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Photos: Inside The Demolition Of The Notorious Cabrini-Green Projects

By Mae Rice in News on Sep 29, 2015 8:14PM

Today, the name Cabrini-Green represents a mix of open, vacant space and new apartment towers between North Avenue and Chicago Avenue.

But that "blank slate" for real estate developers, as the area has recently been called, belies the history of one of Chicago's most dangerous public housing projects and the controversial policies that brought it into being and later spurred its demolition from the late '90s to 2011.

Photographer Matt Tuteur started shooting images of the projects midway through their demolition, back in 2008. But at its peak, the Near North Side housing development was home to 15,000 people—roughly the population of La Grange.

That was long before Chicago adopted the 1999 Plan for Transformation. The plan centered on building mixed-income housing developments, and demolishing developments that encouraged, as the Reader put it, “racial and economic segregation.” That quickly translated into razing Cabrini-Green; its buildings were some of the first in the city to fall.

The policy shift, like all policy shifts, was framed as progress by local officials. However, Tuteur worried that the demolition would erase a key chapter of Chicago history. He’s passionate about documenting "architecture in Chicago that's historic or has a history behind it, that's not safe or about to be knocked down,” he says.

That’s why, in some of the Cabrini-Green buildings’ final days, Tuteur woke up before sunrise, hopped the security fences, and snuck inside to wait. When the light was right, he worked his way through each tower from the top down.

The buildings were empty while he worked, he said, except for occasional squatters and skittish animals—and the stench from the elevators, which were at that point doubling as bathrooms. The uninhabited apartments were still studded with artifacts of daily life, though. Tuteur was especially struck by the to-do lists and bedroom murals he saw. (Harper’s noted the murals, too; Ben Austen wrote of the last towers’ demolition, “The teeth [of the crane] tore off another hunk of the exterior, revealing the words I NEED MONEY painted in green and gold across an inside wall.”)

Tuteur saw these remains as reminders “that not everybody in those projects was some kind of monster, the way they're portrayed to be in movies and culture.” In other words, they were an antidote to Cabrini-Green’s brutally dangerous reputation, rooted in a few highly-publicized crimes.

In 1992, a sniper hiding in a vacant Cabrini apartment shot and killed 7-year-old Dantrell Davis. He was walking the 100 feet from his house to elementary school, holding his mother’s hand. In 1997, “Girl X,” a 9-year-old girl who went unnamed at the time, was raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell. Her assailants had drawn gang signs on her body in marker.

These crimes captured the public imagination, in part, because they happened within walking distance from the Loop. “[Cabrini-Green apartments] were right next to multi-million dollar high rises,” Tuteur said. “The rich and the poor were literally right across the street from each other."

This was especially evident in 1981, when then-mayor Jane Byrne moved into a Cabrini-Green apartment, hoping to improve safety there after a string of 11 murders. Her new Cabrini home was just a mile from her old Gold Coast apartment.

Byrne drew some attention to violence Cabrini-Green, as well as issues with rodent control and garbage collection—rumor has it that some high-rises endured garbage chute backups 15 stories tall. However, many Cabrini-Green residents saw Byrne’s stay as a PR stunt, and they weren’t completely off base. Byrne initially told the New York Times she wouldn’t move back to the Gold Coast until “I think people can look out the window and not get shot”; she in fact moved back after three weeks.

Today, everyone has moved out of Cabrini Green, save a few lingering row house residents. Demolition has proceeded much faster than construction, leaving some one-time public housing residents displaced. Residents also say a sense of community was lost with the buildings.

“I love Cabrini; you know… we were like one big family," 41-year-old Kenneth Hammond told NPR in 2010. He had lived there his whole life. Will, another resident who declined to give his last name, told Harper’s, “A lot of stuff went on over there… I know it played a part in it coming down. But it ain’t quite as simple as that. It’s a place you been your whole life. It’s like the memories and families just scrubbed.”

The last Cabrini Green tower fell in 2011. Today, the only remnants of the original Cabrini Green are the the string of rowhouses at Oak and Larrabee; built in 1942, they were the first section of the project built. Soon, a new development will grow up around them.

This month, after 19 years in limbo, a lawsuit over the future of the rowhouses was finally resolve. For better or for worse, the city can now move forward on a new, mixed-income Cabrini Green housing development, with 1,800 public housing units. Construction is slated to start in 2016 and conclude in 2025.