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The Chicago Housing Authority has slowly been tearing down its Cabrini-Green public housing project, and as of yesterday another one of the buildings is gone. Ryan Flynn has been documenting the transformation of the site for the past few years, and has put together a time-lapse video of the demolition.
Cabrini-Green once housed over 15,000 people, but developed a reputation for high levels of crime and poverty. Its razing is part of a wave of high-rise project demolitions that have occurred in many US cities. Here are a few – among many – significant events in the history of public housing demolitions:
1972: Demolition begins on St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project, less than twenty years after it was built. The massive complex was unsuccessful from the beginning, with violence and high vacancy rates. Because it was such a high-profile failure of a modernist housing scheme, Charles Jencks called the day of its demolition “the day Modern architecture died.”
1993: President Clinton starts the HOPE VI program, with the goals of improving public housing and reducing dense concentrations of poverty. Between 1996 and 2003, the program provided $395 million in grants towards the demolition of 287 public housing projects. Although it has funded rehabilitation and construction programs, HOPE VI has presided over a net loss to public housing units nationwide.
2007: The last of the buildings that comprised Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes is demolished. Once the largest public housing project in the country, the Robert Taylor Homes housed 27,000 people. It has since been replaced with “Legends South,” with low-rise, mixed income homes and apartments, community facilities, and retail spaces.
2010: The New York City Housing Authority announces plans to demolish Prospect Plaza, a complex of three high-rise towers in Brooklyn. The complex was not known for high rates of violence or drug use; rather, NYCHA claims that on this site, new construction is more financially and logistically feasible than rehabilitation. Heretofore, the City’s strategy has been to rehabilitate existing public housing rather than replace it. The Prospect Plaza project is the first significant exception to this approach.
NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley has argued that the form of a housing project does not affect the behaviors and overall living conditions of residents nearly as much as its socioeconomic makeup and ownership structure does. Coming soon on the Omnibus, we’ll hear some of Conley’s insights in his own words as he takes us on a walk up Avenue D, part of one of the largest swathes of public housing in New York. The destruction of Cabrini-Green reminds us that public housing – as public investment, as design product, as homes of choice or housing of last resort – is very much a reflection of broader cultural attitudes towards poverty, the role of government and the function of architecture, regardless of whether we decide to replace existing high-rises with new, low-rise facilities at great cost or focus on improving conditions within existing buildings.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.