Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
“70 Acres in Chicago” chronicles what happened when the city tore down the Cabrini Green projects to replace them with mixed-income housing.
Ronit Bezalel has spent 20 years filming the brick-by-brick dismantling of the Cabrini Green public housing projects in Chicago for her recently released documentary 70 Acres in Chicago. The dwellings figure prominently—and sometimes notoriously—in the American imagination, largely through its portrayal in TV shows like “Good Times” and movies like Candyman and Cooley High. They were built in the early 1940s in an area near downtown Chicago that had been a neighborhood mostly composed of Italian families. By the 1960s, it had become a predominantly black community, with nearly 15,000 families living in Cabrini’s mostly high-rise apartment buildings.
The city decided to replace Cabrini Green with mixed-income housing under the federal Hope VI program in the early 1990s. Bezalel began documenting Cabrini’s destruction in 1995, the year the first buildings were torn down. Much of her 55-minute documentary focuses on what has happened to the families displaced for this mixed-income experiment. The film also documents the ways in which Cabrini families spoke out and fought against the city’s plans to tear down their homes.
In one scene, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley is seen speaking at a 1997 press conference, where he promises that “every family that wants to stay in this community will stay in this community.” It’s a familiar refrain for urban renewal compacts, and one that turned out to be dead wrong in Chicago. Mark Pratt, a main character in Bezalel’s film, was a Cabrini resident at the time of Daley’s conference. But 20 years later, with all 70 acres of the housing projects now officially wiped away and replaced with new rowhouses, Pratt was not able to return to live to the community.
Bezalel spoke to CityLab about her documentary and what she learned about Chicago, racism, and displacement over the film’s 20-year production process.
Whenever there’s a discussion about displacement, there’s usually an underlying issue of racial segregation. Was it difficult reconciling the legacy of segregation with the desires of black families to remain in a segregated environment?
It isn't difficult to reconcile these two issues, because I don’t think they're different. Segregation in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. People self-segregate. We seek comfort in the familiar. I think it's more about whether a community has the agency to decide where and how they shall live. It's about who has the right to the city.
Historically, African-American families in Chicago were not granted the agency to move where they wanted. Their mobility was threatened by economic, legal, and event violent means. You had redlining and restrictive covenants. Firebombs were thrown in people’s windows. Segregation was shaped by the powers that be, arising from white privilege and a lack of respect for people of color.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Cabrini started being demolished, and residents fought to stay in their community. This was about coming together in unity, strength, and with agency. Perhaps one can view this as segregation as a conscious choice, which is quite different than segregation that is forced upon a community.
What do you think about urban design and planning theories that characterize high-rise buildings themselves as dysfunctional?
I don't think there is anything inherently dysfunctional about high-rises. If there was a flaw in [these] high-rises, it was an economic flaw. High-rises are quite expensive to maintain. In Cabrini, you had an elevator that frequently broke down and was expensive to fix. This, coupled with the financial mismanagement of the Chicago Housing Authority, led to a situation where the high-rises were run down, which became a problem.
I recognize that there are different schools of thought on this. There’s a school that says the high rise is just bad. Bradford Hunt, in his book Blueprint for Disaster writes about how the high-rises were shoddily made. So you have that argument. And then also there’s the argument that it’s not the high-rises at all. I feel that the conditions of the high-rises were pretty bad, but I don’t feel it was necessarily the design, per se. I think it was just general neglect overall. I don’t feel that if we all had low-rises—which is what is being built there now—it would cure the problems. What’s interesting is that some of the new homes being built there now are high-rises. Parkside, which is on Cabrini Green land, is a high-rise.
We look at design to escape whats going on underneath, the inequalities underneath. And that becomes used as a veil or a shield.
What I can say is that there needs to be more dialogue about race and class issues when we move poor families to wealthier neighborhoods. There need to be forums where we can come together in a safe way to discuss the issues. Simply displacing people and hoping for the best doesn't work.
Developer Peter and Jackie Holsten are doing this at the Parkside of Old Town mixed-income community. Parkside is the mixed-income community built on Cabrini land. So, the Holstens brought in a performance company called The Kaleidoscope Group. Former Cabrini residents, renters and home owners wrote about incidences in the community that happened to them. This group then acted it out, in a way that made it safe and not pointing fingers at anyone, and then there was a dialogue. This is healing, this is addressing issues of race and class. Just plopping people down beside each other and hoping for the best doesn't work without this social lubricant.
People ask me why I made this film, and what my interest in race and class is. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. When I was a kid in the ‘70s, we were bused to a black school in Wilmington, Delaware. And so, we’re these white kids plopped into a black school where there was no discussion of race in the curriculum. It was just, ‘Here you are now. Now you’re going to get along and be friends and everything is going to be wonderful.’ Meanwhile, some of the white teachers were spreading racist behaviors, and some of the black students had to deal with their community being invaded and fractured.
Were there any ideas you had going into the film that you shifted perspective on during the filmmaking process?
I went into the film with a clear agenda that tearing down homes was bad. I still feel that way, but I evolved as a person and filmmaker to see the shades of grey. It is complicated. Was it really horrific? Sure. Was it wonderful? Yeah. Should they tear down the buildings? No. I think I got a lot more real and willing to engage with the issues on a more serious level, to the point that I realized I don’t have the answers. I’m certainly not a developer, designer, or any of that. I’m more of just a storyteller.
Overall, what kept me at Cabrini was a sense of connection and a sense of community there. There really is an injustice in the erasure of an entire community, and not valuing that community, and that just felt wrong to me.
What should be the audience’s takeaway? That this is complicated, or that there was a real injustice here?
I don’t know if it’s either-or. My activism is through storytelling, and the takeaway would be for people who know nothing about Cabrini to have a better sense of what it was. And to preserve this, since the physical structure is gone, on video or digitally so that their stories aren’t forgotten. Also for people to connect the dots when they see the same thing happen in their community.