Cabrini Green: A House but Not a Home

Cabrini Green street

On the left stands some of the newer condominiums available in the Cabrini Green area. (Medill/ Alyssa Johnson)

Three police officers lounge around the tan, concrete sidewalk with a nonchalant yet unsettling presence. The sun is shining and a pleasant breeze passes through the neighborhood, though the few noticeable people enjoying the day are the officers. Some residents perch outside on their front steps in silence, but many of the other residents are nowhere to be found. 

Raymond McDonald, 25, remembers a different Cabrini Green. from the one that exists now. What exists currently is what homeowners and condo owners call a part of the “Gold Coast” or “River North.” What McDonald recalls from living in Cabrini as a young boy was a place of family, friends and community.

McDonald’s staccato laughter vibrates off the walls of his quaint townhome in Cabrini as he relives the nostalgia of his childhood. 

“You could go to your neighbor and they watched you grow up, and it was generations of people living there,” he says. “It’s unexplainable when you try to describe a project or a ghetto, but my favorite thing was seeing family on every single block, feeling safe where I’m at because I know everyone there.”

McDonald grew up in the old public housing high rises of Cabrini Green before they were torn down completely starting in 1995 and ending in 2011. While old Cabrini Green residents try to adjust to life in new Cabrini Green, they say they are not welcome in their own home. Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents who have been able to move back into the mixed-income community face new, unfair community policies and discrimination and prejudice from their wealthier neighbors.

“I only know about three neighbors who are willing to walk and say hello. Everyone else just goes to work and ignores us. They pretend like Cabrini did not exist. They are unfriendly; they’re scared.”

-Raymond McDonald

Public housing in Cabrini started in 1942 and was expanded throughout a 20-year period. It consisted of the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, Cabrini Extension North and South and the William Green Homes. As the Gold Coast area of Chicago grew, the Cabrini Green land became more enticing and valuable. In 1996, the Chicago Housing Authority developed the “Near North Redevelopment Initiative,” which called for tearing down the public housing high rises in Cabrini Green and replacing them with mixed-income housing options. While CHA enacted this “Plan for Transformation,” public housing residents of the area were forced out into temporary homes. 

However, residents sued CHA because of the displacement and hasty removal from their homes in the lawsuit Wallace v. Chicago Housing Authority. CHA residents won the lawsuit in 2006 and were promised a chance to move into the new mixed-income housing.

Even though some CHA residents were able to return to Cabrini after the lawsuit, they say it is not the same place that they previously left. The introduction of mixed-income housing has brought with it some unwelcoming neighbors. 

“I only know about three neighbors who are willing to walk and say hello,” McDonald says. “Everyone else just goes to work and ignores us. They pretend like Cabrini did not exist. They are unfriendly, they’re scared.”

McDonald’s brother, Marshawn Murry, believes that the unfriendly environment is based upon a vast array of differences between CHA residents and the homeowners. 

“This treatment is based off of the color difference, the income difference and the heritage difference,” Murry says. “They look at us as monkeys or like they aren’t going to mess with us because of that.”

Deidre Brewster, another resident who was able to come back to the new mixed-income community in Cabrini Green, also believes that race and class play into the relationships in the new community.

“They may have this belief that they need to be ‘higher’ than a person with a subsidy because they’re paying a mortgage, and sometimes race plays a large role.”

According to 2018 census estimates, within the 60610 zip code, 69% of the residents are white and 16% of the residents are Black.  It also states that 31% of the people have a household income less than $50,000. Meanwhile, the median household income is $81,576 and a quarter of the homes in the area are valued between $500,000 and $1 million. 

On one side of the street in Cabrini Green crisp, white condominiums and tall apartment complexes decorate the street corners. On one block there is a massive Target, an array of gyms and an upscale wine store. On the other side of the street, there are abandoned houses with boarded up windows. 

Outside of where McDonald and Murry live, there is a young, white married couple taking advantage of the sunny Chicago afternoon with their baby daughter. Mandy and Thomas Steinmetz stroll along the street with their baby carriage.

“We looked at a bunch of places like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, but we wanted a big enough place to raise our daughter,” Mandy Steinmetz says. “This area was perfect. It wasn’t too far from working downtown. We wouldn’t have to take the ‘L’ or public transportation, because we can walk to work.”

According to Steinmetz, the dynamics between the newer residents of the area and the CHA residents has been positive. “I feel like the relationship has been friendly,” she says. “I’ve never seen any fights or anyone screaming at each other. We always walk our dogs and say hello. I haven’t experienced any negative or dangerous interactions.”

On the other hand, both Murry and McDonald recall eggs being thrown at the homes of the CHA residents during Halloween. 

Brewster’s voice breaks as she recalls feeling outcasted by neighbors because of their differences. “You can’t help but look at your own reflection in the Target window. It’s like, wow, they really aren’t speaking to me because of my skin color.”

Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, claims that mixed-income communities are unsuccessful at creating real relationships between people of different socioeconomic levels.

“Is it effective in creating bonds across incomes? I think the evidence is very clear that it is not,” she says. According to Mark Joseph and Rob Chastkin, leading researchers on mixed income neighborhoods in Chicago, residents across units interact with each other little, there are occasional antagonisms. 

“You can’t help but look at your own reflection in the Target window. It’s like, wow, they really aren’t speaking to me because of my skin color.”

Deidre Brewster

An open grassy field is now in the place of where the last Cabrini Green high rise used to stand.

Apart from personal relationships between the residents in the mixed-income community, there are also imbalances of power between homeowners and those who are not. For example, if a homeowner makes a complaint against a CHA resident, there is not much the CHA resident can do to fight against it themselves. 

“A tenant doesn’t necessarily get a chance to directly defend themselves. They have to be defended by their property manager at a hearing,” Brewster says. “However, if it’s a homeowner or a condo owner, they can represent themselves at a hearing because they own their unit.”

Matthew Aguilar, senior manager of communications and marketing for the CHA, says the CHA provides “employment training, job retention assistance, child care programs and college scholarships” to give support and to help residents gain self-sufficiency. In terms of representation for CHA residents in their own communities, Local Advisory Councils are one system the CHA has put in place to give its residents a voice. With Local Advisory Councils, residents can vote for a representative from their community to serve on the board. Yet the CHA does not have to listen to the council or act in the interests of its tenants. 

And this is reflected in the feeling of powerlessness some renters say they feel, especially as their community is being gentrified.

“People think gentrification is [a] great thing, until it goes wrong,” McDonald says.

The realities of gentrification look and feel different for everyone involved in its game. To Mandy Steinmetz, Cabrini Green was the perfect choice for her new family to live: an up-and-coming, diverse area close to work. But to CHA residents like McDonald, Murry and Brewster, gentrification in the area has taken away community and power.

McDonald hopes that the future of public housing will look different in Chicago and that everyone receives fair housing. 

“I hope that one day we have equal housing for everyone,” McDonald says. “Not just for people from Cabrini or Robert Taylor Homes, but I want housing for the homeless. I want to see people from their neighborhoods actually come back. That’s my hope: being able to let the people in the neighborhood revamp their own communities. That’s how the gentrification process supposed to work.”


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