Cabrini-Green occupies a strange place in the public imagination of many (especially white) Americans. The mere existence of the 1992 horror film Candyman, most of which was actually shot on location at Cabrini, is a nice metaphor for this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is the object of scorn. But on the other, one finds a persistent, voyeuristic fascination with the Cabrini phenomenon that seems aptly filed away in the same genre as detached-observer crime porn TV-shows like Gangland.
Lately we've seen quite a bit of coverage of the fact that the last Cabrini-Green high-rise is slated to be demolished soon. Since the implementation of the CHA's "Plan for Transformation" in 2000, more than 1,700 residents have displaced as the high rises have been torn down one by one. This is a nation-wide phenomenon that began in the 90s, which, I think it's fair to say, is part of a larger neoliberal trend to privatize, cut public services, and so forth.
As I've written elsewhere on this blog, US public housing is shot through with contradictions of various sorts. In order to be able to say anything illuminating about the present situation concerning the demolition of the Cabrini-Green high-rises, we need to say a bit about their history.
The first major piece of public housing legislation in the US was the 1937 Housing Act, which ostensibly aimed to respond to serious scarcity problems in housing during the Great Depression. But due to "the successful lobbying of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Savings and Loan Association, the act was kept from being a central part of FDR's New Deal agenda". Moreover:
"Roosevelt was persuaded that public housing was "too socialist" a remedy to the existing scarcity of homes, and kept it out of the Administration's legislative agenda until the mid-1930s. After a bitter ideological debate in Congress, the act was finally passed in 1937, but not without significant concessions to the private sector. Among the most significant were requirements that public housing schemes include "equivalent demolition" of housing in the surrounding community (and compensation to the owner) so that no new units were added to the overall stock". (see J. Hackworth's excellent book, The Neoliberal City)Of course, the reason for this was that property-owning classes and real estate capital did not want public housing to compete with them (a development which would have forced them to lower rent prices to remain competitive in a market with more housing supply). It has been the same story with every subsequent housing bill passed after 1937: every measure would include provisions designed to prevent a serious public challenge to real-estate capital.
After WWII, the mass influx of soldiers returning to major cities led to a severe housing shortage. Landlords began installing "crash panels", illegally, to turn a two-unit building into an overcrowded 8 or 10-unit cash cow. This severe shortage gave landlords a substantial amount of economic bargaining power and led to a great deal of dirty dealings and exploitation. This vulnerability and exploitation was particularly acute in the case of black people, who, in Chicago for instance, were confined to small ghettos whose borders were strictly enforced by white violence (see Beryl Satter's excellent Family Properties for an in-depth analysis of how racism and exploitation shaped the housing scene for black Chicagoans 1945-the present.)
It was in this context of severe shortage that the 1949 Federal Housing Act was passed. Like the 1937 bill, landlords and real estate capital fought hard to make sure that the Act wouldn't endanger their economic power. They succeeded marvelously. Again, the letter of the law would require that public housing be prevented from ever competing with private landlords. The bill required that:
"(a) rent ceilings were to be set at a maximum of 20% lower than the lowest nearby private housing, (b) structures were to be stigmatizing and aesthetically austere in order to make public housing stand out from average housing stock; and (c) there would be low operating budgets for the Public Housing Authorities charged with managing the facilities."There's a bit more context to put in place here. The idea of building large high-rises in the manner of the Cabrini towers was part of an international trend. After the Great Depression, a new configuration of capitalism emerged under the influence of Keynesian ideas about fiscal policy. The old ideas of "laissez-faire" were almost universally discredited by the Great Depression. Understandably, it was pretty difficult to buy the old myth that the "free" market would solve all problems after the devastation caused by the Depression. It was clear to everyone that, left to its own devices, capitalism was prone to serious, recurring crises and instability. Thus, a consensus formed at the top of society to the effect that much larger measures of state regulation and intervention would be required to sustain steady profits and economic growth. This postwar "managed" capitalism came to define the era from 1945-1973.
