Short history of Cabrini-Green

[Illustrations stripped. In late 2005, much of this information was added to the Wikipedia entry on Cabrini-Green.]

A short history of Cabrini-Green
Prepared by Payton Chung for AIAS Forum, 1 January 2003
The site upon which Cabrini-Green now stands has been labeled a shantytown, a slum, or a ghetto since its first settlement in the 1850s. The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837 as a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River. The town grew quickly in the following years, with trading of goods leading to the establishment of industries along the river. Tanning, meat-packing, lumber, warehousing, and eventually iron rolling and machine parts factories set up along the river and along the railroad that ran along the north bank of the river’s main branch (indeed, under today’s Sheraton).
The residential area immediately inland from the river began in the 1850s as a shantytown of largely Irish factory workers looking for housing convenient to factory jobs. The area changed dramatically over the next few decades as industry filled the southwest quadrant (then known as Smoky Hollow after its low valley location near polluting factories; now known as River North and better known for theme restaurants and art galleries), pushing the residential area further north, as transportation to the Loop improved with streetcars and bridges, and as successive waves of immigration pushed older residents out (typically further north) and pulled new residents in. Over time, the only name which seems to have stuck was Little Hell, after the smoke and flames from a nearby gas plant and the miserable living conditions found there. Ethnic succession was accompanied by the filtering down of the residential stock; few improvements were made to the housing stock over time, and overcrowding increased as industry and commerce moved closer and land prices rose. As a result, housing conditions worsened considerably over time.
The Irish were soon replaced by Germans, who in turn were replaced by Swedes; many of the residents left homeless when fire leveled the Near North Side in 1871 were Swedish or Norwegian. A second wave of Irish immigrants arrived, renaming the area Kilgubbin or The Patch. In 1903, a large number of Sicilians moved into the area, giving it the name Little Sicily. One 1929 sociological study described Little Sicily as the poorest, most crime-ridden part of town, home to a “Murder Corner” infamous for gangland slayings.

Figure 1. Juvenile delinquents in Little Sicily. [Harvey Zorbach]
In the 1910s and 1920s, the area—which never had the restrictive covenants which kept other parts of the city segregated by race, religion, and ethnicity—became more racially mixed, as African Americans from the South arrived during and after the wartime industrial boom. By World War Two, the African American population in particular had grown considerably, leading to severe overcrowding. The wartime construction of the Frances Cabrini Homes — low-rise townhouses in a grid pattern, 75% white and 25% black, with residents hard at work on the war effort — was an early experiment in public housing in America. By most accounts, it was a well-maintained success, providing quality housing for the working poor.
The concurrent shift of city housing policy, federal housing policy, and local employment in the decades immediately following the war led to the project’s decline. Mayor Richard J. Daley obsessively tore down many Black Belt neighborhoods, building in their place high-density housing projects which could contain the rapidly growing African American population without threatening the racial “invasion” of the city’s jittery White neighborhoods. To that end, cheaply and quickly built ten thousand units in high-rise housing projects throughout the inner city – in many cases supported by local leaders, who welcomed any new investment in their overcrowded communities. The Cabrini Extension and Green Homes high-rises along both sides of Division Street were built under this policy. (This strategy’s racist motives were confirmed by federal courts in Gautreaux vs. CHA in 1969.) The federal government reinforced this strategy by gradually changing the rules for admission to public housing: income limits were lowered and racial discrimination (which, in this case, did serve to keep African Americans out in the name of integration) was outlawed. As a result, the population of the housing projects became overwhelmingly African American and very poor.

