Cabrini-Green Housing Projects, Chicago

How the Chicago Housing Authority Treated its Poor and Huddled Masses

It was on March 30, 2011 that the last high rise of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects was torn down. Scant traces of its former history are barely found by the keen observer as redevelopment has closed the 70 acre complex which housed at times about 15,000 people.

Initially, prior to the construction of Cabrini-Green, the area housed a significant number of Italians living in what was called Little Hell or Little Sicily. Murders there could often exceed 40 a year, which was significant back then. In the early 1940’s what would become the 20 year-long phase construction of Cabrini-Green began and as the Italians moved out, the Blacks of Chicago moved in.

Low rents afforded those with very little a place to live, but as with any area and with any people, poverty and crime is not and cannot be attributed to any one race or ethnic background, but once it is introduced it is extremely difficult to rid. Once an element of crime and drugs and gangs was introduced, it began to gain a foothold, and then a stranglehold, on the entire complex.

Certainly for sure there were plenty of hard working and honest people living in Cabrini-Green, but just like anywhere else, usually it is the negativity that is reported and remembered.

Shootings, rapes, murders, drug dealing and gang violence blanketed the area daily. The city of Chicago via the Chicago Housing Authority stood by silently – a mute witness, allowing the problem to grow. People moved into Cabrini-Green with hopes of a better life, a chance to try and save money and one day move out or move on with their lives. For many, only despair, drugs and the lure of escape from the madness could only be found in the temporary distraction a fix could give them.

Of course not everyone living in Cabrini-Green lived this way. There are plenty of stories of residents there who actually liked the community, looked out for each other and banded together to combat the crime and drugs that proliferated their neighborhood and to stand up to city hall for better living conditions.

As the buildings were reclaimed by what Chicago called its “Plan for Transformation”, a $1.4 billion dollar redevelopment plan, families started moving out. Some received housing vouchers, others moved into public housing elsewhere, some moved in with relatives or friends, and some became homeless – and many died. Not everyone wanted to leave Cabrini-Green because it was what they knew and where they lived for decades. Some moved out into other areas only to find it was nearly as bad as from where they came.

The troubling part to me, in addition to the situation that residents were forced to live, is the fact that this Transformation of Cabrini-Green isn’t a program that began back in the 1970’s or 80’s; it didn’t even start until 2000. The situation in Cabrini-Green was left unchecked for decades while the poor got poorer, the drugs became stronger and cheaper, and a city turned a blind eye to the disgrace created by the Chicago Housing Authority.

In the year 2000 we were all concerned about Y2K, we had the internet and cell phones, the average yearly income for Americans was about $50,000. Yet we had American citizens living in often deplorable conditions you would expect to find at the turn of the previous century.

On July 17, 1970, two Chicago police officers were killed while on patrol in Cabrini-Green. Even with that horrible event one would think the CHA would have begun to rethink their strategy of housing more and more of the cities poor in Cabrini-Green.  More than three decades longer would pass before anything permanent was done to combat the situation residents there faced every single day.

Today, Cabrini-Green is silent. The voices of its past are long gone with the buildings that housed them; not even echoes remain. The voices of Dantrell Davis, a 7 year old boy shot and killed walking to school while holding his mother’s hand; Shatoya Currie, a 9 year old girl so brutally raped and beaten I shudder writing about it, and thousands of other victim’s voices are all buried in the rubble of the buildings that peppered the 70 acre projects.

While there are plenty of people who survived and even thrived in and after Cabrini-Green, there should never have been a situation promulgated by the city of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority in the first place. A city that allowed its citizens to be subjected to the life and horrors that so many innocent and decent people suffered through.

It is a disgrace that we the people allowed this to happen to so many of our own fellow Americans and human beings. If we are all created equal, we should all be treated equal…period. It sickens me to think that if the residents of Cabrini-Green had just a little bit lighter colored skin, I bet I wouldn’t be writing this article today. And that is where the injustice lies…

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