How do you commemorate a failed experiment? Last month, to mark the demolition of the only remaining tower at Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project, artist Jan Tichy organized a light show.
Rather counterintuitively, Tichy built the light show around sound: He recorded more than 100 young people telling their stories of growing up in and around Cabrini-Green. Then students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago used a computer program that translates sound into light to turn the voice recordings into a visual pattern that would play silently across the tower’s façade.
For the roughly four weeks it would take to bring the tower down, lights blinked on and off in the windows of 1230 North Burling, seemingly at random, bewildering the occasional police officer and drawing nationwide attention one last time to a less-than-brilliant passage of American, and architectural, history. (A live video feed of the tear-down appeared at projectcabrinigreen.org and as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.)
The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) built Cabrini-Green in stages from 1942 to 1962. Located a few blocks from the Gold Coast, the city’s richest neighborhood, Cabrini at one time was home to some 15,000 souls, the most famous being J.J. “Dyn-o-mite!” Evans, a character in the ironically named CBS sitcom Good Times.
During my 1970s suburban childhood, I had never met anyone who lived in an apartment, much less in public housing. Good Times opened a window for me. Though the show was filmed in Los Angeles, and its portrayal of life in the projects was sanitized for mass consumption, the dramatic narrative was a triumph of realism by the prime-time standards of the era.
Good Times co-creator Eric Monte grew up in Cabrini-Green, and the show’s documentary-style credits, shot on location featuring real-life residents, came closest to capturing Cabrini’s genius loci: all concrete, asphalt, and chain-link, plus Afros and bell-bottoms. For those 45 seconds at the beginning and end of every episode, reality reigned. (To see for yourself, search YouTube for “good times credits”.)
By the 1970s, Cabrini-Green had become infamous as a center of gang activity, for mismanagement by its government landlords, and for the poverty of its mostly black population. And so the place became a symbol of the collective failings of the welfare state, of urban-renewal policies, and, fairly or not, of the Modernist experiment in architecture.
For the past decade, the CHA has been slowly replacing the mid- and high-rise buildings of Cabrini-Green with mixed-income, low-rise townhouses and condominiums, according to a basically New Urbanist master plan by Goody Clancy. This massive undertaking is just one part of the CHA’s comprehensive $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation, which the authority describes as “the largest, most ambitious redevelopment effort of public housing in the United States, with the goal of rehabilitating or redeveloping the entire stock of public housing in Chicago.”
The Plan for Transformation represents more than the replacement of midcentury Modernism by New Urbanism as the dominant planning and architectural model for public housing. It exemplifies a major policy shift at the national, state, and local level, from housing for the poor as a purely public enterprise to a public–private one.
Despite the good intentions of its creators, Cabrini-Green ultimately perpetuated the ghetto in Corbusian garb. “The Plan for Transformation,” by contrast, “seeks socioeconomic reform by integrating public housing and its residents into the larger social, economic and physical fabric of the city of Chicago,” according to a report commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
But what does that mean? It means that most of CHA’s new and replacement housing is being built in partnership with private developers, with rich and poor living as neighbors. Though some CHA residents remain in straight-up public housing (notably seniors), many have relocated to the new mixed-income communities. The rest participate in a CHA voucher program that contributes to the cost of renting on the private market.
Left unchecked, either business or government alone can create disaster, as both Chicago’s private pre–World War II slums and its Cabrini-Green experiment demonstrated. The Plan for Transformation offers an interesting alternative, an object lesson at a time when laissez-faire Republicans and nanny-state Democrats are fighting over how to trim the federal budget and whether to fund urgent needs such as infrastructure upgrades and clean-energy technology.
The solution is in the mix, not in one-size-fits-all, winner-takes-all extremes. Chicago wanted to reform public housing, so it spread the risks and rewards equally among the public and private sectors. What if deficit hawks cut entitlement programs and raised taxes on the rich? What if the private sector helped underwrite high-speed rail? When it comes to fiscal responsibility and our country’s future, everyone should share in the hardships and stand to reap the benefits.
Tichy’s light display was a bittersweet elegy to the aspirations and tribulations of Cabrini-Green, its residents and its makers alike. I pray that we will never have to stage a repeat performance.