The life, death, and diaspora of an American community.
In a book that is part sociological study and part oral history, longtime journalist Austen takes a deep dive into the story of Cabrini-Green, an iconic American public housing project in Chicago. At its peak in the 1950s and ’60s, Cabrini-Green was home to more than 3,600 families, predominantly African-American, “two-parent, working-class, and desperately in need of adequate housing.” The author covers the relevant cultural, sociological, and political aspects of a place known as one of the “scariest black places in America.” He also captures the flash points of the block’s history, including the shooting of two policemen in 1970, the fatal shooting of a 7-year-old in 1992, and a brutal attack on 9-year-old “Girl X” in 1997. Admirably, Austen humanizes his story by telling it through the eyes of a handful of Cabrini-Green residents, including Dolores Wilson, a janitor’s wife who became a political activist; Annie Ricks, who lived most of her life in Cabrini-Green; and J.R. Fleming, a peddler of counterfeit goods who learned to fight the injustice around him. “Reflecting on J.R.’s personal transformation, [a plainclothes cop] joked that his colleagues on the police force had messed up,” writes the author. “They should have left the young man alone when he was just peddling DVDs and tube socks: ‘Now they went and woke him up.’ ” Cabrini-Green is gone now, wiped out by a sweeping urban renewal program that demolished “every remaining public housing family high-rise, knocking down some 18,000 units.” So Austen covers the diaspora, too, as an island of poverty was wiped from existence by white prosperity. It’s a somewhat overstuffed history, but the author provides many powerful insights. As Dolores told her brother when offered an exit from Cabrini-Green, “I’m in the projects, but that’s my home. I love my home just like you love your home.”
A weighty and robust history of a people disappeared from their own community.