In our eighth Brass Tacks event, we screened Ronit Bezalel’s 2014 documentary 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, which chronicles the demolition of Cabrini-Green’s 24 public housing towers and the social experiment to create a new mixed-income community on the site over two decades. Following, Catherine Fennell, professor of anthropology at Columbia University and author of Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago, and Crystal Palmer, the Vice Chair of the board of the National Public Housing Museum and a former resident of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, led a discussion on the film and the dynamics of power, money, and community in public housing redevelopment.
Bezalel’s film on Cabrini-Green (and its replacement housing, Parkside at Old Town), Fennell’s study of the Henry Horner Homes (now named Westhaven Park), and Palmer’s work on the museum all explore the mythos of the American public housing system—and the different understandings of what is happening in Chicago as a massive public policy experiment unfolds.
#1 A dubious experiment
Over the past several decades, ambitious federal and local policies have sought to remake American public housing. Driven by neoliberal urban policies that ushered in welfare reform and increased reliance on the private market, the received wisdom of public housing’s failure was bolstered by stories of the “notorious” projects and compelling disaster narratives, such as the spectacular implosion of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe complex in 1972, that seized the public imagination. About 300,000 units of public housing have been lost from the peak of 1.4 million units, according to Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy, as low-income housing policy has prioritized housing vouchers to rent in the private market and new mixed-income communities.
In 1992, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing delivered to Congress a plan to eradicate public housing considered “unfit, unsafe, unlivable” by the year 2000. The report birthed the HOPE VI program, which funded public housing authorities to “seek new partnerships with private entities to create mixed-finance and mixed-income affordable housing.” HOPE VI guided public housing policy around the country as high-rise towers came down and “mixed-income affordable housing” became gospel.
Yet “severely distressed” public housing constituted only six percent of the nation’s total public housing stock, according to the report — meaning roughly 1.4 million units at that time were at least tenable. But the report’s impact was outsized: “Sites like Cabrini were held up to sort of push through a national reform. Many other units have been torn down in the name of a place like Cabrini,” noted Fennell during our discussion. In scholar Edward Goetz’s words, the “loud failures” drowned out the “quiet successes” of public housing.
It’s an experiment that began without hard data but nevertheless became a national model. Seventeen years, more than $3 billion, and many shifted goalposts later, the Plan is ongoing and its benefits are debated. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) says it will reach its promised 25,000 units this year and neighborhood conditions have improved; on the ground, thousands of former public housing residents have been displaced while acres of former public housing land sits vacant. The distance between planning and lived experience is evident when students from Cabrini question elected officials about the redevelopment in 70 Acres in Chicago:
Excerpt from 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green | Courtesy of Ronit Bezalel
#2 Stop saying “failure”
A standard narrative of public housing in the US paints it as a failure of both public policy and urban planning. It’s an assessment with which many current and former residents take issue: “This is my home, this is my everything, this is my base, this is my foundation. So how could that be a failure?” said Palmer.
Fennell echoed this sentiment: “It depends on what you call a failure. Many people who grew up in public housing told me again and again that they don’t consider their communities to have been a failure.” Instead, many suggested to her that the failure resides in diminished public investment in their homes and their security. Fennell pointed out that the financing structure established in the New Deal era complicated matters: “The federal government built the projects, but maintenance would always come through rental income. And when rental income changed, [in part] because of a shift in the availability of housing to middle-class African Americans, rent incomes dropped. There was no money to maintain these housing projects.” While “failure” is generally pinned on the residents themselves (or the architects and planners), the system had problems from the start.
#3 Mixed-income is not the only way
The transition to mixed-income communities is part of a wave of neoliberal policies that seek private investment to fund public resources and services. While the value of racially and economically integrated neighborhoods as good for everyone has become conventional wisdom, the reality is that mixed-income policy was not based on empirical evidence: the benefits of income mixing have usually “simply been assumed rather than tested,” writes Lawrence Vale in Public Housing Myths. The move toward mixed-income is the result of a convergence of a number of factors, from the 1996 welfare reform to the American tendency to divide people between the deserving and undeserving poor. Increasing federal disinvestment also incentivized private sector replacements.
Robert Chaskin, who conducted a six-year study of Chicago’s mixed-income redevelopment with Mark Joseph, told Chicago’s South Side Weekly: “I think there’s a tendency for policy to run ahead of evidence. Mixed-income redevelopment has been sort of broadly embraced on the policy level, and I don’t think that this book suggests that that is fundamentally always a bad idea, but I think that the enthusiasm for it ought to be tempered by the experience we’re having.” Some critics see mixed-income redevelopment as state-sponsored gentrification. “Mayor Daley is moving us out to get higher-class people in, that’s how I see it. People who can pay more money,” says teenaged Cabrini resident Raymond McDonald in 70 Acres. While the debate over mixed-income — its benefits, limitations, and methodology — continues, Fennell encouraged looking beyond the mixed-income zeitgeist: “If we could imagine the finance of subsidized housing differently, then we might be able to push back on this being the only way that we think about how citizens can live alongside each other.”
#4 Playing Where’s Waldo
New Urbanism, a design movement that champions low-rise, walkable neighborhoods characterized by neotraditional architectural styles, became the face of public housing redevelopment during the 1990s. Proponents, including President Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), embraced New Urbanism as a means to reduce the isolation and stigma of public housing. In Last Project Standing, Fennell quotes Marc Weiss, a housing policy expert in the Clinton administration: “We wanted public housing to become like Where’s Waldo. Invisible in the urban landscape, interwoven into the wider metropolitan fabric, indistinguishable from all other types of private and publicly assisted homes and apartments.” The effort to make public housing “indistinguishable” was meant to reduce the stigma of living there, but also integral to the goal of having public housing residents “assume the habits and schedules,” writes Fennell, of their employed, middle-class neighbors.
#5 Public housing is not a monolith
At the corner of Taylor and Ada Streets on Chicago’s Near West Side, the last remaining building of Chicago’s first public housing project sits boarded up, anchoring an otherwise empty seven-acre field of grass. The building awaits a new future as the site of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), according to the press release, the “first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to interpreting the American experience in public housing,”
It’s a big charge: the American experience in public housing has been a complicated one, to say the least. While modernist towers-in-the-park dominate the image of public housing, NPHM’s chosen site is more typical; according to Goetz, even at the peak, only about a quarter of public housing units nationwide were in high-rises. The building was one of 32 brick walkups that made up the Jane Addams Houses, opened in 1938 and designed by famed architect John Holabird. It’s a more nuanced narrative about what public housing looks like, inside and out, and about its residents, that the NPHM hopes to share: “We are trying to tell the story of public housing: the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Palmer. Spearheaded by public housing residents and in development for over decade, the museum is expected to begin construction later this year with Chicago-based Landon Bone Baker as architects. (The CHA will lease the building to NPHM for one dollar a year but otherwise not be part of the museum’s operation.)
The museum will take visitors to public housing’s past, but also open conversation to the present and future. All around the museum, visitors will be able to watch as the several square miles of the former ABLA Homes (Addams, Brooks, Loomis, and Abbott) becomes the mixed-income apartments and townhomes of Roosevelt Square.
Fennell drew attention to the limits of storytelling when it comes to complex matters like poverty, juxtaposing it to material political change: “Do you have to have a good story to have a roof over your head?” she asked. But she also emphasized the value of the museum’s narrative approach, noting that personal stories are a powerful tool “for helping people understand their interdependency with someone else.”
Housing Brass Tacks is an ongoing, biweekly series of informal conversations with scholars and experts engaging complicated topics in housing policy, hosted by The Architectural League. Read recaps of previous conversations here.