Cabrini–Green Homes, which comprised the Frances Cabrini Row-houses and William Green Homes, was a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing project located on the Near North Side of Chicago, Illinois, United States. They were bordered by the apex of Clybourn Ave and Halsted Street on the north, North Larrabee Street on the west, Chicago Avenue on the south, Hudson Street on the east. Today, only the 586 (only 150 were renovated and now occupied) original row houses, built in the 1940s, remain (south of Oak Street, north of Chicago Avenue, west of Hudson Avenue, and east of Larrabee Street).
The first part of what would become the vast Cabrini-Green complex was the Frances Cabrini Homes, completed by the CHA in 1942 to house an influx of war-industry workers as well as veterans returning to Chicago during World War II. The Frances Cabrini Homes consisted of 55 two- and three-story buildings in the Near North Side area of Chicago. Those apartment houses were, like the city’s other public housing during that era, considered well-built, attractive alternatives to the slums that traditionally housed low-income families.
Cabrini Aerial Summer 1952
A turning point for Chicago’s public housing occurred in 1950. By that time, those most in need of affordable housing in Chicago were African Americans, whose numbers were rapidly expanding, primarily because of the northward migration of Southern blacks. The CHA and Chicago’s city council needed to decide where to build new public housing. The CHA proposed a variety of sites, including many vacant areas bordering white neighborhoods. The city council insisted primarily on clearing already existing slums in African American neighborhoods’ to provide space for new higher-capacity buildings. After a lengthy, racially charged public debate, the city council’s vision won out, an outcome that would have a dramatic impact on public housing in Chicago for the rest of the 20th century.
Most of the new public housing that followed, built in the 1950s and ’60s under Mayor Richard J. Daley, came in the form of massive superblocks of high-rise apartments. In 1958, next to the Frances Cabrini Homes, construction was completed on the Cabrini Extension—known as the “Reds,” partly because of the buildings’ red brick exteriors. The Reds consisted of 15 buildings of 7, 10, or 19 stories. In 1962 the William Green Homes—called the “Whites”—were completed. Located north and west of the Cabrini Extension, they consisted of eight white concrete buildings 15 or 16 stories tall.
The superblocks left many areas of Chicago with row after row of monolithic concrete towers—artificially constructed communities cut off from the neighborhoods’ around them, forming dense geographic concentrations of poverty. The results would generally prove disastrous. The buildings themselves were often poorly built and difficult to maintain. The massive size of the apartment complexes and the large number of residents made a sense of social order and community much harder to sustain.
Cabrini-Green—as the entire housing project came to be known—became a national symbol of the deteriorating state of public housing in Chicago when, in 1970, two police officers were killed by a sniper in one of the buildings. In the decades that followed, despite a variety of efforts to increase security, Cabrini-Green became notorious for gangs, drugs, and sensational crimes. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini-Green for a few weeks in 1981 to show her determination to reduce crime, but it had little effect other than to draw further attention to the problem.
The construction reflected the “urban renewal” approach to United States city planning in the mid-20th century. The extension buildings were known as the “red” for their red brick exteriors, while the Green Homes, with reinforced concrete exteriors, were known as the “whites”. Many of the high-rise buildings originally had exterior porches (called “open galleries”). According to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the early residents of the Cabrini row houses were predominantly of Italian ancestry. By 1962, however, a majority of residents in the completed complex were black.
During the worst years of Cabrini–Green’s problems, vandalism increased substantially. Gang members and miscreants covered interior walls with graffiti and damaged doors, windows, and elevators. Rat and cockroach infestations were commonplace, rotting garbage stacked up in clogged trash chutes (it once piled up to the 15th floor), and basic utilities (water, electricity, etc.) often malfunctioned and were left unrepaired. On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas of the facade, and pavement instead of green space—all in the name of economizing on maintenance—created an atmosphere of decay and government neglect. The balconies were fenced in to prevent residents from emptying garbage cans into the yard, and from falling or being thrown to their deaths. This created the appearance of a large prison tier, or of animal cages, which further enraged community leaders of the residents.
