Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

As projects come down, a yuppie haven goes up


CHICAGO - Cabrini-Green, one of the nation's largest and most notorious public housing projects, has a new neighbor: Starbucks.

The upscale coffee house caters to the yuppies flocking to the new half-million-dollar townhouses that have joined the landscape of blighted, crime-ridden high rises, where generations of black families have lived in poverty and isolation.

Driving by the park adjoining the projects the other night, Cabrini resident leader Deidre Matthews couldn't believe her eyes. "I saw white guys playing basketball," she said. "I thought, 'There goes the neighborhood.'"

The transformation of the area around Cabrini-Green, famous as an incubator for gang violence, drug dealing and welfare dependency, is one of the most striking examples of gentrification in an American city.

Cabrini-Green sits on 70 acres of Chicago's most valuable land, just blocks from Lake Michigan and the swanky stretch known as the Gold Coast. Standing almost anywhere, its residents can look up and see the shimmering skyscrapers of the Loop. Developers have been waiting to pounce on this real estate for decades, and now is their chance.

The city and its housing authority have a $1.5 billion plan to demolish all of Chicago's 46 remaining high-rises - six have come down - fix up the smaller buildings, and relocate many of the residents to mixed-income developments presumably less vulnerable to blight. At Cabrini, two high-rises have been knocked down in the past year, and 14 more are scheduled for demolition.

The aim of the overhaul is essentially to privatize much of the public housing in Chicago. Cabrini-Green residents will get a chance to run and work for companies providing services to the redeveloped area.

"For years, public housing residents have been isolated and marginalized," said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the Chicago Housing Authority, which the city took over two years ago. "People could drive by and say, 'Look, that's where the poor people live.' We no longer want that separation. The whole idea is that you won't be able to tell the difference."

Similar efforts, reflecting a national policy inaugurated by the Clinton administration, have been repeated in other cities, including Baltimore. But Chicago is transforming its public housing on perhaps the largest scale.

Incongruous scenery

At Cabrini-Green, where 15,000 people once lived but only 5,200 remain, the small city of towers, mid-rises and rowhouses separated by bleak swaths of vacant land is to become a neighborhood of tidy two- and three-story townhouses and apartments with trees and front steps where people can sit to chat with neighbors or watch their children play.

"This is my dream, that our homes will look just as good as the homes built around us, where tenants are paying $350,000," said Cora Moore, president of the projects' advisory council.

As the neighborhood changes, the results include some incongruous scenery, such as those white basketball players, both young bankers, engaged in a spirited one-on-one game. "Look, we're here tonight. This is amazing," said Chris Roehm. "I never would have thought this a couple of years ago."

On one corner, a boarded-up, red-brick Cabrini tower stares across the street at a new shopping center with a Starbucks, Blockbuster Video and Dominick's, a grocery store that features a sushi bar, banks of fancy salads and more than 20 flavors of jelly beans, including kiwi and cafe latte.

In the store, shoppers talk on cell phones while examining tomatoes. Others pay with food stamps or come only for small items, because the meats, they say, are too expensive.

"People around here eat soul food," said Juanita Young, a Cabrini resident. "Dominick's is not geared to families in Cabrini. They [sell] meat in small packages. Most of our families are large."

Renewed interest in Cabrini's neighborhood has brought badly needed improvements that the public housing residents have requested for decades, including a new library, park, police station and two new schools. Cabrini children pack the library after school to use the computers, do homework and socialize.

Waiting outside the library for her mother to pick her up after work, Tishara Osbey, 10, said she was there, in part, because "my mom doesn't trust the playground down the street."

The demolition and construction projects and the new stores have also brought a stream of jobs for Cabrini residents.

Sandra Mason, 30, a single mother raising four daughters in a Cabrini apartment, makes more money working at Starbucks than in her former job at a grocery store.

"And I don't have to deal with the neighborhood as much - the bad kids, the alcoholics," she said.

Fear of disruption

Morde Phillips, 61, who worked for 23 years in a factory that made business machines, challenges the notion that changing the face of the neighborhood, as well as the availability of new jobs, will inspire many of the chronically unemployed Cabrini tenants to work. "They never did nothing," she said, sitting in her sparsely decorated apartment with concrete walls, where she says she does not feel safe. "They don't want to do nothing. They just want to stay up all night and do drugs and drink."

Some tenants also think that change will disrupt their sense of community. Many tenants grew up in the projects and have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren living there. Some remember the time a half-century ago when the buildings were new and clean, when people obeyed the rules or got fined, when the community held carnivals and concerts.

Public policy experts might see these extended families as trapped in a cycle of dependency. The residents see the comforts of familiarity, and they worry about being able to stay - especially now that conditions seem to be improving.