Figure 2. Daley’s big purchase. [Chris Ware]
At the same time, the city’s economic base was changing rapidly as the industrial employment base collapsed. From 1953 to 1999, the city lost over 350,000 industrial jobs; the downtown area alone lost over 100,000 industrial jobs since 1972. In fact, the total number of jobs downtown—despite the spectacular growth in the office employment base, with service employment doubling between 1972 and 2000—remained largely stable from 1972 to 1996. The rising educational demands of the new service employment regime, though, effectively shut the door on low-skilled workers like those living at Cabrini-Green, leading to their effective isolation from downtown’s booming economy.
The rapid decline of industry and general flight from the city – Chicago lost a million residents between 1970 and 1990 – led to widespread abandonment throughout the city, but particularly in its poorer quarters. The blocks immediately surrounding housing projects like Cabrini-Green went vacant as residents and businesses left. City government, reacting to political and fiscal pressures, cut services to many housing projects. Train stations serving projects were shuttered, police patrols ceased, and schools were written off. The CHA effectively stopped maintaining units: lawns were paved to reduce maintenance costs, light bulbs blinked off, vacant units were left unlocked, water and fire damage went unrepaired. Deferred maintenance rendered thousands of units uninhabitable. The result was a near total isolation of the housing projects from the life of the city. The lawlessness of the projects in many ways was a logical outcome of their isolation from legal forms of social organization. Over the years, a number of publicity stunts (most notably Mayor Jane Byrne’s week-long residence in Cabrini-Green) made a charade of caring, but no substantive change ever happened in the projects.
The downtown economic boom also led to the gentrification of the surrounding areas. The original base of wealth along the Gold Coast (just a mile west of Green Homes) stretched north into Old Town and Lincoln Park in the 1920s; along with it, an artists’ colony sprouted in the Old Town area. Gentrification spread from there, pushing several miles north along the lakefront to Edgewater, then hopping west across the river into Wicker Park and displacing the Loop’s former industrial belt from the Near South to River West. By the mid-1990s, Cabrini-Green was surrounded by gentrified neighborhoods. Upper-income homebuyers edged closer to the project each year.
On 13 October 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot and killed by a sniper as his mother walked him to school in Cabrini-Green. His death made national headlines and embarrassed the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard J.’s son) into taking action. In 1994, the Chicago Housing Authority received a HOPE VI grant from the federal government to begin planning redevelopment at Cabrini-Green. In 1997, the Near North Redevelopment Initiative plan was released; it recommended demolishing most of Cabrini-Green (leaving only the original rowhouses intact) and replace it with a dense, mixed-income, mixed-use community.
The current plan currently includes demolition and redevelopment of the later, high-rise portions of Cabrini-Green with low- and mid-rise buildings. New developments on adjacent vacant parcels are receiving city subsidies to provide 505 units of public housing, typically with no more than 20% public housing units. Developments within the 70-acre Cabrini-Green site will set aside 30% of their units for public housing. Overall residential density in the Near North Redevelopment Area will increase to about 55 units per acre, since then-vacant parcels will house new residents, but density within the project site will decrease. The plan does not stipulate architectural form, but so far, developments have taken on a neo-traditional look in vernacular Chicago multifamily housing types: two-flats, coach houses, rowhouses, three- and four-flat walk-ups, and courtyard apartments. (Interestingly, a Modern proposal by Brian Healy won an architectural competition for another CHA redevelopment site – and several new glass and steel luxury high-rises are under construction within view of Cabrini.)
To prepare for demolition, public housing tenants are given Section 8 vouchers when their leases expire, or are offered a scattered-site public housing unit elsewhere. (The 2,000 scattered-site units are primarily found in working-class areas of the city.) Vouchers technically allow tenants to rent almost any private market apartment in the city or suburbs, but a combination of landlord discrimination and a lack of transition support for tenants have resulted in many tenants ending up in other poor, segregated neighborhoods.
Residents of Cabrini-Green have criticized the plan as a land grab, pointing out that fewer than half of the original 3,000 public housing units will remain, and that Cabrini-Green residents have no right to return to the Near North Side. (Tenants of new public housing units in mixed-income developments are selected through a separate, stringent process.)
In 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority released a “Plan for Transformation” which will demolish 18,000 units, including every open-gallery high-rise, while building or rehabilitating 25,000 units of public housing. New developments will include 21-44% public housing, but on average, one-third of units in new developments will be public housing.

Further Reading:
Marco D’Eramo, The Pig and the Skyscraper (Verso, 2002). An excellent overview of Chicago’s social geography, including a chapter on Cabrini-Green.
Alan Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto (reprinted Chicago, 1998).
Elizabeth Taylor & Adam Cohen, American Pharaoh (Little, Brown, 2001).
Sudhir Venkatesh, American Project (Harvard, 2000). A contemporary ethnography of residents in Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago’s largest housing project; includes discussion of residents’ coping strategies and the CHA’s current attempts to dismantle the projects.
Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum (Chicago, 1929, reprinted 1983). An early sociological analysis of the Near North Side, including extended discussion of Little Sicily.

