Stop-motion video of Chicago housing project being demolished

cabrinith.jpg Over at True/Slant, Megan Cottrell has been covering the imminent destruction of an infamous group of public housing sites in Chicago. Today, she blogs this fascinating stop-motion video of its demise, recorded by Ryan Flynn over a period of months: "Watch Cabrini-Green disappear right before your eyes."

Related items by Cottrell at True/Slant: "Dueling Memories: Inside Cabrini-Green with Doreen Ambrose," and "The Sun Sets on 660 West Division." (Thanks, Coates Bateman. Image below: Melissa Hayes, courtesy True Slant)



  1. it’s about f**kin time
    …this was the last of this project’s bldgs still standing …’cabrini-O-green’, (a nickname the locals gave it because the wrought iron gate out in front had a circle between the words ‘cabrini’ & ‘green’), was pretty bad, tho it wasnt the worst …it was a project located on the north side nearest the TV news stations, so it gotta lotta media attention …back in the/my day, one could walk or bike thru this ‘hood on division fairly confidently, which is something you probably wouldna tried at say, the ‘rob’t taylor homes’ on the southside

    ”project?’ that’s just another word for experiment!’ -flava flav, public enemy

    …good riddance

  2. This is an amazing thing to watch. When I first moved to Chicago in 1998, you could stand on the platform at the Garfield stop on the red line and see the rows of towers along the Dan Ryan that made up Stateway Gardens. Those buildings, for good or for bad, have since been erased from the landscape, and now the last of Cabrini is going too. I wonder if the CHA eventually got around to finding out where all the people who lived in these places actually went…

  3. There was a really interesting episode of the History Channel’s Gangland series that featured this particular housing project. Worth the watch if you ever stumble on it.

    1. i used to live right down division from cabrini. somehow, in my infinite fortune, i have managed to live in three different neighborhoods featured on ‘gangland’

  4. I’m a life-long Chicagoan and Cabrini-Green has been a part of our culture here for so long and in so many ways it’s almost mind-boggling to see it gone.

    When my cousins and I first started to drive we were told to never to near the area, that if we were at a stoplight near Cabrini-Green we should just hit the gas. Better to get a ticket than have something horrible happen to you.

    That kind of ingrained fear talk is an ugly part of the “hyper-segregation” that you see in Chicago. A city where black poverty has been pushed to the margins for so long while all kinds of shenanigans go on in the running of the city.

    I lived not far from Cabrini Green a few years ago. Not in the multi-million dollar condos and townhouse that are gobbling up the area, but in some of the increasingly hard to find affordable housing. Talking to people who lived in CG for most of their lives you understood how betrayed and abandoned they felt. Like being captives in a gift. The CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) was so criminally understaffed and under-funded for decades, these buildings were left to rot.

    Strangest thing. If you went up in CG you had some of the most beautiful views of the Chicago skyline you’ll find on the north side. In the gutter, looking up at the stars.

  5. ITA with Stosh. I visited friends there quite often in the 1980s, as a single woman no less. Like every other community, there were good people and bad.

    1. No, @chgoliz. Most communities in the US do not have anyone remotely like the, as you put it, bad people of Cabrini Green.

      1. Way to twist what I was saying. I said that there are good and bad people everywhere, and there are. There has been a lot of research over the years to show that most people will act in deplorable ways given the “right” conditions. Don’t assume that you and yours would be angelic no matter what life throws at you.

  6. This area has been a ghetto for over a century. In the early part of the 1900’s it was referred to as Little Hell. I suppose they will be putting up condos now.

  7. This is only slightly off-topic, but I paused my music and started this video and found that it was set to the same song I had just been listening to. It left me very confused for a moment. For those curious, its “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” by Four Tet.

  8. Doesn’t show in this video, but when they were bringing down some of the buildings it was actually beautiful to look at. They tore down the back face of the building. You could see into the remaining halves of the apartments and everything was painted a bright saturated color.

  9. A fitting and long overdue end to one of America’s worst experiments with public welfare.

    I lived in the area as the tower’s came down. It was impressive in its methodical slowness. A few rows of housing at a time. Every time you drove by a little more would be gone. The weird bodega and liquor store across the street shuttering up. The stark contrast of the towers with the fancy condos just a couple blocks away on the other side of the tracks (truly an example of the “wrong side of the tracks”).

    My only hope is that the idea of more distributed types of subsidized housing prove to be better than the miserable sore that Cabrini Green had become.

  10. I realize that it’s easy for a young, country-dweller like myself to say, but what [i]brain genius[/i] thought, “I’ve got it! We’ll put all of the people of the same depressed socioeconomic situation all together and away from everyone else! In this gigantic building! PERFECT. Problem flat fucking [i]solved[/i].” It’s strange that it’s taken this many decades to amass enough common sense to see that it’s a bloody bad idea.

