By Morgan Dunn | Checked By John Kuroski
Published September 15, 2020
Updated November 13, 2020
Popularly known as the setting for the horror movie Candyman, Cabrini-Green began as a mid-century example of what a public housing project could provide, but eventually grew so neglected that it had to be demolished.
Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Getty ImagesOne of the “reds,” a mid-sized building at Cabrini-Green.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
As the wrecking ball dropped into the upper floors of 1230 N. Burling Street, the dream of affordable, comfortable housing for Chicago’s working-class African Americans came crashing down.
Opened between 1942 and 1958, the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses and William Green Homes started as a model effort to replace slums run by exploitative landlords with affordable, safe, and comfortable public housing.
But although homes in the multistory apartment blocks were cherished by the families that lived there, years of neglect fueled by racism and negative press coverage turned them into an unfair symbol of blight and failure. Cabrini-Green became a name used to stoke fears and argue against public housing.
Nevertheless, residents never gave up on their homes, the last of them leaving only as the final tower fell.
This is the story of Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s failed dream of fair housing for all.
The Beginning Of Public Housing In Chicago
Library of Congress“The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial, the new form of mob violence that assaults not only the lone individual, but all of us in its ceaseless attacks.” – Richard Wright
In 1900, 90 percent of Black Americans still lived in the South. There, they struggled under a system of Jim Crow laws designed to make their lives as miserable as possible. Black men were gradually stripped of the right to vote or serve as jurors. Black families were often forced to subsist as tenant farmers. The chances of being able to rely on law enforcement were often nil.
An opportunity for a better life arose with the United States’ entry into World War I. Black Americans began to stream into Northern and Midwestern cities to take up vacant jobs. One of the most popular destinations was Chicago.
The homes they found there were nightmarish. Ramshackle wood-and-brick tenements had been hastily thrown up as emergency housing after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and subdivided into tiny one-room apartments called “kitchenettes.” Here, whole families shared one or two electrical outlets, indoor toilets malfunctioned, and running water was rare. Fires were frighteningly common.
It was thus a relief when the Chicago Housing Authority finally began providing public housing in 1937, in the depths of the Depression. The Frances Cabrini rowhouses, named for a local Italian nun, opened in 1942.
Next were the Extension homes, the iconic multi-story towers nicknamed the “Reds” and the “Whites,” due to the colors of their facades. Finally, the William Green Homes completed the complex.
Chicago’s iconic high-rise homes were ready to receive tenants, and with the closure of war factories after World War II, plenty of tenants were ready to move in.
‘Good Times’ At Cabrini-Green
Library of CongressLooking northeast, Cabrini-Green can be seen here in 1999.
Dolores Wilson was a Chicago native, mother, activist, and organizer who’d lived for years in kitchenettes. She was thrilled when, after filling out piles of paperwork, she and her husband Hubert and their five children became one of the first families granted an apartment in Cabrini-Green.
“I loved the apartment,” Dolores said of the home they occupied there. “It was nineteen floors of friendly, caring neighbors. Everyone watched out for each other.”
A neighbor remarked “It’s heaven here. We used to live in a three-room basement with four kids. It was dark, damp, and cold.”
The Reds, Whites, rowhouses, and William Green Homes were a world apart from the matchstick shacks of the kitchenettes. These buildings were constructed of sturdy, fire-proof brick and featured heating, running water, and indoor sanitation.
They were equipped with elevators so residents didn’t have to climb multiple flights of stairs to reach their doors. Best of all, they were rented at fixed rates according to income, and there were generous benefits for those who struggled to make ends meet.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty ImagesFamilies in Cabrini-Green, 1966.
As the projects expanded, the resident population flourished. Jobs were plentiful in the food industry, shipping, manufacturing, and the municipal sector. Many residents felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked.
But there was something wrong underneath the peaceful surface.