Though many reforms came about through this change of orthodoxy which benefited ordinary people (vastly increased public spending on infrastructure, education, health care and housing), we should not be mistaken about the power dynamics involved. Capitalist social relations were hardly up for reform, and most of the beneficial policies of the era were implemented in a technocratic, top-down manner. This was social-engineering from above, not a serious reform program from below.
Public housing policy between 1945-1973 exemplified these trends. Some of the ideas that would influence US public housing, to be sure, had predated the Second World War (e.g. the top-down, technocratic ideas of Le Corbusier which were implemented to clear slums in Paris). In either case, however, the basic forces driving public housing were all coming from above rather than below.
This is, then, the context in which the high-rise towers at Cabrini-Green were built. They were, from the very beginning, part of a top-down plan that sought more to deal with a "problem population" than to empower those on the bottom of society. The structures were built to facilitate social control, not community or the satisfaction of human need. This is evident in the aesthetic properties of the buildings.
They created intentionally austere, bare-bones and basically anti-social built environments. The community and solidarity that did arise in Cabrini did so in spite of the built structures themselves. The buildings were spaced out, far away from one another, and all of the towers prioritized automobile-scale development over human-scale development. They were all single-use and included no mixed-use development at all. Rather than looking like inviting places conducive to community interaction, the high-rises were in many ways uninviting and unsettling to they eye. I don't say this because of the building materials themselves- I actually think very highly of reinforced concrete as a building material (aesthetically, environmentally, etc.) Moreover, I don't entirely endorse the Jane Jacobs-style critique of Brutalism and other Modern experiments in reconfiguring space- there was some, albeit often botched, progressive content to movements like the Bauhaus. Still, to be sure, much of what Jacobs had to say about "deductive" urban renewal (what black activists described as "negro removal") is absolutely right on. This inhuman, technocratic nearly destroyed urban life as we know it. I just wouldn't take the conservative view that everything about the Modernist experiment was misguided, adventurist elitism.
This is all a way of saying that I agree that the high-rises were basically a failed model from the very beginning. So what light does this shed on the demolition of Cabrini today?
So far I've mostly spoken of buildings, structural considerations, and macro-level policy. But the question of Cabrini has to do with real, living human beings. What will become of the former residents who will be displaced and what other options will be made available to them?
The residents themselves appear to be under no illusions about the way the system works. They understand that it does not work to serve their interests. Thus, they are entirely justified in being skeptical about whether there is a viable alternative waiting for them when the high rises are all torn down. They are rightly suspicious of neoliberal Section 8 policies as an alternative to real public housing. They are, for good reason, angry that they are being displaced not "for their own good", but because of the potential profits to be made by dispossessing them and gentrifying the area. They are aware that they are being forced to choose between a turd and a shit sandwich, and they justifiably want a more desirable alternative. And they deserve a better alternative. If mainstream America looked at the residents of public housing as fully equal citizens worthy of respect, rather than deviant subhumans who are more "problems" than fellow comrades, then perhaps it would be more obvious than it is that society owes them a better alternative. This isn't a matter of "charity", but of justice.
To be sure, some news reports will see this as a human interest story (rather than political) and will express some sympathy for the displaced residents. However, many news reports will try to cast the resident activism and opposition as irrational. Why, the news reports will ask, would a rational human being want to continue living in such squalid conditions? But that's the "nice" way of putting their point. Underneath that "innocent" head-scratching attitude is often a kind of anti-"welfare mother" racism that abhors the alleged slothfulness and deviance of those who reside in public housing.
But the only thing that is irrational in this situation is the false choice forced upon us: either choose the failed top-down public housing model of the 50s/60s, or have no public housing at all. In effect, we're told that we have to accept under-maintained, under-funded, crime-infested structures like Cabrini, or we have to accept that public housing itself is a rotten idea. This makes no sense.