A 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Cabrini-Green by John H White Credit: John H. White


ince 1999, when the Chicago Housing Authority launched its $1.6 billion
Plan for Transformation and began the slow process of tearing down all its
high-rise public housing projects, a cottage industry of books has sprung
up to fill in the mental spaces left by those destroyed buildings: in the
last 18 years, no fewer than 20 volumes have been published devoted to the
history, sociology, public policy, and personal stories of life in public
housing. Most of these have been written by scholars and policy wonks whose
important and incisive accounts of the Chicago Housing Authority and its
residents often lack narrative ease and engaging characters. The last time
a local journalist attempted to tell a national audience why public housing
matters and present readers with a long-form narrative about the lives of
people who called it home was 26 years ago, when Alex Kotlowitz published There Are No Children Here.

Now Ben Austen, a magazine writer and Hyde Park native, has produced High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing
, the result of seven years documenting the story of Cabrini-Green. Austen
handled his book more as a chronicler than an embedded reporter. This is
perhaps the most reasonable and respectful approach to the subject matter
that a middle-class white writer who’s never lived in public housing could
take. Rather than posturing as an intrepid journalist on a poverty safari,
Austen sets out to give the general audience a long-overdue history lesson
on where Cabrini-Green came from, who lived there and how they lived, and
why the 23-building project ultimately became the primary symbol of a
national public policy failure. (Full disclosure: My name appears in the
acknowledgments section, as do those of many others in the small cadre of
local journalists who regularly cover public housing issues and have gotten
to know Austen over the years.)

traces the life span of that 70-acre neighborhood on the near north side
through the shifting tides of federal policy and local politics. The saga
of the development is interspersed with the histories of four individuals
who spent their lives there: Dolores Wilson, Kelvin Cannon, J.R. Fleming,
and Annie Ricks. Austen follows them through the decades with a fierce
attention to detail. Their voices crop up throughout the narrative to add
notes of personal perspective and at times surprising counterpoints to the
noisy politics and policy decisions that swirled around and within the
development. Even in the years when their neighborhood became the stuff of
horror movies
and if-it-bleeds-it-leads news reports, these residents were
shaped as much or more by the joys of their jobs and friendships, their
hobbies and public service commitments, the comforts of their homes and the
love of their families. Vignettes about other Cabrini residents also appear
through the book—prominent activists like Marion Stamps and Carol Steele,
politicians like Jesse White, and the crime victims whose names were used
to crucify the entire notion of government-provided housing for the poor:
Dantrell Davis and Girl X. The resulting mosaic of lived experiences leaves
the impression of looking inside Cabrini-Green’s history the way we saw its
buildings back in the early 2000s, when the walls were being torn off,
revealing the colorful interiors of so many people’s well-tended homes
alongside long-abandoned units.

Austen demonstrates the centrality of Cabrini-Green to Chicago’s sense of
itself. At first the development was a symbol of the city’s devotion to
alleviating poverty and blight, then its drive to keep low-income black
residents out of its neighborhoods, then its crime and corruption problem,
and finally Cabrini-Green became the justification of the fiscal,
political, and physical transformations that brought Chicago from a
20th-century machine town to today’s “world-class” city. “Defining
Cabrini-Green as the big civic problem also meant it couldn’t be ignored,”
Austen writes; “it needed to be dealt with, solved.”

One drawback of the narrative is that some moments in history that were
emblematic of massive intellectual and ideological shifts in the way
America positioned itself vis-a-vis the poor are glossed over in a couple
of sentences: the movements from the direct provision of housing to
that benefit fewer people and feed segregation, and from the
dominance of modernist architectural design to low-density “New Urbanism.”
Perhaps it’s not so important for a general audience to get too deep into
these public policy weeds. But if we’re ever to understand that the fate of
Cabrini-Green and public housing as a whole wasn’t fated, that the
ultimate results weren’t inevitable but rather designed, then it’s
necessary to denaturalize what has so long been presented as unavoidable.
Austen could have handled the words and ideas of Plan for Transformation
architects with more skepticism; he could have presented urbanists’
reasonable-sounding notions of how cities should be in their fuller,
contested context; and he could have eschewed the focus on some of the
chaos and violence that erupted in people’s lives as the buildings and
schools of Cabrini-Green closed in favor of a closer interrogation of how
city leaders justified making decisions that would ultimately cause immense

But even without these critical perspectives from Austen himself, the book
is hardly approving of Chicago’s decision to dismantle Cabrini-Green, and
demonstrates that in many ways the solutions to its problems created more
problems than they resolved. It’s also a reminder that the American way is
to treat failures as absolute, as the flaws of ideas rather than flaws of
execution. That’s why we try things once, do a bad job, and then give up.
It’s why we make the same mistakes, inflict the same harm again and again,
even when we think we’re doing something new, and seem to have no interest
in doing better as long as the people on the receiving end of our bad
decisions are poor and black.   v