For writers, it pays to be a contrarian. That is, it’s hard to make a living pitching books and articles that say: “The conventional wisdom about Subject X holds up pretty well.” A more promising approach is to contend that what everybody “knows” about X is wrong: the truth is very different, or at least complicated in ways both surprising and significant.

This second tactic describes journalist Ben Austen’s recent book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. Seven years have passed since the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) tore down the last high-rise in the Cabrini-Green Homes, a public-housing project (named after Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini and labor leader William Green) where 23 towers, constructed between 1950 and 1962, provided 3,000 apartments. The towers came to be known almost solely for their crime and squalor. The Chicago Tribune noted that one particular adjective turned up in so many news stories about the project that city newcomers must have assumed that its full name was the Notorious Cabrini-Green Homes. In a Harper’s article that led to his book, Austen wrote that, by the time Cabrini-Green got torn down, it “had come to embody a nightmare vision of public housing,” or, as he told an interviewer, a fixture on the “Mount Rushmore of scariest urban places in America.”

Horror stories were legion. In 1970, snipers assassinated two Chicago cops who were working to build trust between the police department and project residents. After 11 homicides on the premises in early 1981, Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved into a Cabrini-Green apartment for three weeks, seeking to bring local and national media attention to the ongoing chaos. In 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis, walking to school with his mother from their Cabrini-Green apartment, was slain, killed by rifle shots from high in one tower, which were apparently intended for a nearby group of teenagers thought to include gang members.

Though 942 other Chicagoans were murdered that year—making it the most lethal 12 months in city records dating back to 1957—Davis’s shooting was so senseless that it proved catalytic. Local and national politicians, aware that voters believed that all previous efforts to reform Cabrini-Green had been futile, began to consider the unthinkable: demolishing the “vertical ghettos”—not just Cabrini-Green but also projects throughout Chicago and in other cities. Under the Clinton administration, the Office of Housing and Urban Development gave directives (with grant money attached) to local agencies: public-housing projects with vacancy rates exceeding 10 percent were to be “tested,” and those judged too blighted for rehabilitation to be feasible were slated for demolition. “By 1999,” Austen writes, “HUD would boast that [it] had eliminated 50,000 units of housing nationwide; a decade later, the number doubled.” The razing of Cabrini-Green symbolized this reversal.

Chicago dubbed the overhaul of its public-housing system the “Plan for Transformation.” CHA wouldn’t just tear down blighted projects; it would retreat from managing publicly owned residential properties, reducing the number of housing units in its domain from 43,000 to 25,000—40 percent of which were allocated for senior citizens. Instead, it adopted a more modest role as a “facilitator of housing opportunities.” A large majority of the 18,000 housing units subtracted were in the demolished high-rises. CHA’s facilitation consisted of giving some former public-housing tenants Section 8 vouchers (named after a 1974 amendment to the federal Housing Act) to defray the rent on private housing. It placed others in privately built and managed “mixed-income” residential developments.

The mixed-income developments, in which tenants receiving housing subsidies resided alongside condo owners who’d bought at market rates, were meant to be especially transformative—the owners’ industriousness, impulse control, and capacity for deferred gratification would spread by osmosis to their subsidized neighbors, helping them climb the prosperity ladder. Over time, CHA believed, the mixed-income developments would “reintegrate low-income families and housing into the larger physical, social and economic fabric of the city.” Or, as Mayor Richard M. Daley said of the relocated, “I want to rebuild their souls.”

Safe to say, then, that the following propositions appear contrarian: Cabrini-Green wasn’t that bad a place; many former residents think about its demolition with anger and regret; the new CHA-facilitated housing options have problems of their own; and the failures of high-rise public housing resulted from poor management and callous political choices, not from any inherent defect. These are Austen’s contentions in High-Risers, which tells the story of several Cabrini-Green tenants in extensive (and sometimes excessive) detail. One of them, Dolores Wilson, lived in Cabrini-Green for more than 40 years, from its opening to its demolition. Days after burying her son, murdered just outside the project, she defended it to a reporter: “Tell them that there’s more love over here than terrorizing.”

