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Posted at 11:21 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Saying goodbye to Cabrini-Green

By Annys Shin


The last two families living in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green housing project are expected to move out today so the last of the complex can be razed to make way for a mixed-income community.

The cluster of high-rise buildings became a national symbol of the problems of public housing. And it was easy to see why. I briefly visited Cabrini-Green in 1996 for a press conference, the point of which I have long since forgotten. The place itself was far more memorable than anything that was said. I remember being distracted by the prison-like exteriors of the buildings and the crunching noise as we walked over what seemed like an endless amount of broken glass strewn across the ground next to a bleak-looking playground. By then, demolition had already begun. The neighborhood has since gentrified and while some residents have been able to return, many have been forced to resettle elsewhere.

A brief history: Cabrini-Green was built over 20 years, starting in 1942. Most of its original tenants were of Italian descent. By the 1970s, it was nearly all black. At its peak, it housed 15,000 people. It sealed its reputation for violent crime in 1992, when a seven-year-old boy was killed while walking to school with his mother, and again in 1997, when a nine-year-old girl was raped and poisoned there.

Some of Cabrini-Green's notoriety also stemmed from the fact it was located next to some of the wealthiest sections of Chicago. The contrast was jarring and made it a favorite backdrop for politicians. The location also made it a lucrative drug market. Different gangs controlled the various buildings in the complex, which acquired nicknames such as "The Boulevard" and "The Rock."

For better or worse, it was also the only home many of its residents had ever known. Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich described the mixed feelings of a few holdouts as they walked out of Cabrini-Green for the last time.

While the rest of Cabrini's high-rises were torn down as part of the transformation of Chicago's public housing; while thousands of Cabrini residents scattered; while the Near North Side neighborhood made way for condos and young professionals, the Burling building and its last residents hung on.

Now residents left, calmly, one at a time, rolling their suitcases, shopping carts and babies out into the wind, past the security guards, the police officers and the movers.

"It's stressful," said Tamika Smith. She reached into her stroller and tugged a blanket over her 2-year-old daughter. "I never been down there, always over here. There's always a lot going on down there."

By "over here," she meant north of Division Street, where the high-rises known as "the whites" once stood and where she has lived all of her 21 years.

By "down there," she meant the Cabrini row houses just south of Division, where she and other Burling residents will live, until those apartments close too.

By "a lot going on," she meant shooting. People displaced from other Cabrini buildings move in and out all the time now, and tensions stew.

At midafternoon Tuesday, when I found out the Burling building was closing, rumor had it there were four or five families still there. No one who knew for sure would say. Per CHA.

Every now and then, someone who looked official hurried past, avoiding eye contact...

You can follow the razing of Cabrini-Green here.

By Annys Shin  | December 7, 2010; 11:21 AM ET
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