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Today in Chicago: Last Cabrini Green High-Rise Demolition Begins

The view of a few of the remaining buildings left at the once sprawling Cabrini Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side and the Chicago skyline from the corridor of a Cabrini Green high rise at 1230 N. Burling on the northeast corner of Halstead and Division Streets on December 18, 2007.


In late 2007 and through early 2008, I spent several months following and photographing the Revolutionary Communists, a group based around the personality of Bob Avakian, a reclusive Armenian-American said last to be living in Paris. At the time, they lived at 1230 N. Burling, the last Cabrini Green high-rise building where demolition will begin today. The photo essay, “Plan for Transformation” borrows its title from the name of the urban renewal scheme devised by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) that would see the destruction of some of the largest public housing projects in the nation (at their inception the world) which were built under the leadership and direction of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s father Richard J. Daley during his 21-year tenure as mayor for life. Previously in Fortnight Journal, I wrote in an article entitled “The Chicago Way“:

The outcome of the younger Daley’s “Plan for Transformation”–or, more accurately, the demolition of Chicago Housing Authority projects–would hand over large swaths of prime Chicago real estate on the Near North, Near West and South Sides to for-profit developers at the height of the housing boom. Local newspaper articles would first be largely positive of the effort, extolling the virtue of correcting euphemistic “blight.” The same papers would later deride the large number of unsold units and absence of so-called “mixed income” (read: ghetto people) units in the new luxury complexes.

To anyone who had paid attention, this last development was seemingly surprising only to the local newspapers, that clearly had not been paying very much attention. Nobody asked what happened to the people that used to inhabit the high rises who had vanished, somehow, seemingly overnight.

In fact, in a moment of unusual candor on the topic, Bruce Dold–editor of The Chicago Tribune editorial page and moderator of a mayoral debate on January 27 at WGN television studios–asked Rahm Emanuel, Daley’s all-but-assumed successor, if he felt he had earned the $320,000 he received from attending half a dozen meetings over the course of 14 months on the Freddie Mac board.

Emanuel responded that President Clinton had appointed him to the board as Vice-Chair of the Chicago Housing Authority at the time of the city’s restructuring according to the Plan for Transformation in the late 1990s. The reason Emanuel gave for his appointment was that “we were doing innovative things here in the city of Chicago with regard to mixed-income housing.”

What did it mean to tell a population of public housing residents, in effect, to go back to where they came from? Valerie Jarrett, the Obama aide and former Chicago Housing Authority chief, was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s go-between for the city and public housing residents as the wrecking ball’s timetable ticked. Emanuel, as Vice-Chair, was not so far behind.

But the “Plan for Transformation,” is not heralded as Daley’s greatest triumph because of its success in scattering the urban poor, once gathered around the city’s highly developed urban core, to its perimeter. Rather, the experiment signals the success of a far greater transformation in the alignment and allegiance of power in Chicago, and the largely successful and enormously financially beneficial integration of the city’s white and black elites.

The photo essay “Plan for Transformation” was also featured on The New York Times Lens blog in a post entitled, “Must See: Images on the Web,” published January 4, 2010.