S ince 1999, when the Chicago Housing Authority launched its $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation and began the slow process of tearing down all its high-rise public housing projects, a cottage industry of books has sprung up to fill in the mental spaces left by those destroyed buildings: in the last 18 years, no fewer than 20 volumes have been published devoted to the history, sociology, public policy, and personal stories of life in public housing. Most of these have been written by scholars and policy wonks whose important and incisive accounts of the Chicago Housing Authority and its residents often lack narrative ease and engaging characters. The last time a local journalist attempted to tell a national audience why public housing matters and present readers with a long-form narrative about the lives of people who called it home was 26 years ago, when Alex Kotlowitz published There Are No Children Here.
Now Ben Austen, a magazine writer and Hyde Park native, has produced High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing , the result of seven years documenting the story of Cabrini-Green. Austen handled his book more as a chronicler than an embedded reporter. This is perhaps the most reasonable and respectful approach to the subject matter that a middle-class white writer who's never lived in public housing could take. Rather than posturing as an intrepid journalist on a poverty safari, Austen sets out to give the general audience a long-overdue history lesson on where Cabrini-Green came from, who lived there and how they lived, and why the 23-building project ultimately became the primary symbol of a national public policy failure. (Full disclosure: My name appears in the acknowledgments section, as do those of many others in the small cadre of local journalists who regularly cover public housing issues and have gotten to know Austen over the years.)
High-Risers traces the life span of that 70-acre neighborhood on the near north side through the shifting tides of federal policy and local politics. The saga of the development is interspersed with the histories of four individuals who spent their lives there: Dolores Wilson, Kelvin Cannon, J.R. Fleming, and Annie Ricks. Austen follows them through the decades with a fierce attention to detail. Their voices crop up throughout the narrative to add notes of personal perspective and at times surprising counterpoints to the noisy politics and policy decisions that swirled around and within the development. Even in the years when their neighborhood became the stuff of horror movies and if-it-bleeds-it-leads news reports, these residents were shaped as much or more by the joys of their jobs and friendships, their hobbies and public service commitments, the comforts of their homes and the love of their families. Vignettes about other Cabrini residents also appear through the book—prominent activists like Marion Stamps and Carol Steele, politicians like Jesse White, and the crime victims whose names were used to crucify the entire notion of government-provided housing for the poor: Dantrell Davis and Girl X. The resulting mosaic of lived experiences leaves the impression of looking inside Cabrini-Green's history the way we saw its buildings back in the early 2000s, when the walls were being torn off, revealing the colorful interiors of so many people's well-tended homes alongside long-abandoned units.
Austen demonstrates the centrality of Cabrini-Green to Chicago's sense of itself. At first the development was a symbol of the city's devotion to alleviating poverty and blight, then its drive to keep low-income black residents out of its neighborhoods, then its crime and corruption problem, and finally Cabrini-Green became the justification of the fiscal, political, and physical transformations that brought Chicago from a 20th-century machine town to today's "world-class" city. "Defining Cabrini-Green as the big civic problem also meant it couldn't be ignored," Austen writes; "it needed to be dealt with, solved."
One drawback of the narrative is that some moments in history that were emblematic of massive intellectual and ideological shifts in the way America positioned itself vis-a-vis the poor are glossed over in a couple of sentences: the movements from the direct provision of housing to vouchers that benefit fewer people and feed segregation, and from the dominance of modernist architectural design to low-density "New Urbanism." Perhaps it's not so important for a general audience to get too deep into these public policy weeds. But if we're ever to understand that the fate of Cabrini-Green and public housing as a whole wasn't fated, that the ultimate results weren't inevitable but rather designed, then it's necessary to denaturalize what has so long been presented as unavoidable. Austen could have handled the words and ideas of Plan for Transformation architects with more skepticism; he could have presented urbanists' reasonable-sounding notions of how cities should be in their fuller, contested context; and he could have eschewed the focus on some of the chaos and violence that erupted in people's lives as the buildings and schools of Cabrini-Green closed in favor of a closer interrogation of how city leaders justified making decisions that would ultimately cause immense harm.
But even without these critical perspectives from Austen himself, the book is hardly approving of Chicago's decision to dismantle Cabrini-Green, and demonstrates that in many ways the solutions to its problems created more problems than they resolved. It's also a reminder that the American way is to treat failures as absolute, as the flaws of ideas rather than flaws of execution. That's why we try things once, do a bad job, and then give up. It's why we make the same mistakes, inflict the same harm again and again, even when we think we're doing something new, and seem to have no interest in doing better as long as the people on the receiving end of our bad decisions are poor and black. v