Austen portrays Cabrini-Green as a place where the residents had made a home. “Families grew up next to one another, generations of them,” he observes. “They watched one another’s children, shopped together, shared food, stepped up when a family lost a loved one or was in need.”

A work of narrative sociology, High-Risers concerns itself only secondarily with policy and advocacy. Despite this reticence, there is little doubt that Austen’s political views are left of center. He contends, for example, that the U.S. resorted to demolition rather than less drastic correctives for public housing because, by the twentieth century’s close, “[f]ewer and fewer Americans believed they had a collective responsibility to provide enough for those who had too little.” An interviewer for South Side Weekly asked Austen whether Cabrini-Green, and high-rise public housing generally, could have succeeded. Maybe, Austen responded, if taxpayers had “fully funded” those projects, which would have entailed not only maintaining the buildings but also supplying an array of amenities: “parks and schools, good stores and hospitals, a trauma center, a swimming pool, and entertainment.” (Once welfare recipients supplanted working-class families in public housing, virtually all of Cabrini-Green’s 20,000 residents would be poor.) Austen again lamented Americans’ “aversion to a sense of shared responsibility to social safety net programs”; that aversion, he maintained, had always been formidable and had become a dominant political force by the 1980s.

“In 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis, walking to school with his mother, was killed by rifle shots from high in one tower.”

Yet such an explanation treats the withdrawal of support for ambitious welfare-state initiatives as a spontaneous development, a political cold front that swept in, displacing the previous warm commitment to the least among us. Deep public skepticism about social-welfare measures did indeed limit the policy options for responding to the public-housing crisis—“the cavalry was not coming,” said the Chicago official who designed the Plan for Transformation. With no prospect of a massive infusion of new tax dollars, the city and HUD relied on vouchers and mixed-income projects as the least bad remedy available. But voters’ doubts were a consequence as well as a cause: the episodic nightmare reports from the projects encouraged the belief that social-welfare programs should be judged by their results, not their aspirations.

In a podcast discussion with Austen, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel reminded him that voters would not endorse higher safety-net spending if they plausibly believed that government couldn’t manage a “one-car parade.” Public housing, in particular, brought deep disappointment, and then scornful opposition. Initially, it had been promoted as a surefire remedy for, among other things, slum clearance, crime, public health, family cohesion, workforce participation, and substance abuse. “Houses work magic,” enthused Elizabeth Wood, CHA’s first executive director. “Give these people decent housing and the better forces inside them have a chance to work. Ninety-nine percent will respond.” That guarantee did not age well.

Austen’s case is convincing in some particulars, though not in ways that suggest that Cabrini-Green deserved a better fate. It’s true, as he argues, that Cabrini-Green became a synecdoche for failed public housing partly because of an accident of geography. Chicago’s other projects were all located in predominantly black and poor neighborhoods; Cabrini-Green loomed only blocks away from Chicago’s most affluent area, the Gold Coast, and ritziest retail district, North Michigan Avenue. The location meant that journalists, who typically lived and worked on the North Side, found the project comparably accessible and that their ledes to Cabrini-Green crime-and-poverty stories practically wrote themselves.

In fact, Cabrini-Green was neither Chicago’s largest housing project—by the 1990s, 92 percent of CHA residents lived elsewhere—nor the city’s worst. The murder of Davis, for instance, was awful but not anomalous. In 1988, an eight-year-old boy at the massive Raymond Hilliard Homes, south of the Loop, was found hanged in a stairwell, his hands and feet bound. The murder remained unsolved, but “Hilliard” did not enter the national vocabulary. The project wasn’t even torn down, being one of the few of its size and kind to survive the Plan for Transformation. Still, showing that Cabrini-Green wasn’t singularly bad doesn’t mean that it was even minimally good.

