Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent. She writes about domestic policy and the transformation of the federal government. She is the author of two books: “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives” and “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”
In the mid-1990s, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on human resources and intergovernmental relations, was scheduled to check into a fancy Chicago hotel the night before holding a hearing on the federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority. But he told his staff that he didn’t feel right keeping the reservation given the hearing’s subject matter, and he opted for a far less glamorous crash pad: the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. His tour guide at Cabrini-Green was Peter Keller, who went by the nickname “K-So” (for “Knowledge, Strength, Opportunity”) and who talked to the congressman about his time in and out of prison.
“It was an incredible 24 hours for me,” Shays recalled in a phone interview. “He was a wonderful guy. I stayed in one of his four girlfriends’ units. He had four girlfriends.”
There were some glitches, by the congressman’s account: K-So got high, became paranoid and took the door handle to the unit when he left, effectively locking Shays into the apartment. But Shays described the experience as revelatory: The lack of air circulation in the apartment was so stifling that “it was like an oven,” he said, and from that moment on, the congressman stopped judging mothers in public housing for letting their kids stay outside late at night. He realized that they were just trying to escape the excruciating heat in the homes that the federal government had made available to them.
In his new book, “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing,” Ben Austen recounts Shays’s stay from the viewpoint of K-So, a longtime resident who appreciates the politician’s interest but is skeptical of whether the visit will make any appreciable difference. And like several other episodes during Cabrini-Green’s roughly 70-year existence, it exemplifies the conundrum its inhabitants faced. Their home drew national attention because it embodied everything that was wrong with public housing, and sometimes that meant people in power tried to help. But time and time again, most of what they tried didn’t work.
In many ways, “High-Risers” is a sequel to Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here,” the 1991 bestseller that chronicled two brothers’ lives in a different Chicago housing behemoth, the Henry Horner Homes. It is not as novelistic as that book or as immersive as Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted.” But with a journalist’s eye, Austen explores the intersection between discrimination and income inequality through the lens of the men and women experiencing some of America’s worst housing conditions. Austen’s tale has several compelling characters — including an upstanding matriarch and a crafty bootlegger who turned to activism after an altercation with police — but its narrative arc is anchored to the arrival and, ultimately, demolition of a physical entity: the massive cinder-block towers that stood just blocks from one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
These high-rises — the first of which were dubbed the Reds, because of their brick color, to be followed by the Whites — inspired a horror film, rap songs and multiple television shows. They were rolled out with glossy brochures in the 1940s but deteriorated into environments where gangs feuded and security guards preyed on young women.
A native of Chicago, Austen is unsparing in his assessment of the politicians and bureaucrats — mostly Democrats but some Republicans — who failed Cabrini-Green’s residents over the course of decades. There were corrupt and inept Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) officials and contractors, who allowed the buildings to deteriorate and on occasion took public funds for themselves. There were the politicians who professed to care about Cabrini-Green residents but were quick to abandon them when it was no longer expedient.
Chicago’s first and only female mayor, Jane Byrne, made national headlines when she moved into the project for a brief stint, and her husband, Jay McMullen, coached a baseball team there for a few seasons. But she refused to fire the CHA’s notorious head — one of her biggest fundraisers and advisers — until federal officials forced her, and McMullen dropped his coaching gig when she was voted out of office in 1983. “Hey, Mr. Jay, are you gonna be running the team?” one boy asked him. “No, Lefty. We got beat, ya know.”
Faced with the daunting task of reconstructing the rise and fall of the towers, Austen tells the story through four central characters: Dolores Wilson, who moved in with her family in 1956 and “felt like a billionaire” in her affordable four-bedroom apartment; Kelvin Cannon, who was mentored there by both a legendary tumbling coach and a gang leader; Willie J.R. Fleming, who left the comfort of the suburbs for the freewheeling chaos of the projects; and Annie Ricks, a mother of 13 who moved from Alabama as a little girl and anchored herself to Cabrini-Green. One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is following the unexpected paths that these four lives take, which can be infuriating, painful and redemptive in quick succession.
