The Death of High Rise Housing in Chicago

In what was dubbed the Plan for Transformation, Chicago Housing Authority has seen out the demolition of public housing high rise buildings deemed unfit for habitation, leaving thousands displaced or homeless and in worse condition than before.

| January 2014

  • In 1998, nearly nineteen thousand CHA high rise units failed viability inspection mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that under federal law the Authority was required to demolish those units within five years.
    Photo by Fotolia/Henryk Sadura
  • “High Rise Stories,” edited by Audrey Petty, brings together a compilation of experiences from those affected by the mandated demolition of Chicago’s high rise buildings.”
    Cover courtesy McSweeney’s Books

In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories (McSweeney’s Books and Voice of Witness, 2013), former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing projects describe life in the now-demolished high rise buildings. These stories of community, displacement, and poverty in the wake of gentrification give voice to those who have long been ignored. The following excerpt comes from the introduction, “On Plans and Transformations.”

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Build up the cities.
Set up the walls again.
—Carl Sandburg, “And They Obey”

When the high rise buildings came down, footage of the demolition was posted on YouTube. There you can find—in montage, time-lapse, or real time—various stages of destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbott Homes, Cabrini-Green, Lakefront Properties. There are videos of each high rise of Lakefront Properties being felled by implosion. Collapse occurs not all at once, but gradually, horizontally, with thick, smoky vapors of dust rising in the wake. Other public housing structures were dismantled with cranes, excavators, backhoes. Aside from the jackhammers briskly knocking through windows and concrete, so much of the machinery seems weary. In one video, a wrecking ball appears to move in slow motion as it swings back and then lands, crushing a wall painted robin’s egg blue.

When the high rises came down, there was official talk about progress. What was afoot was the Plan for Transformation: a $1.6 billion project and the largest public housing “redevelopment venture” in the United States. Announced in 1999, the ambitious plan reflected and reinforced national trends; many municipal governments in major cities (like New Orleans and Atlanta) demolished swaths of public housing structures and replaced them with voucher distribution programs and limited access to mixed-income developments. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) unveiled a major advertising campaign to promote its agenda, rebranding itself with a slogan “This is CHAnge” and promising impacted CHA tenants, and the city at large, a fresh start. In Chicago, mirroring other neoliberal efforts across the country, planners have relied on the market to regulate the terms of what has been touted as full-scale reform. The vast majority of those directly impacted by wide-scale demolitions have been required to seek out housing in the private sector. For thousands, the outcomes have included displacement, multiple moves, and homelessness. In the current economy, the poverty rate is higher than ever in Chicago, as is the need for affordable housing.

When the high rises came down, TV cameras from all over the world were on-site. When the last towers of Cabrini and Robert Taylor Homes were toppled, coverage was the lead on the ten o’clock news. Scores of tourists and locals alike took snapshots as mementos, as proof. Now, thirteen years after the demolitions commenced, countless Chicagoans still know these lost places by heart. Eddie Leman clearly recalls Robert Taylor Homes where, for the first thirteen years of his life, he lived with his mother. “That’s probably something you don’t even see in a lot of cities anymore. Sixteen stories and what was it? About two hundred feet, you know? And about twelve, thirteen apartments on one floor. Each apartment got families.”

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