What Was Public Housing?

Any debate about American public housing will eventually have to reckon with Chicago. More specifically, it will have to reckon with that city’s wrecked projects. Those closest to the issue have ...

Any debate about American public housing will eventually have to reckon with Chicago. More specifically, it will have to reckon with that city’s wrecked projects. Those closest to the issue have reasons to balk at such a reckoning. After all, as political scientist Edward Goetz points out, the history of American public housing can easily be characterized as a handful of “loud failures” drowning out so many “quiet successes.” He singles out Chicago’s wrecked projects as particularly loud and particularly distracting from the fact that most projects served their residents well. And Goetz is right: the vast majority of American projects met their mandate under the 1937 Housing Act to provide “safe, decent, and sanitary dwellings for families of lower income,” and did so throughout their lifetimes.

Consider the protests of Chicago public housing residents themselves. Over the decade I spent listening to them, many objected to depictions of their homes as decrepit and “pissy” places, full of “bad” “project people” with “sad stories.” “It’s not all projects that were Cabrinis,” one put it while summing up these sentiments in 2009.

Here she referred to a public housing complex once renowned the world over for its decline: Cabrini-Green. By 2011, most of the complex was gone, demolished by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to make way for a smaller, mixed-income, partially privatized development. Mixed-use retail and high-end residential real estate now flanks the “new community” that has risen in Cabrini’s wake. The site’s redevelopment has unfolded within broader national reforms that aimed to rid American cities of “severely distressed” public housing. That’s policy-speak for complexes plagued by high rates of crime, physical decline, inadequate services, and a concentration of unemployed persons.

Given these objections, readers familiar with the attention that “severely distressed” projects often command in debates about subsidized housing might dismiss another account that examines the pasts and futures of public housing through outliers like Cabrini. Yet in the case of Ben Austen’s High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, such a dismissal would be shortsighted.

What makes Austen’s account stand out in a crowded field is neither his considerable narrative skill nor his sensitivity to the conditions under which Cabrini residents faltered but also very much flourished. Rather, it’s his ability to craft a cultural history of the outsized public attention devoted to especially “loud” projects like Cabrini. After three decades of diminishing anti-poverty programs, such a history reveals something about how Americans can, but just as importantly cannot, engage with the impoverished people and places in their midst.

To appreciate that, you need to know more about Chicago’s—and Cabrini’s—rise to the forefront of national public housing reforms.

The Frances Cabrini and William Green Homes was the official name of a large and dense public housing complex that once sprawled across a 70-acre swath of central Chicago. The first of its row houses officially opened their doors in 1942; by 2011, the last of its high-rises had fallen to wrecking balls.

Initially built to house an Italian immigrant community, war workers, and returning servicemen and their families, the complex had by the late 1960s become primarily African American. This shift unfolded as housing opportunities opened up for working-class white ethnics in the burgeoning Chicago suburbs, even as they remained restricted for the city’s growing African American population. By the 1970s, Cabrini-Green struggled with a substantial decline set off by deferred maintenance, the steady impoverishment of an increasingly younger tenant base, federal disinvestment, and intensifying crime, violence, and insecurity associated with drug epidemics.

Comparable conditions could be found in many CHA complexes, including the one at the center of my own anthropological research. Yet it was “Cabrini” that became shorthand for beleaguered public housing both within and beyond Chicago, thanks in large part, Austen provocatively suggests, to a geographic location that was as unusual as it was arresting.

Simply put, the camera could not but love a place like Cabrini-Green. As the complex grew and its fortunes spiraled south, that love took on increasingly salacious and hyperbolic overtones. It is that love, Austen ultimately shows, that primed the site to become prime political theater for the drama of public housing reform.

Segregationist impulses within and outside the CHA in the middle decades of the 20th century led the agency to concentrate many of its development energies in more outlying areas. Cabrini-Green was different. Among the authority’s oldest developments, the Frances Cabrini row houses emerged in the early 1940s within a largely immigrant ghetto that stood cheek by jowl with a wealthy and exclusive lakeside residential district.

The contrast between these districts had already captured the imaginations of observers, including sociologists, journalists, and politicians, by the turn of the 20th century. Such attention intensified as the Cabrini row houses opened and the complex’s extension supplanted remaining “slum” areas in the 1950s. Budgetary constraints, but also optimism about the potentials of modernist city planning, made for a complex that expanded as much upward as it did outward.

Nearly two dozen towers rose around the original row houses. By 1960s, the complex had become a dense and particularly prominent chunk of central Chicago. As the complex’s tenant base became blacker and more impoverished and revenue streams to support maintenance and security declined, Cabrini-Green’s local prominence converged with growing national debates about the need for comprehensive welfare reform.

