Sunday, July 7, 2013

Missing the Cabrini Green High-Rises This Holiday Weekend

Editor's Note: Good Times poster image source is Sony Pictures.

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, CHICAGO, IL – Cabrini Green's high-rises are no more. But many people living in Chicago -- at least since 2011 --probably know about Cabrini Green, a public housing community on the near northside of the city butting up against affluent neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. You can even walk to the famous Loop from Cabrini.  Even if you haven’t heard of it, if you were a kid during the 1970s or currently enjoy watching old TV shows in syndication, you would remember, or know of  Good Times, a sitcom about a loving and hard-working family living in “the projects” (aka a fictitious Cabrini). In the show, originally airing from 1974 to 1979, the family and their neighbors are always facing challenges, many times stigmatized ones about people living in poverty, but they always meet them head on.  Perhaps most important, is the strong sense of community Good Times portrays.

But despite the sitcom's portrayal, and Cabrini’s promising early decades of the 1940s and 1950s, by the late 1960s and beyond, the community became synonymous with crimes, gangs, insurmountable poverty, and disrepair. This has been a very common story for inner-city public housing communities throughout the country and it seems – at least from many mainstream media accounts – that most put blame on the residents themselves. Such stereo-typical portrayals of public housing "ghettos" are completely absent of all the resident and church-based grassroots organizations that not only fought against crime but pushed housing authorities to maintain their homes. 

Unfortunately, authorities gave empty promises in the wake of massive suburbanization that sucked city revenues dry at the same time that federal funding for public housing was decreasing. In other words, it’s important for the general public to understand that traditional public housing communities like Cabrini Green did not become what they would become in a vacuum: federal government policies and neglect; as well as local government corruption, played key roles. 

The Cabrini Green high-rises were demolished by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as part of its Plan for Transformation, which has been ‘revised' several times over the last 19 years. The last Cabrini high-rise came down in the spring of 2011, about a year after I took the pictures featured in this essay. Although the CHA initially committed to plans to renovate the remaining row houses, it’s unclear if this will actually happen, so the remaining residents keep fighting.  In the meantime, luxury condos are for sale where some of Cabrini’s original buildings stood. Apparently there are affordable units as well, but how affordable – and if affordable to former Cabrini residents – is unclear. 

Former Cabrini Green residents have been relocated with the help of subsidies to the private rental market in the form of Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly Section 8). But unlike the very last original episode of Good Times, where everybody finally had enough income to move "up" to the northside, those who were forced to move out of Cabrini in the latter-day reality, moved either along the city's westside or down to the southside. I’ll let you all figure these "choices" out for yourselves.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

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