Why ’70 Acres in Chicago’ matters in Iowa

Documentary screening, discussion planned for Friday night

My first introduction to Cabrini Green, a 70-acre housing complex in Chicago, came via sitcom. This was likely your introduction too, even if you didn’t recognize it.

The name Cabrini Green was never used in the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” although the housing project was featured in video during the opening and closing credits. And while some of the challenges of living in poverty within a housing project were part of the scripts, the show barely scratched the surface and provided a warped view of the real people who made a life there.

“Good Times” was set in inner-city Chicago, a CBS sitcom spun off the earlier shows “Maude” and “All in the Family.” It featured two families — the Evans and Woods — and their life in a low-income housing project. Perhaps the best known character from the show was J.J. Evans, played by Jimmie Walker, who often strutted around saying his catchphrase of “Dy-no-mite!”

Screen shot from the trailer of "70 Acres in Chicago" documentary.
Screen shot from the trailer of “70 Acres in Chicago” documentary.

As a young girl living in a southern and rural area, I was fascinated by the families and their big city life in a high-rise. Initially, I couldn’t imagine a life any more different from my own, but as I began to watch, the similarities were apparent.

The Evans’ father, James, worked hard to provide for his family, taking on odd jobs to make ends meet. My own father was mowing lawns to bring in extra money. Devoutly Christian Florida Evans, the mother in the series, always bustling around and trying to make the best of things, was an echo of my own mom, who never missed an opportunity to offer thanks for what we had, however little it might have been.

Week after week, I was able to glimpse the same family conversations we were having, but in a very different context. We worried about snakes in the hen house. They worried about street gangs on the corner lot. Still, the warnings to be smart and aware of your surroundings, to have faith that a higher power was looking out for your ignorant butt were the same.

It was still a sitcom, unfortunately plagued with stereotypes, but there were moments of truth. Those moments changed how I thought about the world and the people beyond our property line.

But the name Cabrini Green and its connection to that sitcom didn’t register with me until about 17 years ago when I had an opportunity watch a short documentary by Ronit Bezalel, “Voices of Cabrini.” At its heart, it is the story of gentrification, of how one housing experiment makes way for another and how that change negatively impacts those who have called and made a certain place home.

By the time I watched the documentary, Cabrini Green had pretty well run its course. Formed as part of a national push to urban renewal in the 1940s, the project had become riddled with crime, gangs and drug activity. By 1995, after well-meaning laws related to maximum income forced many stable renters out, Chicago housing projects comprised 11 of the nation’s 15 poorest census tracts. Thousands of the affordable housing units and small businesses it contained were slated for demolition, even as area residents fought against it.

The last residents were forced out in December 2010, the last high-rise brought down bit-by-bit in March 2011. Very few of the original residents remain in the area, which has been dotted with much less tall mixed-income housing. Strict guidelines were placed on the Cabrini Green residents who wanted into the new housing.

To hear housing authority and city leaders tell the story, is to learn that a concentrated blight has been eradicated, nevermind that it was largely one created through their own neglect. Former residents speak of lost networks that provided bartered services like child care and transportation, and the money the city and developers have made as a result of the leveling and rebuilding.

Filmmaker Bezalel began documenting Cabrini Green in the 1990s, and recently released a feature-length film about the rise and fall of the neighborhood, “70 Acres in Chicago.” The University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning is hosting a screening of the documentary this Friday, March 25, at 6 p.m. in Shambaugh Auditorium. The event is co-sponsored by the UI Public Policy Center, Diversity Office and Outreach and Engagement Office. A panel discussion with the director and cast will follow.

Why should you care? Chicago was once home to the second-largest stock of public housing in the nation. It had nearly 43,000 units that provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of residents. Since the mid-1990s, however, the city has torn down more than 80 public housing high-rises, including 24 located in Cabrini Green. And, there are no plans to replace all of those units.

In 2000, the initiative was dubbed a “Plan for Transformation” — federal authorities who had taken control of the local mismanaged housing authority in 1995 finally relinquished back to the city and $1.5 billion was earmarked for a 10-year program that would leave the city with only 15,000 new or renovated public-housing units, and 10,000 units for senior citizens. Former tenants were given vouchers to find homes within the private market, but not enough units within the needed price range are available. Some have relocated in the Chicago area, often in areas as uniformly black and poor as the projects they were evicted from and without the support systems and extended family of their previous location. Others have simply left Chicago, hoping to find new homes and opportunities elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010, Chicago’s African-American population decreased by 181,000, or about 17 percent. In 2009, a full-page ad ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, paid for by the housing authority, seeking the whereabouts of 3,200 people it had displaced.

As waiting lists for affordable housing in Chicago are rumored to be 15 to 20 years long ­— the city hadn’t provided the mere 15,000 units it had promised as of 2012 — it makes sense that people would seek shelter elsewhere, even in places where the cultural experience they’ve known and loved does not exist.

In Dubuque, for instance, federal housing officials refused to allow the city to keep HUD money while continuing to offer preferential treatment to local housing applicants. As part of the agreement, Dubuque also needed to expand the voucher program for outreach to minorities.

All of it is by design, happening throughout the nation, and bankrolled by re-envisioned federal housing priorities. Whether or not you find agreement in the individual pieces isn’t the issue. In one way or another, its going to impact your community.

Like my early fascination with “Good Times,” the documentary isn’t going to give you the entire story, but it is an introduction that may help guide your path forward.


This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally appeared on The Gazette website on March 23, 2016.