In August 1992, a national commission investigating the problem of “severely distressed” public housing released its findings. It found that just 6 percent of the nation’s public housing stock—that is, just 86,000 out of 1.4 million units—met that qualification. That was a small number. Yet as conservative political backlash against anti-poverty programs grew throughout the 1980s and reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s, politicians on the right and left alike clamored for comprehensive welfare reform. In 1992, Bill Clinton rode to office on a pledge that he would “end welfare as we know it.”

In this context, overhauling distressed public housing became one avenue through which Clinton’s administration might deliver concrete evidence of bold new approaches to poverty. His Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) developed one such approach through an alliance with an urban design movement known as New Urbanism. This movement emerged in the 1980s as a critique of postwar development patterns, in particular of “placeless” suburban and exurban sprawl. Yet its proponents also found plenty to object to within older American cities. They singled out modernist public housing complexes for special censure and worked with HUD officials on designs for smaller, less dense, mixed-income developments cast in the mold of “traditional” urban neighborhoods.

What makes Austen’s account stand out is his ability to craft a cultural history of the outsized public attention devoted to especially “loud” projects like Cabrini.

Policymakers and designers hoped that these developments would restore the urban grid, minimize the stigma associated with public housing, and combat the isolation of public housing residents by encouraging them to interact across economic divides. In theory at least, everyday interaction in neighborhoods that blended seamlessly into their surrounds would diminish poverty by “reconnecting” impoverished public housing residents to mainstream mores and employment habits.

Chicago became a showcase for a New Urbanism–inflected approach to low-income housing in 1995, when HUD took over operations at the CHA. HUD officials justified the move by citing gross mismanagement and grim conditions. The numbers were certainly startling: a third of the CHA’s roughly 40,000 units needed extensive rehabilitation or outright demolition because they were unfit for habitation.

Yet HUD officials also sensed that national reform could not move ahead without addressing Chicago. “If Chicago, as conventional wisdom muses, drags all public housing down,” wrote a member of the “recovery team” sent by HUD to Chicago in the summer of 1995 to assess a “meltdown” on the ground, “then improving Chicago will increase the likelihood that the rest of public housing will improve … [and HUD will meet its] goal of improving the lives of public housing residents and changing public housing as we know it.”

As HUD officials moved to advance limited redevelopment projects already underway at a handful of high-profile complexes, including Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s wrecked projects became a spectacular backdrop for Clintonian-era welfare reform. By the time “home rule” returned to the authority in 2000, an ambitious effort to rid the entire city of its “severely distressed” projects was well underway. By 2015, some 21,000 units of public housing had come down throughout Chicago. This figure includes total units demolished through the Plan for Transformation as well as several thousand more in the years immediately leading up to it.


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By 2017, the CHA was reporting that the Plan had relocated just under 17,000 households. According to the CHA’s calculation of average household size, that’s an estimated displacement of 50,000 people. Yet that estimate does not include the thousands of households displaced in the decade before the Plan got underway, through demonstration projects or the increasingly uninhabitable conditions that drove out anyone with options. Nor does it account for the displacement of those who lived in public housing without ever officially appearing on a lease. Impoverished African Americans living in mid- and high-rise family complexes have comprised the vast majority of those displaced.

Many observers of Chicago’s ambitious plan have asked how public housing residents have navigated policies and designs that take direct and often punitive aim at their dispositions, habits, and households. It’s an important question because residents leaving public housing have had so much at stake. Their homes, their ongoing access to housing benefits and supportive social services or social networks, and thus their ability to remain in place while caring for their households in ways that they see fit have all come to ride on meeting demands posed by new policies and designs. In this climate, the loss or lack of formal employment, a failed drug test, an unmanageable utility bill, and even unwieldy dependents or visitors who socialize in ways that unnerve new neighbors can and have all cost leaseholders their homes.

Like others, Austen has documented how public housing residents have dealt with these challenges while also incorporating the perspectives of what CHA officials like to refer to as “stakeholders” into the reforms: better-off neighbors who come to live in mixed-income “new communities,” private developers who construct and manage them, and philanthropists or social service professionals who have facilitated various dimensions of the reforms. What Austen’s account additionally chronicles that few others have taken up in great detail is how the spectacle of Cabrini and more broadly of wrecked public housing has nourished the most fetid corners of the American social imagination.

Why are those corners important to consider? As scholars have pointed out, two simultaneous demands have characterized the contraction of welfare states in North America and Western Europe. First, that individual citizens become more self-reliant in meeting their own needs and, second, that they contribute to the work of social provisioning in their private capacity as volunteers, neighbors, entrepreneurs, or simply concerned citizens.

Austen’s attention to Cabrini’s rise as a national spectacle raises questions about the exact terms upon which those with—as well as those without—an obvious “stake” in public housing (or welfare programs, for that matter) might be drawn into the drama of their reform. This problem hovers over Austen’s entire account. Yet it becomes sharpest in its middle section, named for the most nebulous yet arguably the most indispensable character in an already rich, character-driven book: Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson.