How Racism Undermined The Cabrini-Green Projects
Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Getty ImagesA policewoman searches the jacket of a teenage African American boy for drugs and weapons in the graffiti-covered Cabrini Green Housing Project.
As welcome as the homes were, there were forces at work that limited opportunities for African Americans. Many Black veterans of World War II were denied the mortgage loans white veterans enjoyed, so they were unable to move to nearby suburbs.
Even if they managed to get loans, racial covenants — informal agreements among white homeowners not to sell to black buyers — barred many African Americans from homeownership.
Even worse was the practice of redlining. Neighborhoods, especially African American ones, were barred from investments and public services.
This meant that Black Chicagoans, even those with wealth, would be denied mortgages or loans based on their addresses. Police and firefighters were less likely to respond to emergency calls. Businesses struggled to grow without startup funds.
Library of CongressThousands of Black workers like this riveter moved to Northern and Midwestern cities to work in war industry jobs.
What’s more, there was a crucial flaw in the foundation of the Chicago Housing Authority. Federal law required the projects to be self-funding for their maintenance. But as economic opportunities fluctuated and the city was unable to support the buildings, residents were left without the resources to maintain their homes.
The Federal Housing Authority only made the problem far worse. One of their policies was to deny aid to African American homebuyers by claiming that their presence in white neighborhoods would drive down home prices. Their only evidence to support this was a 1939 report which stated that, “racial mixtures tend to have a depressing effect on land values.”
Cabrini-Green Residents Weathered The Storm
Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Getty ImagesDespite political turmoil and an increasingly unfair reputation, residents carried on with their daily lives as best they could.
But it wasn’t all bad at Cabrini-Green. Even as the buildings’ finances grew shakier, the community thrived. Kids attended schools, parents continued to find decent work, and the staff did their best to keep up maintenance.
Hubert Wilson, Dolores’ husband, became a building supervisor. The family moved into a larger apartment and he dedicated himself to keeping trash under control and elevators and plumbing in good shape. He even organized a fife-and-drum corps for neighborhood kids, winning several city competitions.
The ’60s and ’70s were still a turbulent time for the United States, Chicago included. Cabrini-Green survived the 1968 riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death largely intact.
But an unfortunate consequence of this event was that over a thousand people on the West Side were left without homes. The city simply dumped them in vacancies in the projects without support.
The conditions for a perfect storm had been set. Transplanted West Side gangs clashed with native Near North Side gangs, both of which had been relatively peaceful before.
At first, there was still plenty of work for the other residents. But as the economic pressures of the 1970s set in, the jobs dried up, the municipal budget shrank, and hundreds of young people were left with few opportunities.
But gangs offered companionship, protection, and the opportunity to earn money in a blossoming drug trade.
The Tragic End of the Dream
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty ImagesAlthough many residents were promised relocation, the demolition of Cabrini-Green took place only after laws requiring a one-for-one replacement of homes were repealed.
Towards the end of the ’70s, Cabrini-Green had gained a national reputation for violence and decay. This was due in part to its location between two of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park.
These wealthy neighbors only saw violence without seeing the cause, destruction without seeing the community. The projects became a symbol of fear to those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand them.
After 37 shootings in early 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne pulled one of the most infamous publicity stunts in Chicago history. With camera crews and a full police escort, she moved into Cabrini-Green. Many residents were critical, including activist Marion Stamps, who compared Byrne to a colonizer. Byrne only lived in the projects part-time and moved out after just three weeks.
By 1992, Cabrini-Green had been ravaged by the crack epidemic. A report on the shooting of a 7-year old boy that year revealed that half of the residents were under 20, and only 9 percent had access to paying jobs.
Dolores Wilson said of the gangs that if one “came out the building on one side, there are the [Black] Stones shooting at them … come out the other, and there are the Blacks [Black Disciples].”
This is what drew filmmaker Bernard Rose to Cabrini-Green to film the cult horror classic Candyman. Rose met with the NAACP to discuss the possibility of the film, in which the ghost of a murdered Black artist terrorizes his reincarnated white lover, being interpreted as racist or exploitative.
