Chicago closes Cabrini Green
by, 12-01-2010 at 01:42 PM (2514 Views)
Today the city of Chicago is closing the last of the famed Cabrini Green low income highrises, the original "projects", upon which a decade of misguided public housing projects were based. Overseen by famed mayor Richard Daley, they were opened with high hopes for the city's poor, primarily African Americans, but quickly turned into a new type of urban jungle, known more for gang wars and killings than upward mobility.
Being the symbol that they were, and with most of my extended family living in Chicago, Cabrini Green inspired many kitchen table debates in our house in the late sixties. It was a site often in the news during those turbulent times, and my relatives would come up north in the summer, bringing news of the latest movies, great new music, and word about the latest clashes between police and college students. And of course, the latest killings at Cabrini Green.
Not that shootings in Chicago were that big a deal. My mother was the daughter of an Irish fireman, born on the north side near Wrigley Field. We would visit, staying with family, and as a small boy I remember being awoken by gunfire when a mobster was shot a few streets away.
First opened in 1958, Cabrini Green was located on Chicago's Near North side, on the site of an old Irish neighborhood called Kilgubbin, or "Little Hell", an area that produced many notable gangsters in the pre-prohibition era, most notably Dion O'Bannion, sometime florist and northside gangleader murdered by Al Capone's minions in 1924. Fellow northside gangsters Hymie Weiss and "Bugs" Moran ran that part of Chicago with O'Bannion.
The unusual thing about Cabrini Green was that it was surrounded by affluent neighborhoods, the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast, something that amplified what became the benchmark for urban squalor.
An aunt or uncle of mine would decry what "those people" had done to these taxpayer funded projects, and the debate, one sided though it was, was on. As a side note, referring to blacks and other minorities as "those people", now clearly recognized as racist, was considered genteel at the time.
Being the only 13 year old anti war activist liberal honorary Smothers Brother in the room, I felt it was incumbent upon me to stand up for the left wing of American politics. This was the point in my life when I went from being precocious to being a pain in the ass. I was quick to point out the projects' were poorly maintained and policed, and that without good jobs, which were in fairly good supply but were denied to blacks, what did you expect? It was a little later that we all learned that the failure of the projects was also in the "warehousing" of the poor. If instead the residents had been "sprinkled" throughout the city in smaller housing units they would have fared much better. Well, I can say with a certainty that politically, that wasn't going to happen in the 1960's. In the 50's, Puerto Rican immigrants had been moving into the Humboldt Park area, and white flight was on. I recall the clucking disapproval of my family as we rode the bus down Clark St., seeing the Puerto Ricans hanging out in front of the bodegas. Soon, none of my family lived on the North Side, save for a favorite aunt that moved up near Mundeleine College and Rogers Park.
Even more than that, I sensed the shift in politics from the bouyant optimism of the Kennedy and early Johnson years. As the war dragged on and on, non violent protest turned to bombings like at the Army Math Research Center at Sterling Hall in Madison, an act which stripped the anti war movement of any moral high ground, and Kent State, when our troops fired on college students, most of whom were headed to lunch.
"Look on the bright side," a high school teacher who was a boyhood friend of Hubert Humphrey said, "Nixon's bound to get a second term, and that means Ronald Reagan will be too old to ever be elected President. After all, that would be the worst thing that could ever happen."
At the end of the Second World War veterans returned home and got busy building the nation we live in today. The greatest generation our country has ever known left us with a gift, one that we to this day have failed to appreciate.
In the 1930's naked capitalism had reduced the population of the entire country to near poverty, save for the priviledged few, but in that time the introduction of a new economic model, now employed in virtually every nation on earth including Russia and China, an injection of liberal social philosophy, had given citizens a more level playing field, one in which they could pursue their dreams without fear of ruin. Trade unions protected them from club wielding Pinkerton men, debt collectors could no longer burst through doors to seize possesions because a payment had been missed.
And the greatest generation gave us a gift, paid in blood. They settled the last scores that resulted from the Great Depression, for in Europe, that economic calamity did not give rise to a model for a more just society, but to tyranny. The rise of Fascism in Italy and Spain and Germany was the direct result of a world wide economic system controlled by the few, which had collapsed in great measure due to widespread greed.
I remember watching a movie with my mother that depicted turn of the century times. There was a scene in which women and children scoured the rocky banks of the Chicago River, looking for scraps left by those who had done their laundry at the water's edge. "Rag pickers." she said in an off handed manner. A childhood memory.
As Cabrini Green closes, a chapter in American life does as well, and another begins.
Beset by another, different kind of economic collapse, but also the child of greed, we still wrestle with the plight of the poor, with many newcomers of all colors arriving daily at that station at the end of the line. A nation underwater. Cabrini Green is joining it's neighbors, becoming gentrified, with shops and eateries where a gourmet meal might cost as much as a months rent in the old PJ's. The new Kilbuggin will be a boon to some. Little Hell is no more. At least, not on the Near North side.
In an ironic turn, our society has sprinked it's poor among us, only this time it is us.