#ChiStories Podcast: Ben Austen on Cabrini-Green

Public housing is as much a part of city life as public transportation, public education, and public parks. But it wasn’t always that way.

On this week’s episode of Chicago Stories, Mayor Emanuel sat down with Ben Austen, writer, journalist, and author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, for an engaging and wide-ranging conversation on public housing and the role of government in supporting communities.

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Photo credit: Brooke Collins

The story of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green itself stretches as far back as the Great Chicago Fire. As Ben details in his book, the now-demolished notorious public housing project was itself built on a notorious slum, which at different times was called “Smokey Hollow” for its constant black clouds of soot, or “Little Hell” for its constant smell of sulfur and flames from burning gas.

That changed with President Franklin Roosevelt and the Housing Act of 1937, which like other social legislation of the era sought to address the long-needed challenges of a nation.

For the residents in Chicago’s Near-North Side, that change came in 1942 when Cabrini-Green was first opened by the Chicago Housing Authority.

Yet, as with public housing across America, in a few short decades Cabrini-Green came to embody in the public mind the confluence of poverty, drugs, race, government mismanagement, and the decline of city life.

The truth, of course, is far more complicated.

In his book High-Risers, Ben focused on the stories of four individuals to weave together a clearer picture of life in Cabrini-Green and the reality of its community.

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Photo credit: Brooke Collins

Ben and Mayor Emanuel’s conversation extended far beyond High-Risers and explored the wider challenges of ensuring affordable housing for residents, building thriving communities, and how advocates and policymakers can learn from the past to create a stronger future.

The solutions can be hard to come by, but the questions are rooted in our fundamental values as a city and society.

“The arc of public housing in America is also the arc of the collective sense of the social safety net,” Ben said.

Don’t miss this conversation as Mayor Emanuel and Ben wrestle with the history and future of public housing, the role of government, and the complex dynamics at play in neighborhood community development.

Listen to the full episode as Ben and Mayor Emanuel discuss:

3:22— Cabrini-Green
9:36 — Balancing Objectivity
13:23—Government and Housing
25:48 — Takeaways for the Mayor
35:06 — Learning from the Past

Subscribe to Chicago Stories on Apple Podcasts to catch the latest episode, and tweet us your great Chicago Story ideas at @ChicagosMayor with #ChiStories. Please also rate and review. Thank you for listening and tell your friends!

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