To his credit, Rose portrayed the residents as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He and actor Tony Todd attempted to show that generations of abuse and neglect had turned what was meant to be a shining beacon into a warning light.
By the late 1990s, Cabrini-Green’s fate was sealed. The city began to demolish the buildings one by one. Residents were promised relocation to other homes but many were either abandoned or left altogether, fed up with the CHA.
Dolores Wilson, now a widow and a community leader, was one of the last to leave. Given four months to find a new home, she only just managed to find a place in the Dearborn Homes. Even then, she had to leave behind photographs, furniture, and mementos of her 50 years in Cabrini-Green.
But even until the end, she had faith in the homes.
“Only time I’m afraid is when I’m outside of the community,” she said. “In Cabrini, I’m just not afraid.”
After learning the sad story of Cabrini-Green, find out more about how Bikini Atoll was rendered uninhabitable by the United States’ nuclear testing program. Then read about how Lyndon Johnson tried, and failed, to end poverty.
Candyman was shot on-location, including in some Cabrini-Green row-houses that are still standing. (They also used CGI to recreate the torn-down towers.)
Rising Sun Pictures recreated Chicago's iconic Cabrini-Green housing project, exactly as it appeared in 1992, for Candyman, the new horror film from director Nia DaCosta, producer Jordan Peele and MGM.
In the 1992 horror film Candyman, Cabrini–Green appears as the focal point of the titular character's supernatural activity. The 2021 film of the same name also centers around the history and remnants of the housing project (which had been gentrified ever since then).
Cabrini-Green was once a model of successful public housing, but poor planning, physical deterioration, and managerial neglect, coupled with gang violence, drugs, and chronic unemployment, turned it into a national symbol of urban blight and failed housing policy.
After 11 homicides on the premises in early 1981, Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved into a Cabrini-Green apartment for three weeks, seeking to bring local and national media attention to the ongoing chaos.
The 586 homes are all that remain of Chicago's public housing complex known as Cabrini-Green. Roughly a quarter of them have been rehabbed for residents. The rest await redevelopment.
If you don't know what happens when you say “Candyman” five times, you can head to your local multiplex to find out. In the new horror film, as in the 1992 film that the new Candyman continues, uttering that name five times while looking in the mirror will summon the murderous spirit of the title.
North Town Village has 261 units. It sits on seven acres, where Cabrini-Green once towered. Project co-developer Peter Holsten had the first-of-its-kind vision for North Town Village and the second phase of development replacing Cabrini-Green, Parkside of Old Town.
Plot. While researching urban legends, University of Illinois Chicago semiotics graduate student Helen Lyle learns of the Candyman, a spirit who kills anyone who speaks his name five times in front of a mirror.
Grace Abbott Homes was the largest, with 1,200 apartments in 40 buildings covering what had been 10 city blocks. Several projects like Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side grew by accretion. It began with Frances Cabrini Homes, a low-rise development of 586 units, opened in 1942.
Local officials decided to bulldoze Little Hell during World War II, paving the way for the development of the Cabrini-Green public housing project, named for Mother Frances Cabrini.
Demolition crews knocked down the last Cabrini-Green public housing tower on March 30, 2011. And while smaller row houses still exist, the last tower falling was a potent symbol for the site, which once housed more than 15,000 Chicagoans.
Many of the towers were 15-16 stories tall. The newly constructed Cabrini-Green complex consisted of 23 high rise towers, as well as rowhouses, and targeted low-income residents in need of public housing.
What is the population of Cabrini - Green?
Cabrini-Green was conceived as a model of civic redevelopment, and as a source for a more democratic form of urban living. It was built in stages on Chicago's Near North Side beginning in the 1940s. Ultimately it contained 3,600 public housing units and more than 15,000 people.