    Also, I had no idea that we still used wrecking balls to tear down things. Interesting.

    1. The idea was to provide government-subsidized, low-cost housing for poor people, but also to eliminate slums (high-rise public housing advocates used milder rhetoric, e.g. ‘revitalize older neighborhoods’). The identification of particular communities as slums was, as you would imagine, a highly political process and motivated by racial anxieties. My mother and our family lived in one of these neighborhoods — the Near West Side of Chicago — an area the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) identified as a slum. Without any real consultation with the community the CHA decided to demolish the existing homes there and erect the Henry Horner Homes projects. My grandfather represented the neighborhood against the city. We lost, my family moved to a nearby area — West Garfield Park — and in time the whole public housing scheme proved a disaster.

      My grandparents died before they could see the HHH demolished in 2005. I am not sure I can convey in a blog comment my mom’s expression when she saw them go on the evening news, or the anger I feel toward the supposedly well-meaning folks who forced them upon these communities in the first place. It boils my fucking blood.

  11. Sorry if this seems like a stupid question for whatever reason but what I don’t know about these demolitions is, so what happens to the people who were living there? Is there some other housing plan in place for them? Do they get relocated in Chicago / on the outskirts / in suburbia somewhere? Do they just get turfed out into the streets to fend for themselves? What?

    1. For a long time, the Chicago Housing Authority wasn’t tracking residents leaving the projects. Many were supposed to get vouchers for Section 8 housing of varying quality. Quite a number certainly turned up in poorer suburbs of Chicago (places where many people believe the city was happy to have them go). However, the last time I checked, there did not seem to be any sort of systematic investigation going on.

      Sudhir Venkatesh has an interesting history of the projects in Chicago (centered around Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens) in his book American Project.

    2. Some got on the list for the mixed income housing they built in place of the high rises, many others were expected to find other arrangements on their own; not an easy thing to do when you’re on section 8, as many residents were.

    3. WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) produced a three-part program (“Mixed Income, Mixed Blessing”) about the mixed income developments that are part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.”
      The new developments will house a small portion of former CHA residents. It’s noted that: “80% of residents don’t meet the criteria to live there.” The radio program treads a fine line, suggesting that while we may be inclined to celebrate the wrecking-ball, demolition also represents a large scale displacement from established homes. And such willingness to destruct exposes our undecided and ever-evolving notion of what constitutes real communities. The second part in this radio series describes the paternalistic “how to behave” classes new residents must take. Worth a listen.

  12. I live(d) right across the street from this building in the new housing. It’s great to see it gone, but to correct the poster who said this was “the last of those buildings,” two identical building to the east and west of that one still remain.

  13. Native, born in the city guy for 48 years. I could never wrap my head around how this project was ever built in the first place.

    The development of the suburbs sort of made “inner city” such a bad place that somebody thought, with very narrow blinders on, that to put this project on land that is now so incredibly valuable real estate, was a good idea.

    To the displaced, sorry. That said, you had some prime real estate and trashed it.

  14. Oh man, I am glad to see it go. In college in the mid-90’s I used to go to Cabrini to help paint hallways and apartments & deliver furniture. We had to go as a very large group and had to stay together. I just hope everyone found other suitable accommodation. There were indeed some good people living there.

  15. Cool to watch but I can’t figure out why the tree jumps around. The building is perfectly aligned in every shot but the tree and the street light hop all over. At first I thought they were re-locating the street light during construction, but there’s no way they were moving the tree. On the other hand, if the camera view point were changing, I would expect the perspective of the building to change. I can only conclude that the shots were digitally manipulated afterwards to force the building into the right shape, every shot. Anyone?

    1. The tree seems to jump around because the photographer changes position slightly. The tree, streetlight and fenceposts jump together while the building stays put, because the building is much further away.

      Looking at Google Street view, you can use the position of the tree and lightpole to roughly estimate where the photographer must have been: in one of the new three-story townhouses across the street. It looks like some of the early photos were taken from the second floor, while the remainder were consistently taken from the third floor.

      1. Yeah, I was also wondering why they kept moving the tree.

        Up and down, up and down. Make up your mind!

        /I keed

  16. Cunning: yes, you can see the angle of the borders moving around. I believe there’s software that will do this very effect.

  17. @anon#18: i was born in chicago & was living there until 7yrs ago, i had been told, (last year? the year before?), that cabrini-o was ‘all gone now’ & was surprised actually to see that the date on this demo was 2009 …my source must’ve mis-lead me

  18. but what [i]brain genius[/i] thought, “I’ve got it!

    You can blame a lot of this on Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Corbu designed “machines for living” and was the main proponent behind the “towers in the park” idea that enthralled architects and public policy makers in the mid-20th century.

