‘What It’s like to be in Hell’
Three weeks in 1981 saw an almost complete halt in criminal activities in the notorious Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. Often regarded as one of the most violent of the projects in America it had long been swamped by crime, gang warfare and neglect and the housing conditions were often deplorable.
In 1981, Mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne took the unusual step of moving into one of the housing units in Cabrini Green. In these days of politicians having second homes and travel allowances this seems like a strange thing for a politician to do but in the context of 1981 it was an even more provocative action for a Mayor to take. So why did she do it?
The first reason was to demonstrate that this area was not as bad as its detractors would have you think. For a Mayor it would be very difficult to claim to be a reformer making great strides against inequality when the city’s housing projects were deemed so unsafe as to be uninhabitable. Cabrini Green, infamous for crime and urban blight had also become a byword for racial and class divides. The Mayor attracted, and courted the media who followed her as she moved in and out of the project. With this publicity Byrne aimed to publicise the inequality that plagued the city. By moving into one of the most deprived areas she hoped to shine a light on the neglected side of the city and in turn hopefully prove that Chicago was a city worth investing in.
Byrne had been in office since 1979, however 1981 would prove to be the most significant year of her tenure. In 1981 there were 11 reported gang killings in the first few months of the year and a violent assault on a teenage girl. As each of these were reported on the news, Byrne faced increasing criticism for her policies and ability to protect the most vulnerable citizens. A Democrat she found the headlines depicting the decay and fear around the projects acutely embarrassing. In her election campaign she had positioned herself as a reformer. Now was the time to put that into action.
Byrne wished to demonstrate her commitment to increasing safety in public housing projects by moving in herself. In doing so she would also be able to see the problems Cabrini Green was facing first hand. Cutting through layers of bureaucracy to go straight to the source of the troubles, Byrne stated that she would stay “as long as it takes to clean it up”.
The Cabrini Green area had long had a fearsome reputation. In the 1850’s nearby gas refineries produced shooting pillars of flames and noxious fumes, leading to the name “Little Hell” being coined. This became the main destination of Irish emigrants entering the city. The same problems of poverty, inequality and danger would linger in the area. An example of this can be seen from a 1931 “map of Chicago’s gangland by Bruce-Roberts which included “death corner” with the chilling additional note “50 murders: count em”.
“Sing a Song of Gangsters”: The Bruce-Roberts Gangland Map, 1931
It was into this environment that building began on the first public housing units in 1942, part of the mid-twentieth century urban renewal that took place across America. However, the end of World War II resulted in the closure of many nearby factories and thousands of new unemployed. It didn’t take long until the struggling city began to withdraw services from the projects. This included police patrols and building maintenance. The later stages of building works were conducted on a very tight budget. These new homes were of low quality and suffered from maintenance problems very quickly. 1942 regulations stipulated that the population had to be 75% white. This was later found to be racially discriminatory and the controls were removed in 1966. This contributed to a shifting demographic in the area.
As occurred in many other housing projects and inner cities across America, Cabrini Green experienced ‘white flight’. It didn’t take long until the population of Cabrini Green was ‘overwhelmingly’ African-American and very poor. This contributed to the image of racial and class inequality in Chicago. Furthermore, in 1992 the LA Times reported that of Cabrini Green’s 7,000 residents half are younger than 20. Only 9% of residents were employed and single parent families were the norm.
Over the years fencing was added to balconies. The reinforced metal and mesh exteriors gave the projects a cage like quality. This was intended to prevent garbage from being emptied into the yard below and also to prevent deaths of people being thrown/ falling off the building. In practice however it just obscured activities from police and allowed gangs to take over the open gangways. Residents had begun to throw their garbage outside when the trash chutes were full. One account states that garbage stacked up in these chutes, reaching up to the fifteenth floor at one point. Lawns and green areas, originally intended for sport and recreation, were paved over. When lights in the hallways and outside blew they were not replaced and fire damaged housing units were boarded up and abandoned.
Gun fire had long been the norm in the area. In the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 snipers positioned on the upper floors caused almost constant gun fire leading to casualties and property damage. Sniper fire continued sporadically throughout the 1970s. It is strange to think that in a housing center in the middle of an American city snipers can and have taken control of the area. In 1970, July 17th, two police officers were fatally shot.
