It’s Bleak but It’s Home

Times Staff Writer

For 24 years, Gladys Franklin has called the Cabrini-Green projects home.

The high-rise where she lives is decaying, and nearly a third of the doors and windows are boarded up. Squatters have broken into some of the apartments. Other units sit empty.

The elevator works only when it wants to, so Franklin refuses to take it. Instead, she hobbles to the stairwell that reeks of urine. Stepping over a broken crack pipe, she inches down the 14 steps from her second-floor home.

It’s a journey that can take an hour.

Franklin knows that Cabrini-Green is a flawed and dangerous place to live, especially for an 83-year-old grandmother crippled by arthritic pain. But the gangs couldn’t drive her away and, swears the old woman, neither will the city of Chicago.


“The city talks of a new world, a better life for all of us,” Franklin said. “But all we get are broken promises.”

Housing officials want to relocate Franklin and about 1,400 residents who remain at Cabrini-Green, one of the nation’s most notorious public housing projects. For the last five years, the Chicago Housing Authority has been gradually emptying Cabrini-Green as part of a 10-year, $1.6-billion plan to level public housing projects. Similar efforts are underway across the country.

The towers of poverty in different projects throughout Chicago have been deemed unlivable by federal and city officials. They are to be replaced with condominiums and row houses where the impoverished and the well-heeled would live side by side.

It is the biggest overhaul of public housing in the country: 51 high-rises across the city, totaling 16,000 apartments, would be replaced by about 25,000 new or rehabilitated units.

“We will do what it takes to break the cycle of generations of families living in public housing,” said Terry Peterson, the housing authority’s chief executive. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

But no matter how bad life is at Cabrini-Green, many residents don’t believe the city will find them better temporary housing until the new apartments become available. Nearly 400 families have banded together and are suing the city to prevent their eviction and stop the demolition.


The lawsuit says that housing officials don’t have a firm plan for what will be built in place of the run-down buildings. They don’t know when residents would be able to return, or how many would be accommodated in the new housing.

The complaint also highlights evidence -- including an independent report commissioned by the Chicago Housing Authority -- that the agency has moved residents from Cabrini and other projects into poor neighborhoods to the south and west such as Englewood and Roseland, which have some of the city’s highest crime and poverty rates.

“Why should we go, if the alternatives aren’t much better?” asked Carol Steele, 53, one of the leaders of the lawsuit. Steele has spent her whole life in the Cabrini neighborhood and wants to rebuild a way of life she remembers with fondness.

She and other residents suspect that what the city really wants is the land under the projects, which lie eight blocks from the skyscrapers and chic shops along Michigan Avenue.

“The city wants to move us so they can forget about us,” Franklin said. “They want us to disappear.”


It’s not hard to disappear in a place like Cabrini-Green.

During its height in the 1970s, 15,000 people lived there.

Today it is a ghost town. Many of the buildings’ exteriors are charred from fires set by transients. Gang graffiti cover the hallways and elevator doors. The sidewalks are mostly deserted.


Franklin has watched the neighborhood decay over the decades. She followed her husband to Chicago in the 1940s from Georgia, where she had dropped out of the third grade. When she worked as a factory laborer, which wasn’t often, she would rely on neighbors to watch over her kids.

Money was always tight. Franklin, who later divorced and became a single mother, shuttled her children from “empty building to condemned house.”

“I had three boys and six girls,” she said, “and we never seemed to have enough.”

One by one, her grown children applied for public housing aid. One by one, they moved into Cabrini-Green. In 1981, she followed and moved into a high-rise at 939 N. Hudson Ave.

“All I had was family,” Franklin said. “You follow family.”

By then, life there was horrific. Water pipes burst, leaving inches of scalding water on floors. Gun shots forced residents to sleep inside bathtubs. Parents routinely kept their children home from school, fearing for their safety.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1941, the city’s housing department set aside a 70-acre parcel of land, with visions of replacing crowded slum housing with low-rent apartments where black and white families could enjoy more space and a broad view of the city skyline.

In the first phase, the city built about 600 two- and three-story row houses with small gardens in the front and windows big enough to catch the northern light.


Then came the high-rises in the 1950s -- nearly two dozen that towered from seven to 19 stories and attracted mostly poor, working-class blacks.

In the early days, Steele said, Cabrini-Green was a small city unto itself, filled with working families in which both parents lived at home. Children walked to the nearby elementary school. They played hopscotch along the open hallways that led to the apartments. In the afternoons, neighbors gossiped while they weeded vegetable gardens between the towers.

Even the circus stopped at the projects, setting up behind the high-rise where Steele spent her childhood.

“At night, when I would go to bed, I could hear the elephants and the lions roaring,” Steele said.

She clings to the memories of this long-lost world that has grown more rosy and elusive as the years have passed.

“I want that world back,” said Steele, who lives in one of the row houses. “Why can’t we go back?”


Cabrini-Green’s decline began in the late 1960s after riots and racial tension began driving away working families. By the 1970s, gangs from the southern parts of the city began squatting in the empty apartments to sell drugs and recruit teenage residents.

In the 1980s, more working families left when federal law forced employed tenants to pay higher rents.

“The people who remained were the people who couldn’t afford to leave,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociologist who has tracked Chicago’s effort to overhaul its public housing system.

Cabrini-Green was neither the most crime-ridden of Chicago’s housing projects nor its largest, but it became its most notorious, largely because of the viciousness of the crimes that took place there.

