacy”

There wasn’t much talk about public housing before the election earlier this year to replace Mayor Daley in Chicago. (Frankly, there isn’t much talk about this at the federal level either.) But one journalist suggests that Mayor Daley left a “complex public housing legacy” for the new Mayor Emanuel:

Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.

But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.

“As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives,” said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.

Some of the media talk about public housing in Chicago has been positive: the once notorious high-rises, particularly those at the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side and the Cabrini-Green complex on the north side (see thoughts about the demolition of the last high-rise here, here, here, and here), are now gone. (It was a bit strange last week to ride the Brown Line north out of the Loop and not see any Cabrini-Green high-rises.) In the eyes of the media, the problems of concentrated poverty and crime have been reduced. The land can be put to other uses, particularly at Cabrini-Green as it is very valuable land between Lincoln Park and the Loop.

On the other hand, the concerns of people like Venkatesh and Kotlowitz will not go away. Simply destroying public housing high-rises does not deal with the larger issues: there are still large parts of Chicago where residents have reduced life chances compared to better-off parts of the city. In the article, new Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cited as saying that the goal of reducing the isolation of the public housing residents (the goal that was “short of ending poverty”) has been successful.

I can’t imagine the new mayor will or perhaps even can devote much time to this issue as the persistent problems of budgets, crime, jobs, and education need to be addressed. Still, it will be interesting to see how Emanuel addresses public housing moving forward.

Light installation at Cabrini-Green to mark demolition of final building

Amidst news of Target’s interest in building a store on the former site of the Cabrini-Green housing project, the Chicago Tribune reports that there is a special light installation at the last building to be demolished (and whose last resident left several months ago):

Marked for demolition beginning Wednesday is the last-standing building of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex. But thanks to a light installation orchestrated by artist Jan Tichy, the structure at 1230 N. Burling St. will remain aglow with 134 white LED lights — one installed in each of its vacated apartments — for the four-week duration of its razing. The light installation was completed Monday, in time for Tichy and the Chicago Housing Authority to flip the “on” switch at 7 p.m.

Here is more information on the project from the gallery that represents Tichy:

From January to March 2011, together with over 20 students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Tichy held two and three-day workshops with local youth at Cabrini Connections, Marwen, After School Matters Creative Writing Program at Gallery 37 and ThaBrigade Stamps – Cabrini Green Marching Band. In the workshops, students were introduced to public art and light art, and brainstorming sessions and group activities were held on the concepts of Home, Public Housing, Community and Demolition. The youth were then charged with the task of writing poems or texts that addressed the concepts above. Employing a computer program developed by SAIC students that translates sound into light, the youth performed their texts for recording, creating unique light patterns. These light patterns define each of the 134 LED lights at the high-rise. Thus, the youth’s voices literally “tell” their stories through light.

As a component of Project Cabrini Green, live-feed footage from the site will be projected at the Museum of Contemporary Art at street-level, on the corner of Pearson and Mies Van der Rohe streets behind the museum’s glass façade, thereby rendering it visible at night. A voice/light-activated model of the high-rise will accompany the installation, and the youth participant’s written texts and audio content will be available. Tricia Van Eck, Associate Curator, is the organizing curator of the installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The youth’s texts, the audio content, and the live-feed video will also be available on the project website.

Read more about the project in the New York Times or at Project Cabrini Green.

I wonder if there are plans for a more permanent exhibit or marker of the public housing project.

Cabrini-Green site: from housing project to possible Target store

Since the mid 1990s, the area around the Cabrini-Green housing project on the north side of Chicago has been changing (see an overview of this change here). As the high-rises have come down (with the last residents leaving just recently), new mixed-income neighborhoods as well as new commercial buildings have gone up in the area. News comes today that Target may be building a store on this site in the near future:

Target Corp., the cheap-chic discount chain, is in talks with the Chicago Housing Authority to build a store at the site of the former Cabrini-Green Housing Project.

The retailer’s proposal was brought up for consideration at a CHA board of commissioners meeting earlier this month, said Matt Aguilar, CHA spokesman. “We are in discussions and hope to help bring additional investment to the neighborhood,” Aguilar said.

Demolition of the last high rise at Cabrini-Green is scheduled to begin on Wednesday. The seven-acre complex, once among the most notorious housing projects in the nation, is just blocks away from Chicago’s glitziest shopping districts on North Michigan Avenue and close to the wealthy enclaves of the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park.