A 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Cabrini-Green by John H White
In 1995, after years of controversy and in light of financial and management scandals, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over the CHA. Mayor Richard M. Daley regained control of the CHA in 1999, and the agency announced what it called its “Plan for Transformation” for the city’s public housing, which entailed the destruction of all of the CHA’s high-rise buildings—including those in the Cabrini-Green complex—and their replacement with mixed-income developments. Demolition of buildings in Cabrini-Green began in 2000. The last residents of the development departed at the end of 2010, and the final demolitions took place soon afterward.
The Near North Side site formerly home to the William Green projects has been undergoing major redevelopment since the late 1990s, resulting in a combination of upscale high-rise buildings and row houses, with the stated goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood, with some units still being reserved for public housing tenants. Controversy regarding the implementation of such plans has arisen, though slated redevelopment plans are now set to move forward following the September 2015 settlement of a longstanding civil lawsuit.
- 1850: Shanties were first built on low-lying land along Chicago River; the population was predominantly Swedish, then Irish. The area acquires the “Little Hell” nickname due to a nearby gas refinery, which produced shooting pillars of flame and various noxious fumes. By the 20th century, it was known as “Little Sicily” due to large numbers of Sicilian immigrants.
- 1929: Harvey Zorbaugh writes “The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side”, contrasting the widely varying social mores of the wealthy Gold Coast, the poor Little Sicily, and the transitional area in between. Marshall Field Garden Apartments, first large-scale (although funded through private charity) low-income housing development in area, completed.
Frances Cabrini Homes 1942
- 1942: Frances Cabrini Homes (two-story rowhouses), with 586 units in 54 buildings, completed. Initial regulations stipulate 75% white and 25% black residents. Holsman, Burmeister, et al., architects. (Named for Saint Frances Cabrini, an Italian-American nun who served the poor and was the first American to be canonized.)
- 1957: Cabrini Homes Extension (red brick mid- and high-rises), with 1,925 units in 15 buildings, is completed. A. Epstein & Sons, architects.
- 1962: Green Homes (1,096 units, north of Division Street) is completed. Pace Associates, architects. (Named for William Green, longtime president of the American Federation of Labor.)
- 1966: Gautreaux et al. vs. Chicago Housing Authority, a lawsuit alleging that Chicago’s public housing program was conceived and executed in a racially discriminatory manner that perpetuated racial segregation within neighborhoods, is filed. CHA was found liable in 1969, and a consent decree with HUD was entered in 1981.
- April 4–13, 1968: In the days immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., constant gunfire from snipers positioned on the upper floors of Cabrini–Green caused many casualties and much property damage. The sniper activity would return periodically throughout the 1970s.
Anthony and Rosa Rizzato (left) and Joan Severin Mudd and Jean Severin hold replicas of the honorary street signs in front of the police station at 1160 N. Larrabee.
- July 17, 1970: Sergeant James Severin and Officer Tony Rizzato of the Chicago Police Department are fatally shot.
- February 8, 1974: Television sitcom Good Times, ostensibly set in the Cabrini–Green projects (though the projects were never actually referred to as “Cabrini-Green” on camera), and featuring shots of the complex in the opening and closing credits, debuts on CBS. It would run for six seasons, until August 1, 1979.
- March 26 – April 19, 1981: Mayor Jane Byrne moves into Cabrini–Green to prove a point regarding Chicago’s high crime rate. Considered a publicity stunt, she stays just three weeks.
Accompanied by bodyguards, Mayor Jane Byrne leaves a Cabrini-Green apartment house
- October 13, 1992: Dantrell Davis was holding his mother’s hand on his way to school, when he was fatally shot by a stray bullet.
- 1992: Candyman is released, the story taking place at the housing project.
- 1994: Chicago receives one of the first HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) grants to redevelop Cabrini–Green as a mixed-income neighborhood.
- September 27, 1995: Demolition begins.