    Le Corbusier thought everybody should live this way, but it ended up mostly only being applied to poor people because (1) governments kept trying top-down solutions to urban poverty problems with no input from the residents, and (2) nobody who had any input into the process (i.e., people who could choose where they wanted to live) would choose such a thing.

    Eventually public policy planners realized the mistake, and nowadays public housing tends to look a lot more like regular neighborhoods. Architects, unfortunately, still revere Le Corbusier; as a city planner myself this seems emblematic of architects’ cult of the genius and their disregard for how people actually interact with their environments. But that’s just cross-disciplinary sniping that probably doesn’t interest most of you.

    1. On the contrary Adam. The intersection of humanity with technology and environment is pretty much BB’s raison d’etre, and by consequence, the reason why most of us come here. So, snipe away.

    2. I’d be careful about smearing architects with the tar of Le Corbusier when the real damage done was his forays into urban planning. Le Corbusier’s actual individual works of architecture like Unité d’Habitation are actually quite livable, but it was the application of his planning ideas by city planners that caused so much grief.

  19. Some folks are quick to blame the failure of Housing ‘Projects’ on idealistic bauhaus architects. The problem, however, is not the shape of the buildings. The problem is the extreme racial and economic segregation of the communities in Chicago, and the undercurrents of historic abuse and inequality that continue to reverberate this very day. The idea that you can heal those social ills by destroying ‘evil’ structures with a wrecking ball is naive at best, but is probably intentionally manipulative. I like how many commenters from Chicago say “Good Riddance,” as if somehow the ghetto and it’s inhabitants were crushed by the wrecking ball as well, or was it really the shape of those buildings that they found offense to? Unfortunately, there is no shape of building which can transform this country into one of equal opportunity, education, and fraternal brotherhood. But I tip my hat to the Bauhaus for trying.

  20. Just watched Candyman for the first time in about 10 years last night. Now if someone says shrimp, or plate, or plate of shrimp my head might explode.

  21. Some folks are quick to blame the failure of Housing ‘Projects’ on idealistic bauhaus architects.

    Sometimes, the shoe fits. The towers of Cabrini Green had open balcony hallways on every floor, even on the north facing sides. In Chicago. Only the very desperate would take an upper floor apartment in CG. Years after leaving Chicago I saw a building in Rotterdam that was a perfect replica of this one. And no doubt it had its share of middle class residents. But that was Rotterdam.

    But yes, there were other problems. CG was the closest housing project to a lot of wealthy neighborhoods. That made it prime real estate for the drug trade, so gangs were extra-eager to control it. And controlling it was easy. Station one guy at each stairwell. One guy on a balcony with a gun. Done.

    To echo many others, good riddance to that place.

  22. @aarline: A huge part of the problem _is_ the shape of the buildings. Even middle class people warehoused in projects like that would’ve been in trouble. Defensible space and border vacuums and all that Jane Jacobs stuff.

    There were (and to some extent still are) plenty of low income neighborhoods around the country where violent crime and general hopelessness wasn’t anywhere near the problem it was in the big housing projects of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. You take fifteen thousand people, kick them out of their nice old fashioned mixed-use neighborhoods and warehouse them in an area removed from employment/services, and you’re going to screw shit up.

    1. *nod* You go from low-lying neighborhoods where everyone’s window look out on to the street to lonely elevators and windowless hallways. If there is someone sketchy, there’s nowhere to get away. Parents can no longer watch their kids play outside while they get housework done. Those kids have less space to play and less space to diffuse any minor conflict.

      This is admittedly not my discipline, but the way a planning friend described it to me and made perfect sense. “Broken windows” may not hold up over all, but NO windows is certainly a bad thing.

  23. move out the blacks, install gourmet sandwich shop, track bike store and vegan gelato stand. don’t forget an overpriced produce stand and maybe a new venue to see boring indie disco bands in. go whites! sweep em on out!

  24. Another theory of what went wrong with urban public housing, postulated by D. Bradford Hunt in his book /Blueprint for Disaster/, is that the child:adult ratio was unprecedentedly high from the get-go, leading to a host of other developmental and social service clusterflux. The Chicago Reader ran an excellent book review here…


    …in which I learned that Chicago officials wanted to build more traditional housing, but couldn’t afford to on the Federal gov’t’s $17,000/unit mandate. They went with LeCorbusier-inspired cloud cities not out of love for their aesthetics, but because they couldn’t afford the row homes, walk-ups, or similar that the same money would have purchased in a lower-priced market.

    1. Indeed it’s not so much Le Corbusier, or the Bauhaus, but rather the misapplication of the principles that they pioneered.

      Having been to Dessau and Marseilles, can say that the original designs were top quality and the buildings were built with the best materials. Hence they became havens for all classes of people.

      What seems to have happened is the lack of care in design, skimping on materials and racism doomed most new world experiments( and many old world ones as well) to the concentration of the very problems they were supposed to alleviate.

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