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Cabrini-Green's last stand: Families prepare to move out

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1230 Burling is the last of the Cabrini-Green high-rises. The infamous housing project is in its final stages of coming down.


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Tearing down Cabrini-Green

What began in 1942 as row homes built for GIs returning to factory jobs eventually morphed into one of the most infamous housing projects in the country. The Cabrini-Green buildings that sat ominously just outside Downtown Chicago for decades, a den of gang violence and poverty, are mostly gone now, making way for gentrification and urban renewal. Here's a look at what the state of the site is as the last families prepare to move out. Click on any of the areas for more information.

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It almost seems forlorn in the surrounding emptiness, a 15-story hulk of concrete with telltale, steel-fenced, open-air galleries characteristic of old public housing.

This is 1230 Burling -- the last Cabrini-Green high-rise standing.

"Cabrini, down, but not out.

"It's not just a building. It's not a place. It's a feeling.

"Now that's just the way I feel. It taught me what was real. ..."

Michael McClarin, the building's rep on the Cabrini Local Advisory Council, recites a poem he composed, as he makes his way from his ninth-floor apartment to the LAC office on the first floor.

On Oct. 15, 27 families received 90-day eviction notices from the Chicago Housing Authority, bringing the end in sight for what once was one of the nation's most notorious public housing projects.

But as they prepare to pack up, residents in the last of the William Green Homes' eight high-rises prefer to focus on the future.

"I'm looking at Dearborn Homes. CHA says they only got a few four-bedrooms left there, and I'd better take it before they're gone," says Ramona Lee, 46, who lives on the first floor.

The 134-unit building is only 25 percent occupied, so every noise echoes in its dark, dank, graffiti-scarred hallways, or reverberates through urine-soaked stairwells.

"We fought so long to stay in the area. Looks like it ain't gonna happen," says Lee, a soft-spoken mother of five, who has lived here since age 16, was a teen mother and today a recovering drug addict.

"I figure with Dearborn, you got IIT down the street, so they're not going to play with security," she says of the development on State Street between 27th and 30th streets. "I'll probably be moved in a few days. You know CHA, they take you to see a place Monday, by Friday, they have a truck outside."

Made up of four different sections, this Near North Side development roughly bordered by Chicago, Clybourn, Halsted and Sedgwick was born under the urban renewal policies of the 1940s, as housing for working families.

Originally integrated, with many residents holding jobs, that changed after World War II, when area factories closed, leaving many unemployed. According to historical references, the city began cutting back on services, triggering an exodus of residents with resources.

By the time the fourth section was added in the '60s, its residents were African-American, and by the '70s and '80s, Cabrini was known for its squalid conditions, gang-controlled buildings and rampant crime and violence.

In 1996, the federal government declared Cabrini and all such dense concentrations of poor in public housing a failure, mandating mass demolitions nationally.

Built in 1962 in the area between Division, Larrabee, Halsted and Clybourn, the "whites" -- as the Green Homes were called for their white concrete exteriors -- once held 1,096 apartments. Its last 134 units are to be shuttered by Jan. 18, then 1230 Burling comes down.

And old Cabrini will be no more.

According to CHA's FY 2010 annual report to HUD, when Cabrini's transformation is complete, it will boast 5,141 privately developed, mixed-income units -- 1,200 as public housing, 932 for working-class families, and 3,009 for sale or rental at market rates.

The clock ticks for Lee and her fellow residents, living as they are in a ghost town where only two other multistory buildings remain -- of an original 23.

Closed Sept. 27 and soon to be demolished, the two mid-rises at 364 and 365 W. Oak are all that's left of 15 mid- and high-rises once comprising the Cabrini Homes Extensions, built in 1958.

Called the "reds" for their red brick exteriors, the 1,925 units were spread through Cabrini Extension North, bounded by Division, Oak, Larrabee and Clybourn, and Cabrini Extension South, bounded by Chicago, Hudson, Sedgwick and Wendell.