Although there were only 3,607 units at its height, there were around 15,000 known inhabitants. It is often thought that the real figure was much higher, with family members and friends living together, and gangs taking over empty units. Cabrini Green is located on the near north side of Chicago, a stone’s throw from the Gold Coast, which is otherwise a largely affluent area of the city. This reinforced the idea of relative poverty in the heart of the city. By 1981 Cabrini Green was considered a ‘no go’ area, largely avoided by all who could.
Byrne’s arrival coincided with Easter. A parade and children’s events had been arranged. Hymns were sung. Local news outlets had been reported and were on hand when a group of locals began to protest at the perceived publicity stunt, chanting “we need jobs not eggs” and “Jayne Byrne is full of tricks”. They also captured the arrest of one of the protesters. It was not an auspicious start. Byrne’s attempt to gain greater knowledge of Cabrini’s problems first hand did gain international coverage, however it was mostly negative with headlines calling it a ‘stunt’, and a ‘disaster’. Byrne remained in Cabrini Green for only three weeks.
The 1980s also saw a crack epidemic ravage inner city America. The projects quickly became a hub of addiction and drug selling. For many this was a quick way to make money when they felt that there was nothing else for them. It also became an added element to the ongoing gang operations. Gangs in the area included The Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Cobra Stones, Blackstones and El Rukins.
A New York Times article had this to say on the drug problem in Cabrini Green:
“drug dealers form thickets in the lobbies so deep that it resembles a crowded market. The elevators are often out of service, forcing residents into stairwells that addicts have claimed for their own purposes”.
It was “the Poverty District”, the place where peopled queued for drugs from the 4th floor down to the building lobby.
Byrne and her husband took over a fourth floor apartment, but a police and substantial personal body guard presence remained at all times. Additional security measures were put in place for her stay, the rear entryway of the unit was welded shut so that there was only one main access point to her apartment. This had the unwelcome side effect of creating a fortified area for gangs to use after her departure. In the future gangs would copy this so her attempt to raise awareness of conditions in the project inadvertently actually contributed to the problem.
Gun crime continued after Byrne’s tenure as Mayor until the projects were demolished in 2011. Gang members would ring in the New Year with gun fire. It became a yearly ‘celebration’. Bullets put civilians at risk but it seemed as though there was nothing that the police could do about it. In the end each New Year the police ended up simply cutting the area off. As the area was cordoned off it also meant that emergency services could not enter the area. Over time gangs took control of individual buildings, marking them with distinctive symbols and imagery.
The 1990’s then saw several very high case crimes reported nationally. In 1992 a young boy, Dantrell Davis was shot dead by a stray bullet when he was holding his mother’s hand on the walk to school. He was the third pupil from Jenner School to be murdered in seven months.
In 1997 a crime occurred that was so vicious that it shocked the nation anew, and this time even caused outrage among resident gangs. A nine year old girl, “Girl X”, was found in a 7th floor stairwell. She had been raped, beaten, choked, poisoned with a can of insecticide and her body covered in gang symbols. She survived and the attacker, who had no gang affiliations, was found in a rare show of unity with the help of local community leaders and gang leaders who were all sickened by the crime and the attempts the culprit had made to blame them. It was this incident more than any other that triggered rehabilitation attempts and ultimately helped lead to the decision to knock down the project, and attempt to erase its history for good.
So did Byrne achieve anything by this move?
After her stay in Cabrini, she approached private donors to fund a sports complex that would boost morale, give people the chance to be a part of something, and show how some investment and interest can help improve an area. Her husband Jay McMullen coached the local baseball, basketball and soft ball teams long after they left and the centre was reported to help the residents feel as if they were again part of the mainstream.
Unfortunately the funds dried up after the 1983 election and over time the centre also fell into disrepair. Newspapers were dismissive of her actions and any good intentions that Byrne may have had were obscured. It was an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, but actually contributed to the public perception of Cabrini Green as being dangerous and undesirable. After all, if it were otherwise, why would Byrne have needed to be constantly accompanied by police officers?
However not everyone was so negative. In a New York Times report, Janice Todd, an assistant principal at the Richard Byrd Elementary School had this to say,
“A poll taken soon after the Mayor moved out showed that her popularity had risen as a result of her stay there. But residents say that when she left, so did many of the city services that had been increased for her stay.
”My feeling is that things were never different when Mayor Byrne was here. The gangs and troublemakers simply went underground when the Mayor was here. Now there has been a resurgence of gang activity.”
Byrne was not re-elected in 1983.