Issue 35, Final Fringe

The Great Absence: Looking at the Projects, Afterward

by Christopher Weber Issue 31 08.27.2012

An odd thing, to come upon
An absence, to come upon a death, to come upon
What is left when everything is gone.

—B. H. Fairchild

They used wrecking balls to rip down the West Side projects. The demolition crews brought a violent end to this violent place, and now there is a big hole in the city of Chicago, an enormous, crude emptiness that defies easy description or remedy. The city is eager to move on—but thanks to the Great Recession of 2008, no one has money to fill in the holes. They linger, wounds that won’t close.

Until a couple years ago, four public housing campuses stood edge to edge here, just a mile from the elegantly stepped black spire of the Willis Tower. The projects—the Addams, Brooks, and Lathrop Homes, plus Loomis Court—sheltered over 17,000 people in buildings ranging from squat two-story townhouses to triple-winged towers. Designers built in a lot of courtyards and green space, but many of the cross-streets deadended here in a confusing, isolating maze that did not connect with the city surrounding it. Residents referred to it as the Village.

Now it’s all open space. You can hover over it in Google Earth, a grassy gash six blocks long by three blocks wide and littered with remnants: the original paths and driveways that connected buildings; a bright yellow and red playground set that somehow escaped demolition. As a virtual memorial, someone uploaded homemade video to YouTube of crews assaulting the final tower in 2009. The crane is red, its sable boom easily twenty-five stories high, like the arm of a god. The wrecking ball ascends slowly, hovers for seconds—then plunges to unbalance a pile of bricks with a hollow crack. The last part of the building to stand is the elevator core, tall and slender like an Egyptian obelisk, like the Washington Monument with rubble piled around its base. The camera pans upward to show the elevator lobbies—half of them are pink. Chunks of stone dangle from perpendicular beams of reinforced concrete, revealing the bones of an awesome public work, more like a dam or highway overpass than housing. It’s a Babel Tower of elevators, a thirty-story trash chute. On YouTube, in the comments section below the video, former residents have posted tributes:

It almost hurts to watch this . . . Sure It was f-cked up but once upon a time it was my home…the Ville for life.

And:

Man that was 1440! I lived in that building for 18 years! Lot of good families came out of that building . . . I don’t care what anyone says you can’t comment negatively unless you lived there. There were good solid families there! We never forget where we came from. They WERE NOT the projects, they were High Rise apt’s . . . the Village. Yeah, I was there.

I imagine the author of this post is correct—a lot of good families did come out of these buildings. The credit for that certainly goes to the families themselves, for their resilience in the face of dehumanizing, overcrowded, violent, roach-ridden conditions.

As for the buildings, a product of the institution of public housing as practiced in America, the time has come to admit that these grandiose housing projects were a mistake in the same way that the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II and the forced relocation of American Indians during the early years of the United States were mistakes.

Housing projects like the Addams, Brooks, and Lathrop Homes—for which city officials had their own name, the bureaucratic-sounding “ABLA”—were common in large cities all over the United States. These projects were mistakes because of the toll they took on the people who lived in them. And they were mistakes because of what they did to cities such as Chicago: They erased intimate, changeable places—traditional neighborhoods, informal markets, narrow streets, historic landmarks, kitchen gardens, movie theaters, dance halls, and more—and replaced them with oversized, militarized campuses. Many cities have yet to recover from this miscalculation because, although most of the housing projects have come down, the sheer volume of space they once filled must be reoccupied, reinvented.

* * *

A Growing Power intern at the former ABLA homes. Photograph by Christopher Weber.

A Growing Power intern at the former ABLA homes. Photograph by Christopher Weber.

A nonprofit farming organization called Growing Power is building a farm on an acre amid the only remaining ABLA Homes, townhouses that stood at the feet of the towers. It has hired seven teenage interns from the neighborhood to do the work. For more than a year now, the teens have worked nearly twenty hours each week, spending the majority of that time loading and unloading wood chips from orange wheelbarrows. Last week, they distributed two huge piles, only to show up for work after school this Monday and find three new piles delivered by local arborists. Gradually, patiently, they reduce them, one load at time, to a carpet one foot thick and spongy like a moon bounce. The interns stop between loads to check their text messages and complain. One girl in khaki pants and a lip ring is particularly vocal. “Why’d it have to stop raining?” she says. “We need it to pour so we can get off early.”

She stands at the apex of the woodchip pile and flips shovel-loads toward a wheelbarrow. Despite the complaints, she works hard. Below her, stationed around the pile, the whole group falls into silent effort. These teens are products of ABLA. As children, they could scarcely have imagined that their housing project would one day give way to tomatoes. As the pile of wood chips shrinks, its warm, rotting core is exposed to the cool air. Steam rises to surround the teens, as if they had waded into a hot spring. Indeed, on this site stood the Village’s old swimming pool. The pool is still down there, below the wood chips, filled in with dirt; the garden will go on top of it. On this barely concealed past, the interns have erected a hoop house and built raised beds.

There is something utopian about this reinvention process, which is being attempted in various forms across the nation. From Harlem to Compton, the call has gone out to build gardens and farms amid housing projects. This work can be viewed as attempt to convert big government-owned campuses back to the more flexible, informal, resourceful types of places that existed before World War II. Growing Power and its interns, and many others like them, aim to replace one kind of remnant with an earlier, better sort of remnant.

Urban planners call such projects “interim uses,” with just a touch of condescension—as if swanky condominiums built on the same spot would last forever. The term has come into favor since the Great Recession stalled lucrative development plans. It could take decades to redevelop the former projects, here and everywhere. Doing anything with the ABLA site, if only installing a farm, makes more sense than abandoning it until an investor shows up with the money to redevelop. The strategy makes sense on a number of levels. Doctors say that pudgy Americans need to eat more vegetables, and city residents lack access to fresh foods. Why not grow healthy food here instead of importing it? Gardens and farms invest the landscape with the soft value of flowers, bees, and wholesome work—all of which can easily be bulldozed the moment property values begin to rise.

A great part of the beauty of an urban farm comes from its tentativeness, its vegetable fragility amid sharp-edged steel and concrete. An urban farm exposes everything in a city as tentative, provisional. In a physical sense, every city is a remnant, a collection of accumulated shells piled up like the layers of a tropical coral reef. A farm occupies the emptiness, but tenderly, with the gradual progress of tomato vines.  It aims to help people with little infrastructure, without cranes and cement mixers. It aims to answer poverty with land.

Growing Power interns at the former ABLA homes. Photograph by Christopher Weber.

Growing Power interns at the former ABLA homes. Photograph by Christopher Weber.

The farmers believe too fervently in the farm to worry about it being taken away someday. They believe that they are literally growing a new kind of city. Erika Allen, Growing Power’s Chicago director, has a master’s degree in art therapy. “I’m really interested in remaking space—for agriculture but also for social justice,” she has told me. “When you put a garden or farm in, it’s a way of changing a space in terms of how it’s used and how people see it.”

Allen’s argument makes a lot of sense. What better way to fill in the lifeless holes in a city than with the slow, organic creeping of squash vines? What better memorial to a failed housing project than lilacs and purple coneflowers? These places represent a wrong destroyed but not corrected.

Cabrini-Green #2, by Pedro Basantes. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Project Onward.

Cabrini-Green #2, by Pedro Basantes. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Project Onward.

I came across a similar sensibility in the paintings of Pedro Basantes, a twenty-seven-year-old Chicago artist. His paintings of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects coming down hang in the downtown gallery of Project Onward, which provides studio space for artists with emotional and developmental disabilities. His brush captures something of the raw power and hubris visible in the projects’ last days. Again and again, he renders the stark elevator shafts and tower cores in their last hours against the glinting Chicago skyline. In doing so, he evokes the familiar gulf between the classes—the power brokers downtown, insulated from the lives of the poor—while also pointing out their similarity in scale. The Trump International Hotel and Tower in the distance is little more than a housing project for rich people. Where is the human in these towers, the small, changeable places that make cities livable, intimate, and—potentially—just?

Cabrini-Green #3, by Pedro Basantes. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Project Onward.

Cabrini-Green #3, by Pedro Basantes. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Project Onward.

If the ABLA farm develops well, it will one day look like another, established Growing Power farm a few miles away. The City Lights Urban Farm stands in the footprint of the Cabrini-Green projects. The 1970s sitcom Good Times was set here, but mostly the 15,000-resident campus made news for its bad times, including perpetual gang wars.

Most of Cabrini-Green is now gone; the last tower fell in early 2011. Only four blocks of row houses remain, plus the farm, which sits on a basketball court. Beneath the hoop house and the mounds of soil sprouting carrots and turnips, the asphalt remains. You could scoop up the farm in a tractor’s bucket, sweep it off, and be playing pickup in a couple hours.

Planted in 2003, the City Lights farm was built through the labor of thousands of volunteers, including more than a few of the children of Cabrini-Green. One ten-year-old boy, Malcolm, showed up the day the first load of wood chips arrived. Now he’s nineteen and a beekeeper for Growing Power. Like him, this farm has held on even as developers have encroached. In Chicago, most of the housing authority’s 4,000 acres lie vacant, but at Cabrini-Green, property values have soared despite the bad economy. Up the street, another farm on housing authority land is being forced to move. The housing authority has offered it more land at another, less valuable location.

Perhaps the same thing will happen to the ABLA farm. Viewed on Google Earth, it’s a small, green-and-brown scab at the edge of a great grassy wound. Will it grow and spread to heal the great emptiness that pervades the city? Or will the wound eventually swallow up this farm?

I know this much. Rebuilding the projects on a human scale—on a vegetable scale, as it were—won’t atone for all the wrongs done in these places. But it will help to heal the city itself. In such a city, perhaps a better society, thus rooted, can grip down and begin to grow.

Christopher Weber

Christopher Weber

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Christopher Weber is a journalist, teacher, gardener, and work-at-home dad. He earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh and regularly writes about environmental issues for the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Grist, and E Magazine. He lives on the South Side of Chicago with his wife and son.