For decades, the residents put up with the worst of Cabrini - a place so darkly symbolic that then-Mayor Jane Byrne moved in for a month in 1981 to publicize efforts to fix the problems, which only continued.

"My children never had the chance to play outside, to be children," said Nadine Blanton, who moved away with her three sons when the housing authority closed her building. "I feel that we qualify to come back and enjoy some of the nicer things in life that they should have had a long time ago."

Four years ago, when the city and the housing authority, then under the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, drew up the plan for Cabrini, residents sued to ensure that they wouldn't be displaced. They also complained that they hadn't been consulted and demanded a voice in the redevelopment.

The suit was settled last month with a decree that promises the 650 to 700 families who have been displaced - or soon will be - new housing in the Cabrini area as long as they are rule-abiding tenants. The settlement, which must be approved by the court, gives residents the voice they sought and up to a 50 percent financial interest in businesses that will provide neighborhood services.

However, the settlement covers only the first wave of displaced families. Plans for future demolition will displace another 500 to 800 families. Housing officials say they will try to relocate them in or near the neighborhood.

Those who want to live elsewhere will be given vouchers to find housing on the private market. Residents and advocates for the poor say that prospect is troubling, because Chicago has a shortage of low-income housing.

25,000 being displaced

Overall, about 25,000 public housing residents are being displaced, some while their homes are being renovated, others permanently. Critics say some of them might end up far from family, friends, babysitters and jobs - a problem particularly for those without cars.

They also say that the effort to diversify neighborhoods could produce the opposite result, with displaced families ending up in poor, segregated neighborhoods little different from their old one. That could be the fate of countless other tenants who are evicted because they don't meet the tougher standards, which require leaseholders to be free of felony convictions and current with rent and utility bills or on payment plans. Those who plan on staying look at the soaring real estate prices in the neighborhood and wonder how long they will be able to afford the rent.

Geraldine Knight, 51, a former Cabrini resident of more than 40 years, moved into Orchard Park - a new mixed-income complex where the developer has leased the land from the housing authority - almost four years ago with her son, then age 20.

She started out paying $371 a month, 30 percent of her income. But with a recent raise she got at her job working with the mentally ill and retarded, and with her son's income from his part-time job, she lost public assistance. Her rent is now $700 a month.

Proud that she's finally on her own, she said the experience is "the best thing that could have happened to me. I have great neighbors. You don't have the problems, the crowding, the people hanging out on the street."

Still, it's not easy to make ends meet.

"They put me in there and walked away," she said. "They didn't tell me three years ago I'd be paying market rate."

Sharon Ponder, a teacher at Cabrini's Byrd Community Academy who does not live in Cabrini, said she couldn't afford to move into the new housing.

"This is not being built for our kids," she said, taking a break from a rap song she and her fourth-graders perform that includes naming state capitals, reciting times tables and counting in Spanish. "It's being built to lure upper-income people to come into this community."

One of those people is Maria Lombardi, 38, director of imports for a wine company, who just paid $437,000 for a two-bedroom townhouse for herself and three dogs. "Everybody's been waiting for 20 years for the Cabrini buildings to come down," she said. "It's prime real estate."

The largest mixed-income development planned for the area is North Town Village, 261 residences for sale and rent including townhouses and condominiums priced at $150,000 to $500,000.

On the June day when the sales office opened at 11 a.m., people were lined up by 6:30 a.m., with $15,000 checks in hand. Only two of the 145 for-sale homes were left as of last weekend, and construction hadn't begun, said sales associate LaShawn Phillips.

In an arrangement that will be repeated throughout the Cabrini redevelopment, 30 percent of the community will be reserved for public housing residents, who will be carefully screened before being selected, 20 percent will be low-income housing, and the rest will be priced at market value.

Marsha Crosby, a former Cabrini resident, said she is "blessed" to have been chosen in a lottery to move to a rent-subsidized apartment in another development, Mohawk North, a neat row of red-brick townhouses near the housing project. Standing at the door to her apartment, she spoke of her constant worries raising her teen-age son, LaShaun, at Cabrini-Green, where her living room faced the high rise that served as headquarters for a rival gang.

Five separate times, bullets flew through her living room window. When she brought up college with her son, he wondered aloud whether he'd live that long.

Aside from the safety issues, "I didn't want my son to have to grow up with that stigma, where people judge you by where you live," she said.

Crosby said the public housing residents and their well-off neighbors don't throw dinner parties together but are friendly. One neighbor has offered to drive her places when she needs transportation, because she doesn't have a car.

Michael Fineberg, 31, a real estate broker who grew up on the Gold Coast and lives in Orchard Park with his wife and infant son, said the community of townhouses that sell for $250,000 to $450,000 is more than just a good investment.

"I hope we can help other families get ahead and get out of the rut history has put them in," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad