At last remnants of Cabrini-Green, residents await uncertain future
09/12/2012 10:00 PM
Walking down Hudson Avenue, it’s easy to assume that the Francis Cabrini Rowhouses have been abandoned. All of the doors have been sealed off, and tall fences surround the buildings. Most of the development’s streets have been blocked off.
But if you turn west on Locust Street and walk down a block, everything changes. A man is working on his car. Two men play chess on the porch. A group of teenage girls chat amongst themselves in the courtyard between buildings. Children run and up and down the street. Life goes on, much as it did when most of the rowhouses weren’t empty.
The Frances Cabrini Homes have been around since 1942. Even as other components of the Cabrini-Green public housing development were torn down one by one in recent years, the rowhouses remained. But in beginning of March 2012, the Chicago Housing Authority vacated most of its buildings and fenced them off. Only the rehabbed houses on the west side of Cambridge Avenue are still occupied. And, as CHA and the Near North Working Group are working on a new plan to redevelop the entire site, it is unclear how much, if anything, will remain.
Located between Hudson Avenue, Oak Street, Larrabee Street and Chicago Avenue, the rowhouses are the oldest section of Cabrini-Green. Under original Plan for Transformation, they were supposed to be rehabilitated, and all of the units were to be reserved for public housing.
According to CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar, the agency rehabbed 146 out of 584 rowhouse units by 2009. But later that year, the redevelopment process was frozen at the request of Federal Judge Marvin Aspen, and CHA set out to reassess its strategy.
“After numerous stakeholder meetings and deliberate considerations,” said Aguilar. “CHA has concluded that it will no longer support 100 percent public housing at the Cabrini Rowhouses property.”
Since 2011, CHA has been working with the Near North Working Group to develop a plan for the non-rehabilitated portion of the Cabrini Rowhouses. The Near North Working Group is made up of representatives from CHA, the City of Chicago and the Cabrini Local Advisory Council.
Aguilar told Skyline that the plan won’t be finalized until 2013. Yet in September 2011, CHA announced that it would empty the un-rehabbed section of the rowhouses and relocate their residents elsewhere. The plans were carried out by March 2012.
Talking to the residents of the rehabbed section, many have a sense of resignation. As they see it, CHA will do what it will, and there is nothing they can do about. The phrase “it is what it is” came up again and again.
Other than that, the current situation is not entirely without upside.
“It’s peaceful,” reflected a resident who identified himself as Ron Crostby. “Security is doing their thing. There haven’t been as many shootings or beatings.”
A man calling himself James moved out of Cabrini-Green 10 years ago, but he comes back to the rowhouses every weekend to visit his mother. His outlook on the situation was darker.
“In terms of the violence, it changed slightly,” he said, “But people are still the same. The poor are still poor. Nobody cares about them.”
Crystal Odis lived in Cabrini-Green all her life — first at the since-demolished “Camp Bell” high-rise at 911 N. Sedgwick, than at the rowhouses. She feels that her days in the neighborhood are numbered.
“I think it’s going to be a white neighborhood in a few years,” said Odis. “If that happens, we’ll move west, south. Moving ain’t that hard.”
As redevelopment continues all around Cabrini-Green, the residents feel increasingly alienated from the neighborhood where most of them spent all their lives. Erik Thompson told Skyline that he feels like he can no longer simply walk around.
“If I don’t have an ID with my home address, the police say I’m trespassing,” he said. “That’s harassment. I’ve been living here all my life, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Over the last few years, furniture stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants and even a gym opened west of the rowhouses. Most of the new arrivals target the higher-end clientele who live in market-rate housing in and around Cabrini-Green. Most of them hire from outside the neighborhood.
Tony Sirkin, owner of the Far Below Retail Furniture, told Skyline he moved the business to the area because of its potential.
“[The neighborhood] is still growing,” he said. “Most of our customers are from the area, and the feedback has been great. We are going to try to grow with the community.”
When asked about what it’s like to have a business next to the rowhouses, Sirkin recalled an incident when one of his employees had a phone stolen. He wasn’t particularly bothered by it — it was the only theft in the entire year, and thefts like this could happen in any neighborhood.
An employee named Erin Ahearn did mention a logistical issue — the neighborhood didn’t have much in a way of parking.
“You got to park where you can,” she said. “And sometimes, I had to park a little closer to the action. Other people had their windows broken, but it never happened to me.”
Rowhouse resident Nate Otis took a dim view of this practice.
“They come to park in the neighborhood, but they say we’re trespassing,” he said. “That’s [expletive].”
According to Aguilar, the rehabbed section of the Cabrini Rowhouses will remain as is, and it will continue to be reserved for public housing residents. He said there are currently several vacant units that are in the process of screening applicants.
Because the plan was still in the works, it is unclear what will happen with the currently vacant section of the development. However, Aguilar indicated that it may ultimately include “other types of housing, commercial, educational, and/or social service components.”
Until redevelopment resumes, most residents of the rowhouses are determined to stay for as long as they can.
“This is my life,” said resident who identified herself as Tanisha Williams. “We’re all family.”
And, for most of the residents, that is something worth keeping.