Carol Steele, 59, a stocky grandmother and the tenants' formidable LAC president, moved to the reds in 1957, and to the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses a decade later. She's lived there ever since.

Steele has represented the row houses on the LAC, once made up of all the building reps, for 15 years. She's no fan of CHA's 10-year-old, $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation -- a radical blueprint to replace vertical warehouses of poverty like 1230 Burling with 25,000 new or rehabbed public housing apartments citywide, some in mixed-income communities, others in 100 percent public housing developments.

"All we've said is why would you tear down housing without building new ones first- " she said.

"You said you want to move us to areas of upward mobility. Well this is it," she says, waving her hands at the 70 prime real estate acres that make up Cabrini. "It certainly ain't the areas of the West Side, South Side and south suburbs you're shunting us off to."

The right of residents to return as a new Cabrini rises is at the crux of the legal battle that long stalled CHA's plans here -- that, and their demands to stay in some of the dilapidated buildings until new housing is built.

Residents' 1996 lawsuit over displacements and reduced affordable housing supply was resolved in 2000, with a federal consent decree guaranteeing some of them the right to return. Another lawsuit in 2001 complained they were being relocated to poor, crime-ridden and segregated city areas. It was settled in 2006, with a CHA promise to work harder to move residents to diverse areas.

"First and foremost, our job is to put people in better and safer housing," agency CEO Lewis Jordan said in May, after a CHA end-run around its agreement with tenants, which calls for tenants to receive 180-day notices, 60 if occupancy drops to 15 percent.

CHA issued 30-day notices at 1230 Larrabee, bringing trucks a month later to move out tenants, some throughout the night.

"We can no longer tolerate seeing good people live in deteriorating and unsafe conditions," Jordan says. "Anyone who has been inside the old Cabrini buildings cannot deny the deteriorating conditions. The families there are at great risk, and it is our responsibility to see that those residents are moved from that environment as quickly as possible."

CHA's original 10-year timetable for what's believed to be the largest public housing redevelopment program in the nation was extended in 2006, when it became clear it could not be completed this year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave its approval for CHA to continue through 2015.

Only the 54 buildings of the row houses -- 586 units built in 1942 in the area between Chicago, Hudson, Larrabee and Oak -- are to remain at Cabrini. Eerily empty, a third are boarded up for rehab promised but now uncertain, as CHA reconsiders keeping this section 100 percent public housing.

Tenants like 1230 Burling's McClarin, 57, who snagged a relocation unit there, vow a fight.

"If you were to take an infrared light out there, I bet you'd probably find blood in every spot," the slender construction worker says, pointing down from 1230 Burling's 15th-floor gallery.

"All the people that got shot here, all the people that died here, all we got to share in was the blood- We have a right to benefit from the good happening here too," insists the single father, who raised five children in Cabrini while living here the last 40 years.

He and Lee recall all the high-profile incidents -- Mayor Jane Byrne moving in because of out-of-control crime in the early '80s, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis' murder by a sniper, and the brutal rape and poisoning of 9-year-old "Girl X" in the '90s -- that brought national if not international infamy.

And problems still remain today, evidenced by the recent killing of 59-year-old shop owner Bassam "Ollie" Naoum, a Jordanian immigrant beloved by residents for his generosity. He was gunned down Oct. 16 in his store at 950 N. Orleans, Munchies Market.

But truly much has changed.

Within Cabrini's footprint and along its edges, new moderate and upscale town homes, two- to four-floor walk-ups and luxury high-rises and courtyard apartments draw middle-class buyers, even with public housing set-asides.

On a recent day, dusk falls at 1230 Burling. Children play in the concrete playground under the flickering blue lights of three pole-mounted police cameras. And joyful noises from the After School Matters marching band waft from Seward Park, as orange tinges the sky just beyond the Chicago River.

"It's really a beautiful area, isn't it- " Lee muses. "Look at all the development, the new stores. I love taking a sandwich down by the new Whole Foods and sitting by the river. They're moving me from all this, to nothing, a neighborhood without even a grocery store."

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