Chicago’s Attempt To Shed A Violent Past Leaves The Poor With Nowhere To Go

Infamous housing projects have been replaced by a scheme that may leave the poor facing gentrification instead of violence.
By @FrederickReese |
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    Pictured is a high-rise of the Cabrini–Green, a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project located in Chicago's Near North that was almost entirely demolished after living conditions for residents devolved. (Photo/TheeErin via Flickr)

    Pictured is a high-rise of the Cabrini–Green, a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project located in Chicago’s Near North that was almost entirely demolished after living conditions for residents devolved. (Photo/TheeErin via Flickr)

    For more than 60 years, the name Cabrini-Green epitomized the brutality of being part of the urban poor. Cabrini-Green was known for its violence and ruled by its gangs, leaving only the most destitute, the most needy and the most disenfranchised to travel its walkways as policemen were killed from open windows, a gang shootout left 11 dead, and a 9-year-old girl was raped, poisoned and left blind, paralyzed and mute.

    The mid-rise and high-rise towers of the infamous housing complex were demolished in 2011. In their place, a new Target store is being built. All that remains of Cabrini-Green are the row houses that once sat on the periphery of the sprawling complex. For the poor once served by Cabrini-Green, the move to renovate this long-suffering area is giving them no place to go.

    Under Chicago’s Plan Forward, the 70-acre former Cabrini-Green neighborhood would include a mix of public housing and “workforce affordable” housing. Surrounding development sites are a mix of luxury houses and commercial developments, with 20 percent of all building sites reserved for affordable housing. The idea is to mix the community’s poor with middle-class residents. By doing this, the socioeconomic boundaries between the populations will become irrelevant and social mobility will increase for the poor.

    “With Plan Forward, CHA’s [Chicago Housing Authority] new approach accounts for recent economic uncertainty and changing market conditions, reconsiders existing strategies, and develops forward-thinking, creative policies that will help people and communities prosper,” read the promotional brochure on the program. “It identifies how CHA will work to fulfill its existing commitments, and sets forth how the agency, with a wide array of partners, will provide housing that promotes the health and vitality of neighborhoods and plays the positive role that it can in people’s lives, and how it will assist residents along a path to greater economic independence. The new plan takes as its starting point the successes and lessons of the Plan for Transformation and, under new mayoral and agency leadership, renews CHA’s commitment to the people and places it serves in Chicago.”


    Plan Forward

    Despite assurances that they would be allowed to return, many of the displaced Cabrini-Green residents now find themselves in temporary housing. Only 200 of the 600 row houses have been rehabilitated, with the remaining 400 sitting vacant and surrounded by a chain-link fence.

    “We have all the expressways right at our fingertips, all the ‘L’ stops right at our fingertips, and we got a multitude of stores. So this is the great opportunity area, so why try to chase us out of this area?” said Carole Steel, a long-time resident of Cabrini-Green. “To me it’s about a land grab.”

    The call to make Cabrini-Green mixed-income derives from decades of embarrassment the city endured in defending the terrible conditions of the property. In 2010, D. Bradford Hunt, author of “Blueprint of Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing,” said that Cabrini symbolized the failures of public housing.

    “Because of its proximity to the Gold Coast in Chicago, because it’s right down the street from some of the wealthiest communities in the city, it has been a magnet for the media, a magnet for police attention, a magnet for politicians,” he said.

    Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was more direct in his assessment of Cabrini-Green and the “warehousing” of large concentration of poor people.

    “It destroyed families,” he said. “It moved people from rural communities into high rises. They had no supportive services and it completely failed.”

    “I think evidence and the research shows that that is not a model that allows families to move up and out of subsidized housing. It’s not a model that proves to be conducive to public safety and being good neighbors to the surrounding community. It is not the model we want to pursue in Plan Forward,” said Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority.

    This attempt at urban renewal is being seen as an attempt at gentrification and is currently being challenged by the displaced Cabrini-Green residents.

    “CHA failing to do that violates the Fair Housing Act, perpetuates segregation and discriminates against low-income and African-American families,” Elizabeth Rosenthal, attorney for the residents, said to NPR.


    Frustration in light of gentrification

    Gentrification serves to disenfranchise the poor in two ways. First, facilities that service the poor — including low-income houses, low-profit businesses and community services — are destroyed to make room for higher-valued homes and businesses. Those served by these now-destroyed buildings must move out of the community.

    Second, the new homes and businesses raise the cost of living in the community. As new, more affluent residents move to the area, prices rise, home taxes rise as the property value increases, and the cost of services becomes more expensive. Eventually, the poorer residents are priced out of the community.

    This creates a situation in which the poor literally have no place to go. The dangers of such mass displacement can be seen in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the neighborhood known as the Downtown Eastside. Once known as “Canada’s poorest postal code”, the Downtown Eastside was known for its overwhelming poverty, crime and gun use, as well as its oversaturation of prostitution and drug use. Once the shopping center of the city, the neighborhood fell into urban decay. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the area was better known as Skid Row.

    Vancouver’s city planners decided to renovate the Downtown Eastside through a program known as “social mix,” which — like Chicago’s Plan Forward — would bring upscale housing and businesses to the area to help lift low-income areas out of poverty. This created a juxtaposition where a person can rent a condo or buy expensive pastries less than two blocks from a clean needles site.

    The development is creating a backlash with residents who feel they are being pushed out of their homes. In May, an anarchist group called the Anti-Gentrification Front torched a single-family residential unit. A posting on the group’s site boasted of the act.

    “Last night, we burned down a yuppie development on 1st Ave. near Victoria,” the posting says. “We wish and will create fear for developers in East Vancouver.”

    In March, the group vandalized an area pizzeria for the third time in less than 6 months and protests have been held in front of many of the new restaurants. For most of the area’s poor, home is one of the area’s 6,500 single-occupancy hotel rooms, which are notoriously filthy and dangerous. Most of those protesting want the hotels replaced with affordable housing.

    “Lives are at stake,” said Wendy Pederson, a community organizer in the Downtown Eastside for the last two decades. “We want to send a signal that until we get the 5,000 social housing units to replace the sh-tty hotels the neighbourhood is not for sale.”

    “Upscale businesses create zones of exclusion where we are uncomfortable, ridiculed or asked to leave,” wrote the area’s newspaper, “Our networks of care and support are threatened or disrupted. Gentrification is changing a community where low-income people feel at home and accepted amongst people in the same boat into a space where low-income people are managed through institutional control and policing, or pushed out.”

    Vancouver officials feel that a 100 percent affordable housing solution will not work, a posture similar to the one taken by Chicago, Toronto and many other cities across North America. As residents are forced to leave due to rising rent, officials must find a valid medium between the need to revive the area’s failing neighborhoods and the need to protect the most vulnerable.

    Brandon Grossutti is the owner of Pidgin Restaurant, one of the businesses under protest.

    “If a majority of the residents opposed it, maybe I’d have second thoughts,” he said when asked about the protests, noting that most of the protesters are not actually from the Downtown Eastside. “I don’t think that having 20 Pidgin restaurants is what the neighbourhood needs either. But I do think that bringing economic traffic and stimulus to the Downtown Eastside is only going to serve it for the better.”

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