Points of interest
Public housing
a. William Green Homes (“the whites,” high-rises north of Division). 1962, Pace Associates. The most infamous buildings on the site, sharing an open-gallery design with many other Richard J. Daley-era public housing projects. The open galleries, intended as “streets in the sky,” eventually became notorious as lookouts for snipers. To be demolished upon vacation.
b. Cabrini Extension (“the reds,” mid- and high-rises south of Division). 1958, A. Epstein & Sons. Substantial demolition has already begun on these buildings; the remainder will be demolished within a year. Part of this site will be redeveloped as North Park Village.
c. Frances Cabrini Homes (low-rises south of Division). 1942, Holsman, Burmeister, et al. These rowhouses will be rehabilitated, not demolished.

Residential redevelopment sites
A. North Town Village. The largest, most ambitious mixed-income development to date; 241 units on seven acres adjacent to Green Homes. 30% of the units are occupied by former public housing tenants, 20% are affordable to moderate-income families, and half have been sold or rented at market rates.
B. Orchard Park and Mohawk North. The earliest mixed-income developments in the area, built on city-owned land away from the projects in 1996-1998. The neo-traditional architectural form of these developments has been carried over into other local redevelopments.
C. Near North High School site. This site, formerly home to a high school (since replaced), is now available for mixed-income residential development.
D. Old Town Village East. One phase of mixed-income development, this on the former site of an Oscar Meyer sausage factory. MCL, the developer of this site, also developed Mohawk North and is the largest homebuilder in the city. 28 public housing units out of 140 condominiums.
E. North Town Park. The first redevelopment to take place within the boundaries of Cabrini-Green, this will be a 18.4 acre, 650 unit (195 public housing units) development by Holsten-Kenard, the developers of North Town Village. It will replace Cabrini Extension North, the first high-rises to be torn down.
F. Old Town Village West. Another brownfield redevelopment by MCL, also mixed-income.
G. River Village at Kingsbury Park. 107 four-story townhouses surrounding a one-acre park and marina. Kingsbury Park is a thirty-acre, mixed-use redevelopment of the former Montgomery Ward corporate headquarters site; it will include about 2,600 dwelling units, office, retail, industrial, and new parks at buildout. The section of Kingsbury Park north of Chicago Avenue (that is, within the boundaries of the Near North Redevelopment Initiative) includes 10% public housing replacement and 10% “affordable” units
H. Domain Lofts at Kingsbury Park. 288 lofts (priced up to $1 million) and parking in the converted Montgomery Ward Warehouse building, including 16 public housing units.

Civic and commercial redevelopment sites
1. New City YMCA. The southeast corner of North and Halsted, long owned by the New City YMCA, has been sold for retail development. The city rezoned Clybourn to commercial use as a buffer between industrial areas along the river and gentrifying Lincoln Park to the east. National retailers, drawn by the large parcels and favorable demographics (high population density, high average incomes), have moved into a regional mall’s worth of retail here.
2. Cubs Care Park. This miniature stadium was donated by the Chicago Cubs to the YMCA.
3. Old Town Square. This basic strip mall fails in its attempts to echo the Prairie School details of Seward Park. However, it provides employment for many local residents and, for now, houses what’s probably the world’s most incongruously sited Starbucks.
4. Seward Park & Fieldhouse. The Seward Park Fieldhouse, a 1908 design by Prairie School master Dwight Perkins, was rehabilitated in 1998. Seward Park was also expanded north of the Fieldhouse to front on Division Street.
5. Near North Branch Library. The first branch library in this area, opened in 1999.
6. New elementary school. A new elementary school adjoins Seward Park.
7. 18th District Police Station. This police station, replacing an older facility further east, opened in 2002. The city has constructed several new police stations from prototype designs in recent years
8. 600 W. Chicago Avenue. A rehabilitation of the historic Montgomery Ward Catalog Building, including high-technology offices and ground-level retail fronting both street and river.


5 thoughts on “Short history of Cabrini-Green

  1. Thanks for the article! It really helped me with my project on the significance of Cabrini Green to Chicago history as a spin-off of reading A Raisin in the Sun in English class recently. Kudos to you!!! :)

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