The History Of Chicago’s Public Housing In ‘High-Risers’

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Twenty-three high-rise towers on Chicago’s North Side blotched by broken windows and bars over its terraces came to symbolize public housing for many Americans in the late 20th century. The Cabrini-Green housing project was depicted in “Good Times” – the long-running TV series – and films like “Cooley High,” “Hardball, “Candyman” and “Heaven Is A Playground.”

The towers were notorious for crime, gangs and drugs. But they were also home to 15,000 Chicagoans seeking better lives. The last of the dangerously overpacked and deteriorating buildings came down in 2011.

Ben Austen has written a history of the project and of its people, “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green And The Fate Of American Public Housing.” Ben Austen joins us from Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us.

BEN AUSTEN: Thank you so much.

SIMON: The towers were named for America’s first saint…

AUSTEN: Yeah.

SIMON: … Mother Frances Cabrini, and they were planned by social workers, liberals, self-described do-gooders.

AUSTEN: Yes.

SIMON: What were they trying to do?

AUSTEN: Yeah. They’d cleared out the slums – that housing that had been, some of it, since the Chicago Fire, temporary housing that became permanent. So it really was better housing – a step up for the people who moved into it.

SIMON: Yeah. Wasn’t the whole idea, too, that the folks along the lake live in high-rises, so why shouldn’t poor people, too?

AUSTEN: Yeah. So the high-rises came starting in the ’50s. And it was, in one sense, a way to give affordable housing to the most people. And the modernist structures were being built all over the country.

SIMON: Yeah. We get to spend a lot of time with an interesting family – the Wilson family – in this book.

AUSTEN: Yes.

SIMON: Delores Wilson and her family were among the first people to move into Cabrini-Green. And Dolores Wilson is a very inspiring figure in this book.

AUSTEN: Yeah. So for her, public housing was this dream. She has five children there on the South Side in a basement apartment. And just the fear of a house fire and what that would mean and how that would keep her up at night. And moving into Cabrini-Green and feeling like this is heaven because it was fireproof. That in itself – the sense of safety – gave her such relief.

– NPR

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