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COLUMN ONE

It's Bleak but It's Home

Chicago is tearing down the notorious Cabrini-Green projects. Some tenants refuse to go, saying the city won't provide anything better.

March 01, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — For 24 years, Gladys Franklin has called the Cabrini-Green projects home.

The high-rise where she lives is decaying, and nearly a third of the doors and windows are boarded up. Squatters have broken into some of the apartments. Other units sit empty.

The elevator works only when it wants to, so Franklin refuses to take it. Instead, she hobbles to the stairwell that reeks of urine. Stepping over a broken crack pipe, she inches down the 14 steps from her second-floor home.

It's a journey that can take an hour.

Franklin knows that Cabrini-Green is a flawed and dangerous place to live, especially for an 83-year-old grandmother crippled by arthritic pain. But the gangs couldn't drive her away and, swears the old woman, neither will the city of Chicago.

"The city talks of a new world, a better life for all of us," Franklin said. "But all we get are broken promises."

Housing officials want to relocate Franklin and about 1,400 residents who remain at Cabrini-Green, one of the nation's most notorious public housing projects. For the last five years, the Chicago Housing Authority has been gradually emptying Cabrini-Green as part of a 10-year, $1.6-billion plan to level public housing projects. Similar efforts are underway across the country.

The towers of poverty in different projects throughout Chicago have been deemed unlivable by federal and city officials. They are to be replaced with condominiums and row houses where the impoverished and the well-heeled would live side by side.

It is the biggest overhaul of public housing in the country: 51 high-rises across the city, totaling 16,000 apartments, would be replaced by about 25,000 new or rehabilitated units.

"We will do what it takes to break the cycle of generations of families living in public housing," said Terry Peterson, the housing authority's chief executive. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

But no matter how bad life is at Cabrini-Green, many residents don't believe the city will find them better temporary housing until the new apartments become available. Nearly 400 families have banded together and are suing the city to prevent their eviction and stop the demolition.

The lawsuit says that housing officials don't have a firm plan for what will be built in place of the run-down buildings. They don't know when residents would be able to return, or how many would be accommodated in the new housing.

The complaint also highlights evidence -- including an independent report commissioned by the Chicago Housing Authority -- that the agency has moved residents from Cabrini and other projects into poor neighborhoods to the south and west such as Englewood and Roseland, which have some of the city's highest crime and poverty rates.

"Why should we go, if the alternatives aren't much better?" asked Carol Steele, 53, one of the leaders of the lawsuit. Steele has spent her whole life in the Cabrini neighborhood and wants to rebuild a way of life she remembers with fondness.

She and other residents suspect that what the city really wants is the land under the projects, which lie eight blocks from the skyscrapers and chic shops along Michigan Avenue.

"The city wants to move us so they can forget about us," Franklin said. "They want us to disappear."

*

It's not hard to disappear in a place like Cabrini-Green.

During its height in the 1970s, 15,000 people lived there.

Today it is a ghost town. Many of the buildings' exteriors are charred from fires set by transients. Gang graffiti cover the hallways and elevator doors. The sidewalks are mostly deserted.

Franklin has watched the neighborhood decay over the decades. She followed her husband to Chicago in the 1940s from Georgia, where she had dropped out of the third grade. When she worked as a factory laborer, which wasn't often, she would rely on neighbors to watch over her kids.

Money was always tight. Franklin, who later divorced and became a single mother, shuttled her children from "empty building to condemned house."

"I had three boys and six girls," she said, "and we never seemed to have enough."

One by one, her grown children applied for public housing aid. One by one, they moved into Cabrini-Green. In 1981, she followed and moved into a high-rise at 939 N. Hudson Ave.

"All I had was family," Franklin said. "You follow family."

By then, life there was horrific. Water pipes burst, leaving inches of scalding water on floors. Gun shots forced residents to sleep inside bathtubs. Parents routinely kept their children home from school, fearing for their safety.

But it wasn't always that way.

In 1941, the city's housing department set aside a 70-acre parcel of land, with visions of replacing crowded slum housing with low-rent apartments where black and white families could enjoy more space and a broad view of the city skyline.

In the first phase, the city built about 600 two- and three-story row houses with small gardens in the front and windows big enough to catch the northern light.

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