Austen also contends that Chicago wasn’t a fair test for public housing because CHA “had a long track record of being among the least efficient and worst managed of government departments.” Corrupt, inept, and feckless, CHA was an agency whose employees had, at various times, been caught paying ghost workers, falsifying overtime records, and padding bills for supplies. And despite new security measures adopted in the 1990s, Chicago public-housing residents were, High-Risers reports, “twice as likely as other Chicagoans to be victims of a serious crime.” Federal monitors were so troubled by the mismanagement that they took over CHA from 1995 to 1999. But as awful as CHA was, examples of flourishing public-housing projects elsewhere are scant to nonexistent.

New Yorkers who’ve lost track of the New York City Housing Authority’s debacles—heat outages this past winter affecting 80 percent of NYCHA residents and lasting 48 hours in average duration, for example, or the failure to conduct lead-paint inspections thoroughly and honestly—will be surprised to learn that elegies for Chicago’s projects include the lament that they might have survived, if only they’d been managed as capably as New York’s. Yes, New York tore down only one of its projects—Prospect Plaza Houses, a four-building, 368-unit development in Brooklyn. This has less to do with competent management, though, than with the size of NYCHA’s domain: some 180,000 apartments housing 400,000 people, almost 5 percent of the five-borough population. Demolishing New York’s projects and relocating such a large number of residents in a city with a lack of affordable housing alternatives will always be expensive, complicated, and unpopular.

Austen, it turns out, is not the only public-housing contrarian. Other academics and intellectuals endorse the idea that public housing didn’t fail as much as it was never fairly tried. Historian Nicholas Dagen Bloom wrote one book to this effect, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (2008), and coedited another, Public Housing Myths: Perceptions, Reality, and Social Policy (2015). The same thesis underpinned The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Chad Freidrichs’s 2012 documentary about the infamous St. Louis public-housing project built in 1954 and dynamited in 1972.

The contrarians all contend that public housing has a record both better than we realize and no worse than we have a right to expect, given the daunting historical trends and political opposition arrayed against the institution. These obstacles include: the disappearance of several million factory jobs since the 1950s, which ravaged cities’ finances and residents’ opportunities; the expressways, suburbanization, and white flight that abetted indifference to the cities and their inhabitants; and the residential racial segregation of America’s cities, which was reinforced by political decisions about site selection for public-housing projects.

High-Risers cites all these challenges and adds another: CHA built too many multiple-bedroom housing units, designed for large families, which supposedly encouraged residents to have more children. Austen notes that in a country where most neighborhoods have two adults for every one child, 70 percent of Cabrini-Green residents were 16 or younger. Such a ratio was “catastrophic,” historian D. Bradford Hunt writes in Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing (2009). “Establishing social order in these conditions was nearly impossible. More than any single factor, the combination of high youth-adult ratios and high-rise buildings doomed public housing in Chicago.” Austen’s and Hunt’s point is plausible, as far as it goes. But Say’s Law—supply creates its own demand—is a macroeconomic proposition, not one that proposes a relationship between real estate and reproductive biology.

Ubiquitous graffiti symbolized the breakdown of order. (JON LOWENSTEIN / NOOR /REDUX)
Ubiquitous graffiti symbolized the breakdown of order. (JON LOWENSTEIN / NOOR /REDUX)

Austen would reject any suggestion that he is “blaming the victim,” but the picture that emerges from High-Risers is at variance with the book’s sympathetic portrait of Cabrini-Green residents. The project comes off as a decaying, dangerous apartment complex run by government workers, many of whom can’t or won’t do their jobs, and inhabited by poor residents, many of whom can’t or won’t organize their lives.

Above all, what doomed Cabrini-Green was a paucity of men who would take responsibility for themselves, their children, and their community. Inadvertently, Austen’s book upholds Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on the crisis of the black family: “a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.” Austen points out that one of the project’s 134-unit towers had just five adult male residents. The boys who grew up in Cabrini-Green were desperate for paternal attention and discipline. Many gravitated to Jesse White, a gym teacher, athletic coach, inveterate organizer of kids’ activities, and tireless evangelist for self-mastery and self-respect. “He was that father figure who wasn’t at home for a lot of us,” Kelvin Cannon tells Austen about growing up in Cabrini-Green. “He took us places like a normal father might take us. He spent time with us like we were his kids.”