Target declined to comment on the proposal.

If Target does move forward with this, it would be the second high-profile space they have recently obtained in Chicago. (Read here about their plans for moving to State Street.)

As redevelopment of this space continues to take place, how long might it be until residents and shoppers of the area forget altogether that the Cabrini-Green complex was once there?

Another question: is a big box store in the city such as Target okay or the best move? Does it depend on which store moves in (see the long-running battle between Wal-Mart and the City of Chicago) or are big box stores okay in the city but not good in the suburbs because of their contribution to sprawl?

Mayor Daley on campus

Influenced by his connection to former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was on the Wheaton College campus today for a lecture and fundraiser. Daley gave the kind of speech you might expect at the end of a politician’s career: he highlighted his successes and how much he enjoyed being a public servant. Here are a few things that he said:

1. Chicago is a world class city. He cited a few recent publications (Standard and Poors, Foreign Policy) that have called Chicago a top ten world city.

2. Chicago has been successful because it was “never afraid of changing” and “never lived in the past.”

3. About government spending: the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget while other forms of government (state, counties, municipalities) do. Government spending has to level off. To help America move forward: we “need confidence,” we need to move away from being “a country of whiners,” and we can compete if we all sacrifice a bit for the common good.

4. Daley said his biggest issue to face was the education system and he hopes the improvement of this system is his enduring legacy. When he first became mayor, he helped stop social promotion. The Chicago schools today teach Chinese, Russian, and Arabic to compete on the world stage. Teacher’s unions have a responsibility to give more (he cited their 6 hour contractual work day while also saying he knows lots of good teachers and he is not blaming them). He said, “education is the cure of all the social ills we have.”

5. The success of Chicago has always been a public-private partnership. He cited Millennium Park as an example. This is what is behind his efforts to make connections with China so that Chinese businesses will see Chicago as the friendliest American city to them.

6. He said he had worked with mayors in the Chicago region, throughout the state, and around the world to discuss common issues. He said numerous times that the common issues they face are not partisan issues.

7. When asked what advice he would give to Rahm Emanuel, he said something to the effect of don’t give advice to people if they don’t ask for it.

Seeing him in person, I was reminded that he can be quite funny, personable, and can connect with a crowd as an “everyman.” He consistently illustrated his larger points with personal stories and interactions he had. His policy recommendations seemed fairly centrist: better education, government has to add value or other contract out or privatize certain services, working together across the region is necessary, government has to work with business leaders to get things done, elected officials and all government workers (teachers, police/fire, etc.) have to work for the people. He told a number of jokes and also several times mentioned advice he had received from his father.

Some other issues were not addressed: the population loss in Chicago in the 2000s, the perception that the city has a crime problem (even though crime has been down – I thought he might highlight this as a success), budget problems in Chicago and where the money from privatization has gone (parking meter deal, the Skyway), corruption in city government, persistent segregation and inequality, the limited number of public housing and affordable housing units (even with the notorious projects, such as Cabrini-Green, being closed), Daley’s legacy of building (outside of mention of Millennium Park and Chicago as a world leader in “green roofs”), whether Chicago’s educationally system has improved dramatically or significantly, and regional issues that need attention such as congestion and expanding O’Hare.

Last resident out of Cabrini-Green high rises

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune chronicles the sage of the last family to move out of the 1230 N. Burling building, the last occupied high-rise at Cabrini-Green. Here is how Schmich sums up the legacy of the housing project:

Cabrini, with its history of murdered cops and slain children, was the housing development that came to symbolize the squandered hope of them all. It was a Chicago name known to the nation. It was also unique, sitting as it did on prime land near downtown and the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods…

In Cabrini’s heyday, 15,000 people lived in its white high-rises, red high-rises and brick row houses. Born as a hopeful haven for the poor, it devolved by the 1970s into an oasis of poverty in which guns-gangs-drugs melded into a single demon…

Whether life has changed for the better for the majority of people who have moved out remains a question, but the neighborhood is clearly better.

As the era of the public housing high-rise winds down, now we can turn and see if newer forms of public housing development or aid, such as mixed-income developments or Section 8 vouchers or other options, are better in helping people leave poverty.