Beyond TV’s Good Times

Although the setting of Good Times,  the first African-American sitcom (1974-79), was unnamed, many assumed it to be Cabrini-Green.

There are many lenses that one can use to look at the history of Chicago since WWII. The transformation of the city’s skyline by developers and world class architects is one. Another is the rise and fall of the city’s sports franchises. And yet another would be through the ebb and flow of Chicago’s population as many left the city for suburban paradises (or the lower-taxed South) while others arrived from Central America and Eastern Europe as previous Europeans and Southern blacks did through the first part of the 20th century.

In Hi-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing,  Ben Austen, a Harpers Magazine editor, provides as illuminating a lens as any. His account is filled with many public figures who would be recognized by anyone following the headlines over the last 60 years: Richard J. Daley (the first Mayor Daley) who strategically used public housing locations as barriers to the encroachment of blacks on the central business district, thus making Chicago-style apartheid even more pronounced.  Jane Byrne, who surprisingly captured the mayor’s office from Machine politician Michael Bilandic, moved into a unit at Cabrini Green as a maneuver (some would say stunt) to call attention to the problems of public housing. The charismatic Chicago Housing Authority head Vince Lane who rode the law and order movement and ordered police sweeps of CHA facilities in an attempt to root out drug dealers, squatters, and gang bangers. Jesse White, the long-standing Secretary of State, who as a young physical education instructor at neighborhood school, launches the Tumblers which provide direction and provide for the youth of the community.

But it’s the folks about whom very little has been written that provide the most compelling reading. The portraits of community leaders and local housing rights activists does much to dispel the easy stereotypes about public housing and those who live in it. There’s Dolores Wilson who for 50+ years lives in Cabrini Green and is actively involved in residents’, school, and neighborhood police committees. And there’s Willie J.R. Fleming, who, after a youth of semi-delinquency replete with a long police record, becomes a tireless advocate for the humane relocation of Cabrini-Green residents, in some cases moving folks into abandoned buildings – homeless people into people-less homes. And there are portraits of residents whose lives end too soon: Dontrell Davis, a 7 year old shot on his way to school in 1992, became a cause celebre, a child whose fate seemed to the media, in one of its periodic spasms of outrage, to be indicative of the failure of public housing and the liberal Great Society.

Austen’s tracing of the lives of a handful of extraordinary ordinary residents serves to make us always aware the Cabrini-Green, despite the many obstacles to social cohesion, was a rich community where many found high levels of community concern and celebration. So much so that when residents moved out they often returned for social functions and church services. So much so that when the die was cast and the projects were marked for a wrecking ball, a fair number of unit dwellers wanted to remain. Poignant is the portrait that Austen sketches of Annie Ricks, the last resident of one of the towers marked for demolition in 2011, her single apartment light shining like a lighthouse beacon in the Chicago night.

What Austen does so well is to show how the fate of public housing is so closely intertwined with the state of the American economy at any particular moment and with the nation’s shifting attitudes about our obligations to one another. He’s well-versed in the academic literature from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s depictions of the pathologies of the African-American family traceable back to slave days to the counter-narrative of William Junius Wilson who argues that inner city poverty and social dysfunction can be explained in large measure by the disappearance of work as manufacturing jobs disappeared or were relocated to the suburbs or the corporate-friendly South, leaving Northern blacks without the incomes necessary to stabilize families. The land on which Cabrini Green was built in the 50s and 60s was land made available when manufacturers relocated. Amidst the optimism and expansion of post war America, public housing was warranted because of the absence of sufficient private-market housing and government policies that made it difficult for African-Americans to secure mortgages in redlined sections of the city. At its peak, Cabrini Green housed 15,000 in 3,600 units.

The brief golden days of Cabrini-Green – when most units were occupied by two parent households and a working father – were short-lived. The stated goal of moving people out of public housing as quickly as possible worked too well. As aspiring middle-class residents found greener pastures, the agency had to admit marginal types who were previously rejected. Reduced rent revenues meant larger subsidies which meant less money for other things.

Once the densely packed high-rise approach inspired by the brutalist designs of Swiss French architect LeCobusier, was discredited (and as the buildings deteriorated because of deferred maintenance) a Transformation Plan was put in place in the first decade of this century.  The idea was to bring down the towers and created two- and three- story townhomes as well as relocate resident to other parts of the metropolitan areas. The 2008 financial crisis brought on by the housing bubble put an end to a number of interesting redesigns of the Cabrini-Green footprint. And the resistance of suburb whites to low-income housing remained as strong as ever. Austen cites the Bolingbrook mayor Roger Clare who announced that his town would not accept any transplants from Cabrini-Green.

Cabrini-Green acquired an iconic status because of all of the public housing developments, it was the one closest to the Loop and to the affluent residents of the Gold Coast, a mere mile to the east. The fear of “black predators wilding” on the Magnificent Mile was palpable. By comparison the bigger Robert Taylor Homes (27,000 residents in 28 16-story buildings) were part of a public housing canyon that began at 39th street just east of Comiskey Park and ran two miles south. And the Altgelt Gardens, near the city’s southern boundary, was even further removed. Because of its proximity to the central core, Cabrini-Green became a target for gentrifying developers eager to put up housing for the well-healed yuppies, even if it meant providing some units for people on public assistance. The idea of a manufactured mixed-income, multi-cultural neighbor was a utopian dream. The greed of developers and urban pioneers eager to flip property at a profit won out.

The story of Cabrini-Green is many stories. The story of good intentions gone astray. A story of resourceful souls struggling mightily to keep families intact and socially mobile. A story of politicians too intent on bringing the Olympics to Chicago at the expense of neighborhood development and job creation. A story of a major metropolis helplessly trying to meet the needs of all of its citizens. All of these stories are told so well by Ben Austen. His book is a welcome addition to the history of Chicago and urban America.

Stand near the Target store at Division and Larrabee, look southeast, and imagine what was there.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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