Although federal funding supported Pruitt-Igoe's construction, the project's maintenance and operations were unsubsidized. Because Pruitt-Igoe's upkeep depended entirely on rent from the project's low-income tenants, excessive vacancies would imperil its financial and physical condition.
|Jane Addams Homes||University Village (Near–west side)|
|Julia C. Lathrop Homes||North Center neighborhood (North side)|
|Lake Parc Place/Lake Michigan Homes High-Rises||Oakland neighborhood (South side)|
|Lawndale Gardens||Little Village neighborhood (South–west side)|
"Good Times" was on on-air from 1974-79, and featured a family of five struggling to make ends meet while living in the Cabrini-Green high rise projects. Although the show was set in inner-city Chicago, it was actually produced in Los Angeles.
Byrne and her husband lived at Cabrini-Green for three weeks, and after they moved out, the challenges facing Cabrini-Green persisted. In 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a redevelopment plan that would demolish most Cabrini-Green housing.
Chicago was the filming location for most of the film, with the North Park village, Northside Strangers Home Baptist Church and an abandoned chapel on the Cabrini-Green grounds being used for filming.
The Chicago Housing Authority used to manage 17 large housing projects for low-income residents, but during the 1990s, due to high crime, poverty, drug use, and corruption and mismanagement in the projects, plans were made to demolish them. By 2011, all of Chicago's high-rise projects were torn down.
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In the film series, he is depicted as an African-American man who was brutally murdered for a forbidden 19th-century interracial love affair; he returns as an urban legend, and kills anyone who summons him by saying his name five times in front of a mirror.
It's said that all you have to do is enter a dimly lit room, stand in front of a mirror, and say the name "Candyman" five times in a row. Then, the killer will show up behind you and kill you with his hook hand. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays the Candyman in the 2021 reboot.
That project was completed in 1958, followed by the nearby William Green Homes, another high rise building (1,099 units) which was opened in 1962. All three projects became known as Cabrini-Green, and were the first example of high-rise public housing primarily for the African American poor in Chicago.
The Chicago Housing Authority is the third largest public housing agency in the nation. CHA serves more than 20,000 low-income households, by providing safe, decent and affordable housing in healthy, vibrant communities.
70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, a documentary movie is available to stream now. Watch it on Kanopy on your Roku device.
Weakness. Mirrors and Portraits: Mirrors that contain Candyman's soul are the secret of his power. If mirrors are destroyed, he will cease to exist. If this fails, destroying Candyman's paintings, particularly burning his self-portraits, damages him physically.
|Created by||Clive Barker|
|Original work||"The Forbidden" (1985)|
|Films and television|
|Film(s)||Candyman (1992) Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999) Candyman (2021)|
He learns that the Candyman folklore was created as a means of self-preservation for the Cabrini-Green community, a way for them to consolidate the horrors of everyday life into a mythical figure. In several scenes, Anthony looks into a mirror and his reflection is Candyman himself, hinting at a next generation.
In one weekend, more than 300 separate shooting incidents were reported in the vicinity of the Robert Taylor Homes. Twenty-eight people were killed during the same weekend, with 26 of the 28 incidents believed to be gang-related.
Owned by the New York City Housing Authority, the development contains 29 buildings and 3,142 units accommodating approximately 7,000 people in two separate complexes (North and South). The complex opened in 1939 and is the largest housing project in North America.
A project or more commonly the projects is a slang term in American English referring to government owned housing for low income residents. It's short for Public Housing Project.
Candyman is a 1992 supernatural horror movie that narrates the story of a boogeyman who kills anyone that mentions his name five times in a mirror.
Bloody Mary is a 2006 horror thriller film written and directed by Richard Valentine and starring Jaason Simmons, Kim Tyler, Matt Borlenghi, and Cory Monteith. The film had a negative critical reception.
“It's like, no – Tony Todd is Daniel Robitaille, is Candyman, and so we knew that's what he had to be in the film.” The idea of the Candyman myth encompassing the stories of several different Black men through the ages was one that developed across the scripting process.