USC architecture school screens film ‘70 Acres in Chicago’

Students at the USC School of Architecture were treated to a special Wednesday night screening of Ronit Bezalel’s 2014 film 70 Acres in Chicago, a documentary exploring the demolition of Cabrini-Green, a massive public housing complex in Chicago. The film opens with a clip of 15-year-old Raymond “Shaq” McDonald, and follows his journey through the years until he eventually launches his own dog-training business in high school. McDonald professes his love for Cabrini early on, along with many other residents; although the property was worse than dilapidated by the time of demolition due to years of neglect, the strong sense of community made the industrial walls feel like a home.

From left to right: Mark Pratt, Deidre Brewster, and Raymond McDonald were among many Cabrini-Green residents who protested demolition, but policymakers still opted to tear it down. Photo courtesy of Cristina Rutter.

Their sentiments weren’t enough to keep the housing complex above ground, however, as 1995 brought the beginning of the end for Cabrini. Situated in a prime location on the Near North Side, the value of the land drew too much attention from other parties, who decided to pursue more profitable alternatives. In addition, as the local economy sagged and residents struggled to pay the rent, Chicago Housing Authority didn’t have the money to make necessary repairs and instead resorted to boarding up vacated rooms, trying to remain as cheap as possible. Fierce protests ensued as Cabrini residents voiced their displeasure at being left out of the decision-making process, but their demands for the property to be renovated were ignored.

The aftermath was an equally ugly process, as many residents had few alternative housing options and even less time to figure it out. The place they used to call home was converted into a “mixed-income living community,” designed to integrate market-rate housing and affordable public housing into the same space. In an effort to appease former Cabrini residents, policymakers provided them with priority registration when it came time to apply for housing; however, strict, invasive requirements prohibited many from returning. In addition to yearly drug tests, Cabrini residents who wished to live in the mixed-income complex were subject to housing inspections, and anyone with a record of criminal history in their family would not be granted a spot.

Only a handful of Cabrini residents were able to return, with many dispersing to Chicago’s West and South Sides. Those who managed to secure residence found that their community was no longer the same; newcomers in the market-rate category were often suspicious of gatherings of public housing residents, and expected them to change their way of life to adapt to the new surroundings. When the idea of mixed-income housing was initially proposed, the belief was that living among middle-class families would inspire the former Cabrini residents to “improve” their own circumstances; however, resentment and misunderstanding often ruled instead.

But what is the role of the architect in similar instances of gentrification, and how can builders help prevent these situations from reoccurring in the future? The question was on the minds of many in the audience following the screening, and was raised in the Q&A session that concluded the event. Director Bezalel noted how the structural design of Cabrini-Green was less than appealing, promoting a cold, bleak atmosphere rather than that of a warm home. Professor Edward Dimendberg, who hosted the Q&A, also said the materials used and the high-rise formation were not the most sustainable, which only became more relevant as upkeep of the property became increasingly sporadic.

Above all, however, consensus arose in the room that designing for the sake of a good design wasn’t enough, especially when working on buildings intended for public housing. Keeping the needs of an individual community at the forefront of the blueprint is imperative, as well as using durable resources that will still be sufficient years after initial construction. Issues of gentrification are multi-faceted and not easily solved, but as architects begin to see their role in the equation and what they can do to help, the solution will hopefully grow clearer, and future sagas such as that of Cabrini-Green will grow less common.