In Austen’s hands, Jackson is not simply the name of a fictional single black mother held up for national ridicule in a recurring Saturday Night Live skit from the 1980s. She is also a storied place that had by that decade entered “the pantheon of proper names of the scariest black places in America.” She enflames widespread anxieties about the depravity of impoverished people, the shortsightedness and inefficiency of anti-poverty programs, and the indifference or inaction of a citizenry resigned to protracted racism and inequality. She is the figure of an abject place and its people rendered a mediatized spectacle, held up and embellished to support all manner of arguments about poverty, inequality, racism, (in)justice, dysfunction, neglect, disgrace, intervention, hope, empowerment—and the list could go on. Austen traces this figure’s rise through an expansive but never-too-busy set of narratives, rumors, fantasy, and hearsay.

To give you just a taste of Austen’s ear: a young mother named Annie Ricks finds herself homeless after a house fire. She installs herself in a vacant Cabrini apartment only to learn that her new address comes with assumptions about her inadequacy as a parent. She fights them at every turn.

Austen challenges readers to consider how the spectacle of Cabrini and places like it guide interventions within both the built environment and public sentiment.

Cabrini residents led by Dolores Wilson form their own building management company as a bulwark against declining maintenance but also gossip that developers would mobilize that decline to access the land. Their success stabilizes their building at the same time it supports arguments about the privatization of federal housing services.

Bernard Rose, a British director captivated by Cabrini’s decline and insecurity, sets a horror film about a hook-handed ghost that terrorizes residents there. Candyman becomes a cult classic even as it provides a fantastic backdrop for public imaginations of moldering, insecure urban cores.

A young Cabrini resident named J. R. Fleming meets a charismatic religious supplicant who dons a denim habit and ministers to gang members. Fleming works with the supplicant to obtain the peddling license that becomes his critical means of support. Through this connection, he also comes to hone the media savvy and storytelling skills that will become key in future endeavors as an organizer and activist.

A seven-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis falls to a sniper’s bullet while holding his mother’s hand on their morning walk to school. His murder incites a moral panic that fans national calls to demolish the complex and a successful truce among local gangs, but little in terms of direct support for a grieving mother.

The time and energy Austen devotes to these intercalated narratives, rumors, fantasy, and hearsay allow his interlocutors’ stories to breathe in ways that push back on the stock characterizations that too often populate depictions of low-income black urban life in the United States. Cabrini and its people were never “just one thing,” interlocutors admonish throughout the account. They were a multitude of irreducibly complex, surprising, sometimes even contradictory things.

More than an argument against reductive depictions of impoverished people and places, Austen challenges readers to consider how the spectacle of Cabrini and places like it guide interventions within both the built environment and something less concrete but just as consequential: public sentiment.

Spectacles like Cabrini force Americans to confront the fact that while their nation-state has long promised to promote its citizenry’s general welfare, it has failed often and egregiously enough at keeping that promise to make ongoing declarations of it ring hollow. As the fascination hovering around places like Cabrini becomes outsized, the varied public sentiments they stoke are not so much about delivering justice, general welfare, or sound and safe places to live. They have become ends in and of themselves, gauges of whether a citizenry cares enough about the unfortunate among their ranks.


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In this respect, Austen recognizes that the problem isn’t that “not all projects” were Chicago, or that not all Chicago projects were bad, sad, and pissy places. Nor is it even that life on the ground at Cabrini departed from the myths that enveloped them. The problem is that so many Americans across the political spectrum have come to accept welfare’s shortcomings as well as its “end” as a settled, if not inevitable matter that they should feel more or less good or outraged or moved about. So much so that two decades later, the Trump administration’s recent and startling characterization of the war on poverty as “largely over and a success” can pass with a collective shrug.

“Even if you are white, well-off and never went into Cabrini,” a journalist noted to me in 2004 as we spoke about efforts to preserve Chicago’s public housing projects for purposes other than housing low-income people, “it’s not like you could ever miss it. It was there. Just passing by you felt it. And that never let you forget that there are people who are deeply without in our society. Even if you never got involved, you knew that these were places where there were programs to intervene. Now these places are disappearing, allowing wealthy whites to disengage with poverty and racism.”

In such a context, ongoing public fascination with the few and far between negative outliers—like Cabrini—does little to advance public resolutions about affordable, safe, or decent housing. At a moment in which the matter of the general welfare seems a quaint, bygone ideal, Cabrini serves to convince those who consume such spectacles that the feelings of outrage, anger, fear, pity, frustration, or hope that they sometimes momentarily stoke might just be collective action enough.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Installation shot of Watts 1963 by Kerry James Marshall at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2017). Watts 1963 is a part of Marshall's Garden Projects series that highlights the vibrant complexity of life in American public housing projects. Photograph by C-Monster / Flickr