In the first two months of 1981, there were so many shootings that then-Mayor Jane Byrne moved in for three weeks to restore order. In 1992, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis was killed by a sniper’s bullet in a Cabrini courtyard as he walked to school. Five years later, a 9-year-old girl was found comatose in a stairwell -- raped, battered and poisoned with gasoline.

In the midst of these crimes, the federal government took control of the city’s housing agency for nearly five years, starting in 1995, citing mismanagement, fraud and rampant neglect of tenants. City and housing officials developed the transformation plan in an effort to regain autonomy.


By 1999, federal and city officials agreed that Chicago’s housing projects, like many across the country, had failed. The buildings needed to be overhauled or torn down.


The battle is wearing on Franklin. On Christmas Eve, housing officials told her that she had two days to pack and move across the street to 364 W. Oak St., another high-rise on the Cabrini campus.

Her building was then boarded up. It is scheduled to be demolished this year. So far, five of Cabrini-Green’s 23 high-rises have been torn down. All the row houses are still standing. City officials say the row houses will be renovated.

Recently, a man knocked on Franklin’s door. He said that he worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, and that he was there to talk about moving her away from the projects.

Franklin stood patiently on swollen feet. She lost feeling in them a few years ago. She thinks it’s from arthritis, which grew worse several winters ago when the heat went out and ice formed on the walls and floor inside her apartment.

The man described how one day, row houses and vegetable gardens would replace Franklin’s tower. Children would once again play safely outside.


Franklin said she didn’t trust the man and declined to fill out the paperwork that would help her move away. “I would love to leave,” she said. “But I have a better chance of getting into those new homes if we stay here and fight.”

Since the 10-year plan got underway, the Chicago Housing Authority, which is funded by local and federal money, has completed half of the 25,000 units it promised citywide.

None of them are at Cabrini-Green. But some are nearby: Just across the street is North Town Village, where families and couples live in buildings that range from three to seven stories. There are three other developments, where wide streets wind around manicured lawns.

All together, 126 of the 487 units are for public housing residents.

Inside North Town Village’s apartments, there is recessed lighting and closets big enough to walk into. The carpet is plush and thick. Natural light floods into the kitchen and across the white-tiled floors.

Life there is somewhat restrictive. Residents can be fined for roller skating or riding bikes on the sidewalks. Children can’t walk or play on the grass. But there have been few complaints, say housing officials, because public housing residents pay as little as $30 a month to live in a condo that sells for more than $500,000.

“This is a good thing for everyone,” said Peterson, the Chicago Housing Authority chief executive. Why block progress that will help “neighborhoods beyond the footprint of what we’re rebuilding?”


Residents say they are fighting because they don’t trust the city. When they heard about the plan to revamp the projects, safety concerns gave way to relocation worries, Venkatesh said.

The Columbia University sociologist, who has tracked the city’s plan from the beginning, found that about 75% of the relocated families said they wanted to return to their old neighborhood. But fewer than 20% were expected to return because there were not enough units planned for the poor.

“A significant percentage of [residents] say they lived in better conditions before they were relocated,” Venkatesh said.

Housing officials deny the allegations and have petitioned the court to dismiss the case. They say they have a vision of Cabrini’s future, although it’s incomplete: Construction of 700 housing units is ready to start on a northern section of the complex.

Chuck Levesque, deputy general counsel for the Chicago Housing Authority, said the agency had repeatedly promised residents that they could stay in the projects during the construction.

Housing officials expect to close all but two of Cabrini-Green’s towers by the end of the year. But they are not sure where they will put the remaining residents.



In January, a federal judge sided with residents. The court noted that housing officials could easily break their promise -- especially with only a partial redevelopment plan in place.

As the landscape begins to change around her, Franklin is feeling the first twinges of unease. What was once familiar is now foreign. The growing sense of alienation, not the bulldozers, may ultimately drive her away.

Businesses she doesn’t recognize are springing up, catering to a world she doesn’t fit into.

Franklin says public assistance affords her a few hundred dollars a month. The Whole Foods Market sits a short bus ride away and accepts food stamps for some items, but she finds it too expensive. She can’t afford to eat at Japonais, the Asian-fusion restaurant that opened three blocks away.

Even during the week, the restaurant is filled with smartly dressed couples enjoying martinis with floating orchids. The dinner menu features Kobe beef. Desserts include coffee and doughnuts -- a trio of chestnut-filled beignets with a semifreddo of green tea mousse. The price? $9.

“I can’t even say some of those words,” Franklin said. “I don’t even know what they mean.”

Franklin admits to feeling a little pressure not to fail her children. Many of them want to move but refuse to leave without their mother.


A few nights ago, after listening to her daughters grumble about the projects, Franklin said she felt like giving up.

She recalled slipping out of her white terrycloth slippers and sliding into bed. She turned on the lamp and picked up her Bible.

It doesn’t matter that she can’t read it, she says. When she hears a story in church that inspires her, she asks friends and family members to point out the passage in her Bible. She asks them to read the words, again and again, so she knows them almost by heart.

That night, she said, she opened her Bible, picked up a pencil and a sheet of lined paper. She turned to the Book of Job: “He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth; he saves them from the clutches of the powerful. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.”

Then Franklin began a private ritual: She copied words she could not read -- as a way of finding solace. Once done, she shut the Bible, and began to pray.