The Cabrini-Green high-rises were home to thousands of people and generations of families. Credit: UIC library digital collection / flickr

The Whites and the Reds. The Projects. Cabrini-Green. The notorious public housing development whose near total demolition was finalized ten years ago had many names. But to the thousands of people who lived there, they were home.

When the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses opened in 1942, followed years later by the Cabrini Homes Extension and the William Green Homes, they were billed as affordable, safe housing for low-income earners. But at the end of their lives, the high-rises named after Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and the first U.S citizen canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and William Green, a longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, had become known for violent crime, deadly gang activity, and inhumane conditions.

And while stories of Cabrini-Green’s dangerous history are indeed true, a lesser recognized or outright ignored narrative is one of community, activism, and resilience.

And to know Cabrini is to understand that those can both be possible at once.

In 2000, Chicago launched the Plan for Transformation, a sweeping project to demolish 18,000 units of high-rise public housing across the city. Through demolition, the city said in its plan that it would then be able to rehab roughly 25,000 units of public housing. The plan was met with fierce opposition from residents who claimed that the project left them in the lurch while the city redeveloped the sites of their homes. Lawsuits, consent decrees, and federal oversight also hampered the wide-ranging redevelopment project.

Critics say the Plan for Transformation became a land grab, with developers and landlords gunning for the prized real estate where public housing buildings sat, including the 70 acres occupied by Cabrini-Green. Texas-based Hunt Development was tapped to lead the site’s redevelopment in 2017 with the promise of a mixed-use, mixed-income community.

The CHA reports that as of September 2020, 48 families were still waiting to move back into Cabrini-Green, and that the agency had additionally lost contact with another 293 families. Of the more than 1,700 families moved out of the development to make way for the Plan for Transformation, very few were able to eventually live in the mixed-income housing built on the old Cabrini-Green site.

The last of the Cabrini-Green high-rises came down in late March 2011. And while stories about the community are less common a decade later, many of its onetime residents—20,000 at the development’s peak—say their lives will always be impacted by their time in the infamous high-rises—for better or worse.

Demolition of the Cabrini-Green high-rises took years, and the final building came down in late March 2011.Credit: apartment therapy / flickr

The history

The neighborhood that would eventually house Cabrini-Green was once known as Little Hell. Before the public housing developments were built, the area was home to Italian, Puerto Rican, and Irish immigrants, and in the early days of the development, its demographics reflected that fact.

The complex was once known as Little Sicily and anchored the local Italian-American community. And according to Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum, Japanese Americans freed from internment camps also found home in Cabrini-Green.

But decades after it was built, the complex’s residents were almost entirely Black; and the high-rises became yet another symbol of stark racial segregation—in Chicago, in public housing, and in America.

“It just has so many stereotypes of what it means to be poor and Black in the United States,” Lee says. “And because of the long-term effects of racism, the legacy of slavery, and also our racialized history, there’s this general prevailing, ahistorical narrative about what Cabrini-Green is that has also come to represent public housing as a failed social policy.”

Despite the pomp and circumstance in unveiling the buildings, a poorly equipped Chicago Housing Authority failed miserably to meaningfully maintain the high-rises. And many say it’s not a coincidence that the mostly Black residents were ignored by the city. As my colleague Maya Dukmasova wrote in 2018, “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.”

Residents of the government-owned towers often had to climb several flights of stairs if the elevator was broken or turned off. Trash piled up in garbage chutes, at one point to the 15th floor. Cockroaches infested the buildings. Apartments went without repairs or updates. CHA was effectively a landlord in rent collection and eviction only, abdicating its responsibility to maintain the buildings and ensure residents’ safety.

The CHA “politely declined” to make anyone available for this article.

This disinvestment also helped petty and organized crime thrive. Entire buildings, and the drug trade within, were the territory of one gang or another. Women recall rampant sexual assault in the buildings—in unlit hallways, elevators, and stairwells. In October 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot and killed while he was walking to nearby Jenner Elementary School with his mother. Davis’s death contributed significantly to plans to demolish the high-rises and led to a gang truce that lasted for more than three years. His death was thrust into the spotlight again this past August when nine-year-old Janari Ricks was shot to death in a courtyard at the Cabrini rowhouses. In January 1997, a nine-year-old Black girl later given the moniker “Girl X” was raped, poisoned, and strangled in a Cabrini-Green stairwell. Her attacker left her for dead, blinded and brain damaged from the attack.

Those are the commonly published anecdotes of Cabrini-Green—examples of death, decay, and danger. A place unsafe for men, women, and children alike. But the public has largely ignored the good that took place at the complex. “One of the most important stories of public housing is the story of the solidarity economies that emerged, of people really bonding together to help one another,” Lee says. “And that’s a story which all of us could learn from.”

Amid the decay and danger, and some say because of it, the complex became a tight-knit community. All of the former residents I spoke with said everyone knew everyone. In Cabrini, sometimes your family was your neighbor; and other times, your neighbor became your family.

Cabrini-Green was also the site of historic activism. Legendary tenant activist Marion Stamps led a voting drive at the complex in 1983 that helped elect Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. And Cabrini-Green tenants successfully sued the city to ensure they wouldn’t be left homeless while the Plan for Transformation redevelopment project took place.

To this day, ten years after its last tower was demolished, many former residents remember the complex—their onetime home—fondly.

“There was a place for us, that was home to us. It don’t get no better than that,” says rapper SG Ali, part of the “Last Generation of Cabrini.”Credit: Julie A Segraves / Flickr

The Residents

SG Ali

SG Ali was in fifth grade when the city tore down her Cabrini-Green apartment. The 22-year-old rapper remembers watching the city demolish the complex from the playground of nearby Jenner Elementary School. Born and raised in the projects, Ali says she and her mother moved in and out of the high-rises, at one point staying with family in the same building where she was born and raised.

Ali, born Aujahnee Wright, says the complex felt like the safest place in the city, even after she “watched it change from good to bad.” And despite the “bad,” Ali is quick to say she had a happy, exciting childhood “full of one big-ass family,” surrounded by friends, neighbors, and a litany of people doing outreach in the community. As part of what she calls the “Last Generation of Cabrini,” she’s still fiercely loyal to the community.

“That’s probably what we’re stuck on,” Ali says. “They want us to leave it alone but it’s all we know. It wasn’t, for us, something easy to let go. Our parents let that shit go easy.”

Jenner Elementary was also where Ali first discovered her love for music, rap in particular. She later attended Carl Schurz High School, and her love for music flourished. She began pursuing music as a career in 2018. And as a rapper, Ali always makes sure Cabrini-Green is front and center, symbolically and literally: “I shoot every fucking video there because I can’t go anywhere else and just shoot a video and be safe without watching my back.”

In a recent music video for her single “Drank on the Block,” Ali and friends meander around the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, all that remain of the once massive Cabrini-Green complex. Ali’s 2019 video for “All the Smoke” was also shot in the complex. But to Ali, the site isn’t just a backdrop, and she hopes her music helps people remember Cabrini-Green as the haven it was for so many.

“That’s what I want people to remember about Cabrini,” Ali says. “We had a heart. We was family. It was safe.”

“There was a place for us, that was home to us. It don’t get no better than that.”

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr.

When Walter Burnett Jr. agreed that the Cabrini-Green towers should come down, the longtime 27th Ward alderman was agreeing to demolish a community he had once called home.

Burnett moved into the Cabrini-Green complex when he was two years old. His parents separated when he was young, but because his father had relatives in the neighborhood, Burnett says he was always surrounded by family. His father was a local precinct captain, and he credits his father’s work for inspiring his interest in public service.

When he was 17 years old, Burnett left Cabrini to serve time in prison for armed robbery. And when he returned after a two-year stint, he says the complex was dramatically different. The safe, secure, well-maintained community he left was gone, and in its place was a dangerous, dilapidated complex where violence and crime ran rampant.

Burnett was first elected alderman of the 27th Ward in 1995 when he was 31 years old, and he’s currently serving his seventh term on the City Council. He says he had to campaign for alderman in the community with off-duty officers when he was targeted by the Gangster Disciples after he refused to agree that the high-rises would stay standing.

His experience with the stark conditions in Cabrini-Green motivated his support for tearing down the high-rises. “It was in bad shape, man,” Burnett says. “So I saw that as an opportunity to make it better.” But he recognizes people’s love for Cabrini despite the conditions. When he tried to move his mother to Humboldt Park, she refused because she didn’t feel safe outside of Cabrini-Green.

Now, a decade after the high-rises were demolished, Burnett is particularly proud of the improved conditions in the city’s public housing. “It’s a very different culture in those buildings now, and I think it’s better,” he says. “It has become better for residents and really gives folks a different sense of living. Just like we adapt to the bad things, we adapt to the good things.”

J.R. Fleming

For J.R. Fleming, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, love for Cabrini-Green runs deep.

How deep, you ask? Well, for starters, his Twitter handle is @iamcabrini. And given his personal and professional ties to the high-rises, that’s not surprising. Born in Cabrini, Fleming is a father of 12, nine of whom were also born in the complex. And in his youth, he was recruited by legendary Cabrini-Green activist Carol Steele to join the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing. He credits his decades-long career in organizing to the Cabrini-Green community. “Just that type of community and love in Cabrini-Green, is what really pushed me, I think, as an organizer and activist today.”

Fleming started the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign in 2009 during an important era in Cabrini-Green’s history, one he calls an era of displacement. During this time, he says, the city was forcing residents out through eviction or de facto demolition, or refusing to upkeep apartment units until they became unlivable. And despite Cabrini-Green residents’ unprecedented activism, Fleming says the eventual demolition took its toll.

“When the last tower came down, that’s when reality sat in, like, we fucking lost,” Fleming says. “Yeah, we lost.”

Since then, Fleming and the CAEC had a hand in planning the Cook County Land Bank Authority, which promotes redevelopment and reuse of abandoned properties and buildings. As for his thoughts on Cabrini-Green now, though he says the city should regret its decision to tear down the high-rises, he’s optimistic about how redevelopment is progressing in the community.

“Ten years later, I’m liking the progress, more than anything the inclusiveness that has happened among developers, and the communities, and contractors,” Fleming says. “The collective work of the developers who exist over there, the resident association. Yeah, I’m very pleased. You couldn’t have told me this ten years ago now, I’d be like ‘fuck outta here.'”

Critics say the Plan for Transformation became a land grab, with developers and landlords gunning for the prized real estate where public housing buildings sat.Credit: UIC library digital collection / Flickr

Pete Keller

If you have to live somewhere ten years to be a local, then Pete Keller is a Cabrini-Green local almost three times over, having lived in the community nearly 30 years. Keller is a two-time author and longtime community activist. And as of early March 2021, he also runs an Avalon Park resource center for formerly incarcerated people. The ULON Resource Center—which stands for United Legion, One Nation—was a 20-year dream of Keller’s and builds off of his own experience in prison and his years as a gang member and selling drugs in Cabrini-Green. He also credits his time in Cabrini for his love for activism.

“I think it made me appreciate the hustle and grind of being an active citizen,” Keller says. “It’s crazy to say that, but it helped me become a better citizen. It molded me to understand the struggles of life, the real struggle of eating, sleeping.”

While most people call Cabrini-Green a community, Keller calls it “a city within a city.” He marveled at how gossip seemingly spread faster by word of mouth than the telephone; and he admitted that shoot-outs or fights were common, but like many, he blamed them on conditions and neglect rather than those pulling the trigger. And for all its struggles, Keller says the community had its advantages. “You still knew that there was something better than Cabrini, but we had things that outsiders didn’t have,” Keller says. “And that was a sense of community, a sense of family. I mean, it was just completely different.”

And like others, Keller says it was hard to feel safe outside of the projects, particularly in light of their notorious reputation the public often extended to its residents. “We felt more safe in Cabrini than anywhere else,” Keller says. “We could go to the west side or the south side, even up north, and there was a sense of not knowing how people were going to receive us or act.”

And for all of its notoriety, and the violence that did indeed occur, Keller says there was never and will never be a community like Cabrini-Green.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx

Most people have picture frames, pen holders, or tchotchkes on their desk. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has a piece of brick; a fist-sized, jagged chunk, with “Cabrini Green 4/4/11” scribbled on it in black letters. The date refers to the day Foxx’s mother scaled a fence to retrieve the piece from the final Cabrini-Green high-rise.

