How often do buildings gain a level of notoriety like Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects—so notorious, in fact, that they end up in a horror movie? It’s hard to think of another example of a place that became so horrifically infamous, but it wasn’t always that way. No one constructs a building expecting it to wind up with a long history of crime and violence, but at Cabrini-Green, it all went so wrong at an incredibly quick pace. Was it doomed for failure from the start?
The Cabrini-Green Homes were constructed between 1942 and 1962 in Chicago’s Near North Side, as a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project. First came the Frances Cabrini row-houses, completed in 1942, which comprised 586 units in 54 buildings. In 1957, 15 more buildings holding 1,925 units were completed as part of the Cabrini Homes Extension. Then, in 1962, the William Green Homes, with 1,096 units, were built.
The names chosen for the buildings reflected the sense of hopefulness for the community that would occupy the buildings. William Green had been a trade union leader interested in social reform, while Saint Frances Cabrini was an Italian-American nun who helped the poor.
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Despite being built at the intersection of two of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the area in which the housing project was located already had quite the checkered past. It had been known as “Little Hell” in the late 19th century due to its proximity to a gas refinery which filled the neighborhood with fumes and the occasional tower of flames. In the 30s, the area was plagued by organized crime, to the point where the intersection of Locust and Sedgwick streets was once referred to as “Death’s Corner.”
Later, when the neighborhood was predominantly populated by Italian-Americans, it became known as Little Sicily, and many of the first residents of Cabrini-Green were of Italian descent. In the Frances Cabrini Homes, the mandate for the buildings was for a population of 75% white and 25% black occupants, but before long, the residents were mostly black.
The checkered past of the area wasn’t the only problem facing the Cabrini-Green Homes. They’d been poorly and cheaply built, and the mistakes made during their construction would haunt and doom the residents for years after, turning what should’ve been affordable and comfortable housing for low-income residents into a slum that looked more like a prison complex than apartment buildings.
The Homes—and the residents themselves—first took a hit when the nearby factories that employed many people who lived in Cabrini-Green closed. While the transition from manufacturing to professional jobs may have benefitted wealthy neighboring areas like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, it meant unemployment and isolation for the residents of Cabrini-Green.
From Bad to Worse
In the post-war period, Chicago didn’t have the resources to allocate to the newly finished housing project, and as a result, it quickly began to deteriorate, thanks to a lack of police patrols and neglectful building maintenance. Lawn upkeep proved too expensive, so green spaces were paved over; when lights burned out they were never replaced; any unit that was damaged was boarded up instead of getting repaired. The conditions served to further isolate the residents of Cabrini-Green from the rest of Chicago. A ghetto was born.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, life in the buildings became more difficult for residents. Utilities like water or lighting were rarely repaired when they failed. Garbage chutes were clogged, and as a result, pests like rats and cockroaches became a problem. An ancillary result was that residents began to dispose of garbage off their balconies, and so eventually wiring was installed outside of the apartments, adding to the sense of isolation.
In the same era, as the gangs settled in Cabrini-Green, conditions worsened. Different gangs controlled different buildings, and residents lived in fear. On New Year's Eve, gangs would celebrate by firing guns into the air, leading the police to shut down the areas around the housing project every year. The fencing that blocked off the balconies made visibility difficult, to dangerous effect. On July 17, 1970, two police officers who were patrolling the area were shot and killed from a balcony as part of a gang ritual.
As the years passed, the violence intensified. 11 people were killed by gang activity in 1981 alone. Another violent incident was the shooting of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis in 1992, killed by a stray bullet while walking to school. Gang activity was so notorious in Cabrini-Green that in one infamous example, a lone criminal attempted to blame his kidnapping, assault, and attempted murder of a young girl on a local gang by writing their letters on her. That gang, the Gangster Disciples, was so furious about it that they actually worked to help find the attacker.
Reports of the violence and disorder at Cabrini-Green drew national attention to the projects and embarrassment to local officials. In 1981, the year that 11 different people were killed in the area, Mayor Jane Byrne participated in a shameful PR stunt where she and her husband moved into a unit at Cabrini-Green…and only lasted three weeks. She was guarded by police or bodyguards the whole time, and the whole performance only really served to draw further negative attention to Cabrini-Green.
With its reputation for violence and poverty, Cabrini-Green grew to occupy an interesting place in the collective imagination. Although the projects were never referred to by their name throughout the show, the 70s sitcom Good Times was set at Cabrini-Green. Most infamously, the horror movie Candyman took place in Cabrini-Green, making it a major part of the story. As a result, the film features themes of race and class inequality.
It centers on an urban legend about the Candyman, the son of a slave who became an artist but was lynched and had his ashes scattered over the land where Cabrini-Green was built. The residents there in the film speculate that he’s responsible for a rash of murders in the area, and a graduate student investigates the urban legend. The film reflected the era’s fears regarding the pitfalls of public housing.
By the mid-90s, the notoriety of Cabrini-Green was a force of nature that no PR project could rehabilitate, and gentrification was a ticking time-bomb for the central area where the housing project was located. Numerous development projects recommended that part or all of Cabrini-Green be demolished. However, many residents, some of whom had become activists for the community within Cabrini-Green, protested. Despite the conditions, they’d carved out a home for themselves among the chaos.
Sadly, as the 90s came to a close, demolition began on some parts of Cabrini-Green, scattering the remaining residents to other parts of Chicago. The last two families who remained in Cabrini-Green were forced out in 2010, and it was demolished in 2011, leaving nothing but a few of the original rowhouses behind. Mixed-income housing was built in its place, but few former residents made the jump to the new homes.
It was the end of an era for Chicago—sweet for some, but for those who had built a community within the roughest of conditions, more bitter. At the very least, one could hope that urban planners and city officials learned a lesson about low-income housing and how to best serve its residents, but with the hasty way that the city of Chicago let developers rush into the former site of Cabrini-Green, it’d be easy to be skeptical.