Wrecking balls tore into the last of Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green public housing high-rises on Wednesday, beginning the final demolition of the once towering reminder of the city's failure to safely house the poorest of the poor.
The complex, which at its peak housed 13,000 people in a cluster of 23 high-rises, was hailed as a salvation for the city's poor when construction began in the 1940s. But the buildings weren't well-maintained, and crime, gangs and drugs soon became rampant.
Tearing down the final 15-story building is part of an ambitious overhaul by the Chicago Housing Authority to move away from the high-rise model of housing low-income families. The last families were moved out of Cabrini's last high-rise in December. They were relocated to nearby public housing townhouses or private subsidized housing, which the agency believes will better serve low-income families.
"Buildings like Cabrini had not only fallen into grave disrepair, but also were isolated from the rest of the city," the Chicago Housing Authority said in a statement. The new plan gives the agency "an historic opportunity to bring that isolated segment of our society into the economic and social mainstream."
While the Cabrini housing model was initially emulated nationwide, the 70-acre development quickly decayed into a national example of the failure of public housing to provide clean, safe shelter.
After a gang war killed 11 residents in three months in 1981, then-Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband moved into a Cabrini apartment for three weeks to publicize her efforts to clean up the area. In 1992, a Cabrini resident hiding in a vacant 10th-floor apartment shot and killed 7-year-old Dantrell Davis as he walked to school holding his mother's hand.
Five years later, a 9-year-old girl known as Girl X was found raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell with gang graffiti scribbled on her body.
The Housing Authority launched its Plan for Transformation in 2000, and it's slated to be complete in 2015, five years behind schedule. Under the plan, former Cabrini residents have been allowed to move into mixed-income apartments in the same area of Chicago to maintain the sense of community. About half who relocated now live in nearby homes, according to the agency. Others are scattered across the Chicago area.
Several former residents watched Wednesday as wrecking crews picked away at the last high-rise, saying the demolition was frustrating given the desperate need for affordable housing in Chicago.
"You would feel that they would leave this building up until they're caught up with building the housing that's needed in this city," said Carol Steele, president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, a residents' advocacy group. "It's devastating to see another building come down."
Advocates stressed that the Cabrini community is still vibrant and continues to be a place where low-income residents can raise their families and work toward improving their lives. Low-rise townhouses nearby are still considered part of Cabrini-Green.
"What's important for people to know is that Cabrini is still here, the rowhouses are still here," said filmmaker Ronit Bezalel, whose 1999 documentary "Voices of Cabrini" followed residents during the early days of the redevelopment program.
"Cabrini is not all gone," she said.
Housing advocates and former residents held a ceremony Tuesday night to mark the high-rise's end. The building was illuminated with flickering lights that were part of an art installation created by community residents.
It's unclear what the city plans to do with the land, which is surrounded by a mix of new luxury condominiums and mixed-income developments.
The Housing Authority said Target Corp. has proposed building a store at the site, though Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said in an email that the Minneapolis-based company doesn't confirm plans for new stores more than one year before a scheduled opening. There are no new Chicago stores planned in 2011, she said.
Resident Deirdre Brewster dismissed word of the Target deal as rumor, and she said no one from the neighborhood has agreed to a store.
"This land needs to have housing on it," she said. "We have a Target in this community, we need housing."