New townhomes have replaced dilapidated old structures at Cabrini-Green. But whats happened to the former residents?
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • New townhomes have replaced dilapidated old structures at Cabrini-Green. But what’s happened to the former residents?

This is the fourth of a five-part look at how the murder of a seven-year-old 20 years ago still reverberates nationwide. You can read the first installment here, the second here, and the third here.

The new landscape of public housing is only a small part of the aftermath of the 1992 shooting of Dantrell Davis. Communities across Chicago have been reborn. By some measures, others have been devastated.

Neighborhoods around some of the old high-rise sites, such as swaths of Bronzeville and the Near North community that once included Cabrini, have opened up to new investment. When I drove through the Cabrini area last summer with Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who grew up there, he pointed to new glass-and-steel high-rises and immaculate row houses as signs of progress. “People from Cabrini live in this building, in this complex, and these are all new developments. I’m making sure the Cabrini folks have a place to stay over in this neighborhood.”

Maybe so, but the efforts have only brought a fraction of former public housing residents back to their old communities, for better and for worse.

Nearly 25,000 households lived in CHA properties when the Plan for Transformation was launched. Roughly a fourth were senior citizens who didn’t have to leave public housing. Another 5,400 families were able to move into rehabbed apartments in new developments with names like Renaissance North and Jazz on the Boulevard.

But many of the other former CHA tenants now use rental subsidies to live in privately owned apartments, and the whereabouts of thousands of others, including countless people who lived in public housing but weren’t on official leases, are unknown.

“Where did those people go?” wonders Rev. Walter Johnson, who from 1992 to 2007 was the pastor of Wayman AME Church, in the middle of Cabrini-Green. “Did you just move the people and the problems? The issue for clergy was, you can’t just disperse all those people all over the city without services.”

The mass displacements unquestionably changed lives, but most residents ended up in neighborhoods nearly as isolated as the ones they’d left. “While certainly an improvement over distressed public housing, these racially and economically segregated neighborhoods still offer little opportunity for residents to improve their economic circumstances,” concluded a 2010 study by the Urban Institute.

Worse, some residents were welcomed to their new homes with violence. “A plan intended to transform the lives of public housing residents has also transformed the city’s illegal drug market—often with deadly results,” the Chicago Reporter and Residents’ Journal found after the first years of the redevelopment. In some cases, dealers who’d preyed on public housing residents set up shop in new neighborhoods, spurring bloody turf wars. In others, children and young men were greeted in their new neighborhoods with gang attacks.

In African-American communities around the city and suburbs, it’s still widely believed that crime is on the rise because of the shifting gang and drug allegiances that resulted from the Plan for Transformation. In fact, the contention isn’t limited to Chicago: a controversial 2008 article in the Atlantic explored a similar phenomenon in Memphis, though it was criticized by a number of academics for not taking into account poverty and other potential explanations for crime patterns.

Still, the CHA transformation remains a touchy subject in neighborhoods wrestling with crime. “When they started tearing down the projects from Cabrini to the south side, they all went to Englewood, they went to South Shore, and then they went everywhere else,” a longtime resident of the working-class Park Manor neighborhood said to me recently. “You have some people who do not deserve to live around working people who want to have something.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments in west Humboldt Park, Chatham, Auburn-Gresham, and Ashburn, and more quietly from rank-and-file cops. To longtime residents of these communities, crime statistics may be lower than 20 years ago, but the streets feel unsafe because the violence seems more random and abrupt than it once was.

Former CHA chairman Vincent Lane thinks there’s something to it. He says his original hope was to ensure that poor public housing residents were dispersed throughout the metropolitan area and supported by social services. Instead, he argues, the high-rises were torn down so fast that thousands of people were pushed out without the help they needed, adding stress to neighborhoods already struggling with rising poverty and a lack of investment.

“A lot of displaced residents from public housing have pulled up in these neighborhoods and the same social dynamics exist as before, except there is no true gang structure and hierarchy,” he says. “I am absolutely convinced that tearing down these high-rises was the correct thing to do. However, I think it could have been staged where you got residents to relocate differently—not where ‘My mother and my cousins and my grandmother are all living on this block so I’m going to live there too.'”

For their part, CHA officials have emphasized that they provide substantial support, from job training to child care, for former residents who seek it out—but they can’t make anyone do so.

Meanwhile, Chicago remains in the national news for its unrelenting violence—406 murders from the first of the year through the end of September, an increase of 28 percent from a year ago—which police brass and Mayor Rahm Emanuel blame on splintering gang and drug alliances.

But they don’t mention the CHA transformation—not openly, at least—and they stress that violent crime totals are half what they were 20 years ago, when 943 people were murdered in Chicago.

What hard evidence exists is far from conclusive. In a study published last year, researchers at the Urban Institute found that public housing redevelopment was a major reason crime fell in Chicago and other cities over the last decade. But it didn’t drop as much in neighborhoods where former tenants were concentrated.

That doesn’t mean it’s all their fault. Those neighborhoods “were already vulnerable, with high rates of poverty and crime before the arrival of public housing relocation households,” the study concluded. “In other words, our story is not the popular version of previously stable communities spiraling into decline because of public housing residents moving in, but rather a story of poor families moving into areas that were already struggling.”

That isn’t much consolation to the people who’ve invested all they have in those areas. “You have some of these young kids who think they’re bad stuff, it changes the whole environment,” says the Park Manor resident. “It’s all connected. They gave people a chance to move into some of these neighborhoods, but they didn’t give them the proper training. They should have been integrated slowly. Mayor Daley should have had a better plan.”

Click here to read the fifth and final part of this series.