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.

Andrew Balmer is Project Associate for Urban Omnibus and a senior in the Barnard + Columbia Architecture program.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Michael Mosley February 27, 2010

NYCHA is using some ‘new math’ if they think they can tear down all of the buildings and build new units for 381K per unit. The cost of demolition for the 3 remaining towers is estimated to take up all of the $20 million they have budgeted for the project. Now if their 381K included that, that means they are building the new housing at somewhere below $300 a square foot for new construction — that means what they are planning to build is very low quality. In fact, it’s likely to be lower quality than what was there originally, which by NYC standards wasn’t bad (PP was built in ’74). There were originally over 350 units of housing in Prospect Plaza, and NYCHA only is required by HUD to rebuild 250. More ‘new math’.. they cannot achieve the same density, i.e., move everyone back, with less buildings to move them back into. Also, the lower density buildings will mean that the much-needed parks and recreations spaces Prospect Plaza had originally cannot be provided… it will be replaced by cheap, ugly apartment buildings and surface parking lots.

Its curious that NYCHA is planning ambitious efforts to update their housing in Manhattan (St. Nick) but Brooklyn is getting screwed with broken promises and cheap housing.

Christopher February 28, 2010

I look forward to the follow-up post about Dr. Conley.

To me the great failure in this buildings is that they forgot people, they made that modernist mistake of confusing people for machines with the idea that communities could be factories for living. Instead of understanding or trying to understand how communities form, how street life functions, how the commonwealth is preserved. They saw urban functional neighborhoods with vibrant street life and street commerce, communities that were productive and saw only difference with Protestant expectations of order. And so the communities came tumbling down. And replaced with basically suburbs in the sky and the mix of uses that made the original communities so functional and living and breathing to begin with.