Austen describes key moments in painstaking detail, and he weaves in pop culture and public policy to provide broad context for the poverty and violence that come to define this patch of Near North, as the planners called it at the start. The two young black cops who win the trust of the residents they police are dubbed “Eddie Murphy” and “21,” the latter getting his nickname from “21 Jump Street,” a TV show that featured fresh-faced stars playing officers who went “undercover as high school students.” When Wilson and other resident managers got federal grants to refurbish their building, 1230 North Burling, they fussed over details like any other obsessive redecorators. “They selected colors and styles, changing their minds ten times before settling on their picks,” Austen writes. “Blinds: white Levolor. Tile: mauve vinyl. Elevator entrance: terra cotta. Exterior façade: eggshell.” Little did they know that their upgrade would face a wrecking ball within a few years.
There are moments when the level of detail is overwhelming. At one point, Austen relates how Wilson got the kids in her building to write condolence cards to Michael Jordan when the basketball star’s father was killed — but urged them not to ask for anything. One boy asked for a bike, and Austen goes on to describe how the boy at one point in his life broke pigeons’ wings but ultimately became a preacher. Recalling that she was able to turn the boy away from violence, Wilson says, “I think at least I saved some animal lives.” But that seems like a digression, especially when she shifts gears to reflect on how the man who murdered her second child received the same sentence as one of her sons, who got seven years for breaking into a car trunk and stealing some tools. Not every incident in a person’s life holds equal significance, and at times, the book’s granularity robs compelling moments of their power.
And the tough assessments Austen makes of the project’s outsiders rarely extend to those inside it. Ricks insists on remaining as Cabrini-Green’s last resident, for example, but then complains about the housing unit where she is hastily relocated. Austen frames her dilemma as an example of how the city failed the project’s residents after the demolition, rather than a consequence of the kind of stubbornness that usually served Ricks well in the past.
Austen makes a compelling case that Chicago officials did not deliver on their grand promise to integrate Cabrini-Green residents throughout the city with Section 8 vouchers. The fact that this transition collided with the Great Recession and the collapse of the U.S. housing market exacerbated these problems. But the relocation story is best told through the eyes of Fleming, a talented operator who installed poor Chicagoans from Cabrini-Green and elsewhere into houses that other city residents abandoned when they could no longer afford their mortgage payments. At one point, he worked to mobilize disenfranchised Chicago residents by screening the documentary “Inside Job” to fuel elderly ladies’ outrage. “What we need is the people’s public housing authority,” he declares, Che Guevara-style.
Throughout the book, Austen succeeds in giving Cabrini-Green residents the kind of agency few policymakers are willing to offer them. When a first-grader, Dantrell Davis, was shot just steps away from his mother as he headed to school, local rabble-rouser Marion Stamps spoke for nearly everyone when she marched up to gang members to give them notice. “Not another motherf---ing baby is going to die,” she barked. “Since y’all can’t figure it out, I am.” Stamps brokered a truce among warring gangs that was dismissed as a stunt, but for the next eight months there was just one shooting and not a single murder. It was a reprieve, driven from the ground up.
There are moments of lyricism, as when Fleming peddles unauthorized DVDs and sports paraphernalia from building to building, “rotating on the dwindling land.” And when the wrecking crane finally comes: “The sheared towers revealed dozens of brightly colored rooms, like a box of pastels.” He also captures the way Cabrini-Green residents, isolated from other parts of the city, fended for themselves. They bartered services, surrounded themselves with relatives and were reluctant to be split up. “There was more good than bad,” one of Ricks’s sons explains as she finally leaves.
There is no happy ending for many former Cabrini-Green residents, but there is no question that they made their mark on not just the American psyche but public policy. Shays, for example, championed rental vouchers in the wake of his visit; there were signs that it worked better in Connecticut towns like Stamford than in Chicago. Asked why, the former congressman rattled off a few reasons: talented and honest housing officials, politicians committed to financing it properly, and a tolerant populace willing to live in mixed-income buildings.
“You just can’t warehouse a concentration of very poor people,” Shays said, adding that the night he slept in that sweltering Chicago apartment ranks as a critical moment in shaping his public policy vision.
“Those are the moments. If you allow yourself to experience what others are experiencing, they are incredible eye-openers.”
No one will be sleeping in a Cabrini-Green unit anymore. But reading this book, you understand why it might have changed the way you think.
By Ben Austen
Harper. 384 pp. $27.99