#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.

Photo credit: Brooke Collins
“Cabrini-Green filled up a mythical space in the city’s psyche, so to investigate that became an idea of inner cities.”

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.

Photo credit: Brooke Collins
“When I think of public housing I think of what it means as this basic democratic idea that we invest in housing on some rudimentary level for everyone.”

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

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