After White began a career in Illinois politics, curtailing his work with Cabrini-Green children, “everything went bad there,” recalls Cannon, whose subsequent role model was a 20-year-old gang leader and ex-con, eventually murdered in one of the towers. In the moral and social anarchy of a neighborhood without fathers, “you didn’t have to wait until you were eighteen to be a man,” in Cannon’s words. “You could be a man at twelve or thirteen.” But, of course, a fatherless 12-year-old boy’s idea of manliness is likely to be a grotesque caricature, all aggression and self-assertion, devoid of judgment. By the time he was 18, Cannon had fathered a child, joined a gang, and gone to prison after a conviction for armed robbery and home invasion. He’s one of the subjects Austen selects to demonstrate the Cabrini-Green residents’ unappreciated complexity and decency.

Cabrini-Green, then, failed to work the magic that would activate the better forces inside its tenants. The early conviction that public housing could bring about moral regeneration and rebuild social capital looks absurd in retrospect. The high-rises were torn down in the belief that they had actually become destructive of these ends, but Public Housing 2.0’s remedy for concentrated poverty—dispersed poverty—incorporated the first iteration’s undue faith in the redemptive capabilities of housing policies. Austen rightly describes as “starry-eyed” the Plan for Transformation’s hopes for “productive neighboring” in mixed-income housing developments. No evidence supports the notion that significant numbers of middle-class city dwellers will earnestly mentor and counsel impoverished people living down the hall, or that former project residents will gratefully profit from such guidance by emulating their more affluent neighbors’ habits and dispositions.

“Cabrini-Green failed to work the magic that would activate the better forces inside its tenants.”

Upon launching its work as a facilitator of housing opportunities, “CHA was surprised to learn how many people in its buildings had mental or physical disabilities, suffered from trauma, or abused alcohol or drugs,” High-Risers relates. “These families needed the help of a social worker, not a relocation counselor.” Nor was there brisk demand for mixed-income residences among those whose Cabrini-Green homes faced the wrecking ball. The builder of one such development hoped that 60 Cabrini families would apply for the 12 apartments set aside for them; only two completed the process.

Chicago’s mixed-income development applicants would be screened for lifestyle choices, it’s worth noting, which doubtless suppressed demand from the relocated. Applicants with criminal records, unpaid bills, failed drug tests, or whose children were not showing up at school would be rejected. This condition echoed the earliest years of public housing, Austen observes, when the “unemployed, unstable, or unseemly” would find themselves turned away. New York long refused public housing based on “factors such as drug addiction, unwed motherhood, [and] irregular work,” Nicholas Dagen Bloom points out. In the 1960s, though, under pressure from politicians and activists, NYCHA, like other housing agencies, began admitting growing numbers of welfare recipients to public housing, and eased screening generally.

This is the larger dilemma of public housing and, indeed, all social-welfare policy. If poverty simply befalls some people, the way a natural disaster does, it’s gratuitously cruel to blame victims for their bad luck. But if, more plausibly, poverty results from complicated interactions between the choices we make and the things that happen to us, providing housing (or other benefits) on a no-questions-asked, no-strings-attached basis is a grave error. Such “generosity” reinforces behaviors that perpetuate poverty, while effectively disparaging conduct that avoids and abbreviates it. In any case, a republic where government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and operates a welfare state that derives its resources from the sufferance of the taxpayers, cannot disregard a widespread rejection of unconditional social-welfare benefits.

The contrarians defending Cabrini-Green-era public housing have the elements of surprise and even audacity on their side. Its critics had, and have, something stronger: the practical force of democratic opposition and the moral force of a social contract that addresses not only the material needs of the poor but also their choices and character. Conventional wisdom might be boring; but, in some cases, it is noteworthy for being wise.

Top Photo: The infamous public-housing project sits empty before its demolition. (CARLOS JAVIER ORTIZ/REDUX)


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