- January 9, 1997: Nine-year-old “Girl X” (since identified as Shatoya Currie) found in a seventh-floor stairwell at 1121 N. Larrabee Street after being raped, beaten, choked, poisoned by having a can of insecticide sprayed down her throat, and covered in gang symbols. Her attacker then stepped on her throat. She was left for dead. Ultimately, the attacker was identified as Patrick Sykes and was found with the assistance of community members and building gang members, all of whom were outraged by the attack. Sykes had a history of sexual crimes against women and girls, and admitted he covered Currie with gang symbols in an attempt to confuse investigators. Currie survived, but was blinded and left with significant brain damage.
- 1997: Chicago unveils Near North Redevelopment Initiative, a master plan for development in the area. It recommends demolishing Green Homes and most of Cabrini Extension.
- 1999: Chicago Housing Authority announces Plan for Transformation, which will spend $1.5 billion over ten years to demolish 18,000 apartments and build and/or rehabilitate 25,000 apartments. Earlier redevelopment plans for Cabrini–Green are included in the Plan for Transformation. New library, rehabilitated Seward Park, and new shopping center open.
- December 9, 2010: The William Green Homes complex’s last standing building closes.
- March 30, 2011: the last high-rise building was demolished, with a public art presentation commemorating the event. The majority of abandoned and rundown Frances Cabrini Homes row houses remain intact and a hot bed for crime in the area.
Though Chicago has had a number of notorious public housing projects, including the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens on the South Side, and Rockwell Gardens and the Henry Horner Homes on the West Side, Cabrini–Green’s name and its problems were the most publicized, especially beyond Chicago. Cabrini–Green often gained press coverage for its chaotic New Year’s Eve celebrations when gang members fired guns into the air causing police to block off nearby streets every year. Several infamous incidents contributed to Cabrini–Green’s reputation.
An unanticipated result of the steel fencing installed to secure the previously open gangways at Cabrini–Green was that it became difficult for Chicago police officers to see through the steel mesh from outside. On July 17, 1970, Chicago police patrolman Anthony N. Rizzato and Sergeant James Severin were shot and killed by gang members while patrolling community housing for an all-volunteer “Walk and Talk” project. As the officers proceeded across the Cabrini–Green baseball field, the assailants opened fire from an apartment window. The purpose of the shooting was to seal a pact between two rival gangs. Both officers were killed in the attack. Three adults and one juvenile were later charged with murder. The two shooters were sentenced to 100–199 years in prison for two counts of murder. In 1981, the gang killings of 11 made national attention.
In March 1981, as an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, then-Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into a fourth-floor apartment in the 1160 N. Sedgwick building with her husband. Backed by a number of police officers and a substantial personal bodyguard presence, she stayed for only three weeks, and this incident contributed to public perception of Cabrini–Green as the worst of the worst of public housing. As a security measure, the rear entryway of the unit Byrne stayed in was welded shut. This had the impact of creating a fortification for gang members when Byrne left. Many other gangs copied this technique in other units.
Byrne touches hands with youngsters outside her building, three days into her stay. She vowed to keep her residence at Cabrini-Green for as long as she remained mayor, but left after 25 days.
On October 13, 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot in the head and killed by a sniper’s stray bullet while walking to Jenner Elementary School with his mother. On January 9, 1997, nine-year-old “Girl X” (since identified as Shatoya Currie) was raped and poisoned in a stairwell of the 1120 N. Larrabee building, leaving her blind, paralyzed and mute. The Gangster Disciples, the primary gang in Cabrini, were so incensed that their letters were scrawled on the girl’s stomach that they ordered members to find the attacker, police said. The attacker, 25-year old Patrick Sykes (who was not a gang member), was later apprehended by police and sentenced to 120 years in prison. While many nonresidents regarded Cabrini–Green with almost unalloyed horror, long-term residents interviewed by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2004 described mixed feelings about the end of the Cabrini–Green era. They told the reporter that, in the face of their hardships living in such squalor, many residents had developed bonds of community and mutual support. They lamented the uprooting and scattering of that community, and worried about what would become of the residents who were being relocated to make way for urban redevelopment.