Tour of Cabrini-Green explores poverty

By Isa Haviland

Over 60 U of C students joined the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) Saturday morning for a tour of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project, located on Chicago Avenue a few blocks north of the Loop. The tour, which was slated to be led by Willie “J.R.” Fleming, a longtime resident and activist who failed to arrive, was instead conducted by impromptu guide Charles Price, a member of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing.

After describing his life as a youth in the housing project, Price answered questions from students and led the group toward the school and the project. “Can we take pictures?” a student asked. “Go ahead,” Price said. “This is not Iraq.”

Dilapidated buildings with no windows or secured gates, cracked sidewalks, unpaved streets, and derelict playgrounds were some of the sights captured by students. Some remained after the bus had left, and Price showed the security booth riddled with bullet holes and pointed out boards over the windows that often shielded snipers.

Cabrini-Green was built over a

20-year period starting in 1942. By the 1970s, most of the residents were poor blacks and the community was steeped in gang violence and illicit drug trading. The city neglected the residents of Cabrini-Green, failing to provide maintenance and basic services, and conditions worsened.

In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) enacted the “Plan of Transformation” to tear down all of the high-rise public housing buildings in the city, which included most of the buildings in Cabrini-Green.

“The CHA came and asked me to talk people into moving,” Price said. “But do you think they were offering compensation? The concept with public housing is tear down first, rebuild later.” The result: Many residents continue to illegally occupy the half-demolished buildings.

Mixed-income houses were instituted by the CHA to alleviate relocation problems. On the tour of the east end, Price spoke of the rows of new brick houses with indignation. “Do you think these buildings were built with people who get $167 income in mind?” Price asked the tour group. For him, the Transformation Plan and programs such as Hope 6, which called for housing-project renovations, are simply legalized forms of urban cleansing, or “urban apartheid.”

“Projects like Hope 6 only benefit the members of the upper class,” he said. “They’re just an excuse for developers to make money by displacing and getting rid of black folk.”

The city and the CHA plan to move forward with plans for demolition. Price’s organization, among others, is working to protect residents.

Also on the tour was filmmaker Ronit Bezalel, who made Voices of Cabrini, a documentary on the Cabrini-Green Project filmed between 1995 and 1999 and produced by U of C Cinema and Media Studies professor Judy Hoffman. SSN has organized several on-campus screenings of the documentary and may invite Bezalel for another screening in the near future.