As projects come down, a yuppie haven goes up

Cabrini-Green sits on Chicago real estate long coveted by builders

September 24, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO - Cabrini-Green, one of the nation's largest and most notorious public housing projects, has a new neighbor: Starbucks.

The upscale coffee house caters to the yuppies flocking to the new half-million-dollar townhouses that have joined the landscape of blighted, crime-ridden high rises, where generations of black families have lived in poverty and isolation.

Driving by the park adjoining the projects the other night, Cabrini resident leader Deidre Matthews couldn't believe her eyes. "I saw white guys playing basketball," she said. "I thought, `There goes the neighborhood.'"

The transformation of the area around Cabrini-Green, famous as an incubator for gang violence, drug dealing and welfare dependency, is one of the most striking examples of gentrification in an American city.

Cabrini-Green sits on 70 acres of Chicago's most valuable land, just blocks from Lake Michigan and the swanky stretch known as the Gold Coast. Standing almost anywhere, its residents can look up and see the shimmering skyscrapers of the Loop. Developers have been waiting to pounce on this real estate for decades, and now is their chance.

The city and its housing authority have a $1.5 billion plan to demolish all of Chicago's 46 remaining high-rises - six have come down - fix up the smaller buildings, and relocate many of the residents to mixed-income developments presumably less vulnerable to blight. At Cabrini, two high-rises have been knocked down in the past year, and 14 more are scheduled for demolition.

The aim of the overhaul is essentially to privatize much of the public housing in Chicago. Cabrini-Green residents will get a chance to run and work for companies providing services to the redeveloped area.

"For years, public housing residents have been isolated and marginalized," said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the Chicago Housing Authority, which the city took over two years ago. "People could drive by and say, `Look, that's where the poor people live.' We no longer want that separation. The whole idea is that you won't be able to tell the difference."

Similar efforts, reflecting a national policy inaugurated by the Clinton administration, have been repeated in other cities, including Baltimore. But Chicago is transforming its public housing on perhaps the largest scale.

Incongruous scenery

At Cabrini-Green, where 15,000 people once lived but only 5,200 remain, the small city of towers, mid-rises and rowhouses separated by bleak swaths of vacant land is to become a neighborhood of tidy two- and three-story townhouses and apartments with trees and front steps where people can sit to chat with neighbors or watch their children play.

"This is my dream, that our homes will look just as good as the homes built around us, where tenants are paying $350,000," said Cora Moore, president of the projects' advisory council.

As the neighborhood changes, the results include some incongruous scenery, such as those white basketball players, both young bankers, engaged in a spirited one-on-one game. "Look, we're here tonight. This is amazing," said Chris Roehm. "I never would have thought this a couple of years ago."

On one corner, a boarded-up, red-brick Cabrini tower stares across the street at a new shopping center with a Starbucks, Blockbuster Video and Dominick's, a grocery store that features a sushi bar, banks of fancy salads and more than 20 flavors of jelly beans, including kiwi and cafe latte.

In the store, shoppers talk on cell phones while examining tomatoes. Others pay with food stamps or come only for small items, because the meats, they say, are too expensive.

"People around here eat soul food," said Juanita Young, a Cabrini resident. "Dominick's is not geared to families in Cabrini. They [sell] meat in small packages. Most of our families are large."

Renewed interest in Cabrini's neighborhood has brought badly needed improvements that the public housing residents have requested for decades, including a new library, park, police station and two new schools. Cabrini children pack the library after school to use the computers, do homework and socialize.

Waiting outside the library for her mother to pick her up after work, Tishara Osbey, 10, said she was there, in part, because "my mom doesn't trust the playground down the street."

The demolition and construction projects and the new stores have also brought a stream of jobs for Cabrini residents.

Sandra Mason, 30, a single mother raising four daughters in a Cabrini apartment, makes more money working at Starbucks than in her former job at a grocery store.

"And I don't have to deal with the neighborhood as much - the bad kids, the alcoholics," she said.

Fear of disruption

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