Ever since I was a little kid, going in to downtown Chicago meant catching the Dan Ryan at about 111th Street and heading north … my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would tell me about growing up in Chicago, and how much the city had changed for the worse.
As we approached Comiskey Park at 35th Street, you could see the enormous high rise apartments, almost all of them on the east side of the expressway. From the distance, they didn’t look bad, but I was told these were the “high rises” … over time, I came to understand that what had been an interesting idea: provide affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II, quickly descended into low cost housing exclusively for the poor. Under a variety of plans, more buildings were added to keep the poor (read: African-Americans) in one area. Since poverty was rampant, the accompanying problems: substance abuse, gang activity, murders, etc followed. The high rises were notorious by the 1970s, and were horror stories by the 1980s. In Chicago, the most notorious was Cabrini Green.
By 1980, things had gotten so bad, that then Mayor Jane Byrne decided to temporarily move in to a vacant unit, brining her security and police with her. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Good Times and understood that the title was greatly ironic, you might know that this Norman Lear series was set in Cabrini Green. While that was something of a dramatic sitcom, the horror film Candyman wasn’t … it was set there too!
By the 1990s, the decision was made that these blights had to go, and plans began for new housing and demolition of these monstrosities. The move is now toward mixed income housing … trying to avoid the problems of keeping too many impoverished together. This has not been without issues, as some of these buildings are in nicer, gentrified areas, and some unscrupulous folks have taken to purchasing or buying lower income units through fronts, and renting them for exorbitant prices.
This month, the last hundred-some-odd residents of Cabrini-Green were given formal notices of eviction. They had tried to fight his (why? I can’t imagine), but when the legal efforts were ended, they filed a new injunction to get the first right of purchase on the new homes that are to be built in their place. That is still pending.
However, they have until January, because on the 18th of the new year, the last high rise will be demolished.
Thus ending another exceptionally sad chapter in Chicago’s fight with poverty. I can only hope the exit round won’t be as painful.