Foxx was born and lived in Cabrini-Green until her family left when she was in the third grade so she and her brother could attend an Old Town magnet school.

But the brick isn’t just a paperweight or a memory of days past. For Foxx, the first Black woman to lead the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country, it’s a constant and important reminder. “It’s not just that I do this work with a memory of Cabrini, I have a visual representation of the community that I come from, such that every decision I make is informed by that.”

But Foxx is also quick to admit that the memories of her years living in Cabrini-Green are not always happy ones. While she has “some incredibly fond memories” of her time there, including jumping rope on a fresh blacktop and racing down ramps in front of the towers, she’s also haunted by having to hide in the bathtub to avoid gunfire and climbing seemingly unending flights of stairs when elevators were disabled or when someone had been assaulted in an elevator.

Foxx also spoke of a lack of control—if it wasn’t CHA’s willful neglect adding barriers to daily life, it was gang members whose reign was allowed to run rampant at the complexes. And she says the harsh realities of growing up in the complex have had a lasting impact. But as a prosecutor, it’s helped her have a more well-rounded view of the people passing through her custody.

She remembers one man in particular who was a significant source of help for her grandmother. In addition to providing food, the man also let children from the floor play his new Atari 5200 game system. He later died in a gang-related shooting. “If you read about him, all you would know is that, you know, he died because of his gang activity,” Foxx says. “But I knew a fuller version of who he was. And it doesn’t negate what he did. But I knew that there was more complexity to who this person was than his last act.”

And Foxx, like so many others, is quick to point out the racist dissonance in holding public housing residents accountable for the condition of the government-run housing. “It was emblematic of the failings of public housing,” Foxx says. “It was emblematic of all of these social structures just being neglected. It was easier to demonize people than to call out institutional and structural racism.”

Foxx is commonly held up as a success story of Cabrini-Green: a powerful Black woman who was once just a little Black girl in public housing. And she readily acknowledges that people with her background don’t often end up in her position. But she is equally ready to challenge the idea that she is an anomaly among former Cabrini residents, that she alone was capable of ascending to her current height. “I know I wasn’t the smartest of the kids in Cabrini,” Foxx says. “I know I wasn’t the most articulate or creative. And yet, here I am.”

“And what I like to tell people who live in those circumstances that are beyond their creation, the agency is knowing that you don’t allow someone to define you by these failed circumstances, that your greatness should not be determined by your zip code. But we know that so often happens.”

Tara Stamps

Many Cabrini-Green residents say the projects forced them to be activists. For Tara Stamps, she was, quite literally, born into it.

Stamps is the daughter of Marion Stamps, the legendary housing activist who helped found the Chicago Housing Tenants Organization, organized with the Black Panthers, and helped elect Harold Washington. And, unsurprisingly, Stamps says her upbringing impacted her “in every way that I can imagine.”

“It just shaped my belief system, about poor and oppressed people, public housing, public accommodations, welfare, and the human rights that people are due and deserve,” Stamps says.

A longtime Chicago Public Schools teacher, Stamps taught at Jenner Elementary for 14 years. She unsuccessfully ran twice for alderwoman of the west-side ward where she now lives: in 2015, she earned national attention for her campaign against incumbent Emma Mitts, losing by just 600 votes. She ran again in 2019, though Mitts again won reelection.

While many have said the CHA has improved in the years since Cabrini-Green was demolished, Stamps has a differing opinion. And like her mother, Stamps didn’t mince words. “The Chicago Housing Authority is as bad as it’s ever been,” she says. “At least back then, you had projects and you had scattered-site housing. You had people who at least were able to house their families as a result of the Chicago Housing Authority. And now, you don’t have that,” referring to continuing gentrification in the city and a dearth of affordable housing.

And though Stamps calls out gentrification, she says capitalism and its focus on profits over people are ultimately to blame for the state of housing equity in the city. “The monster that is capitalism has an insatiable appetite, and it will eat you up,” Stamps says. “It will devour anything in its way. And that’s why they just continue to move on communities where people might be poor or oppressed, and they just steamroll over them.”  v