The end of Cabrini
As last tower comes down, artists memorialize projects
03/30/2011 2:00 PM
This week marked the beginning of a physical — and poetic — end to Chicago’s most infamous housing development.
On Wednesday, the Chicago Housing Authority began demolition at 1230 N. Burling St., the last of eight high-rise buildings that once made up the William Green Homes, a section of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing block.
Built in the 1962, the towering Green homes came to be known as concentrated pockets of crime and gang-related violence in the city, embodying what many considered to be a failed experiment in public housing. CHA has been systematically tearing down the homes over the past decade as part of a long-term effort to reintroduce housing residents into mixed-income communities.
In November, the agency vacated the remaining seven families from the 134-unit Burling building, known by some residents as “Scamplife” and by later generations as “New City.” The agency cited unsafe conditions and excessive maintenance fees as reason enough to close the half-empty development.
Since then, Burling has sat unused, surrounded by a security fence as workers gutted the interior of the 15-story building.
A few weeks ago, street artist Gaia managed to paste a large black-and-white print across the eastern face of the building. The image depicts the bust of a curious half-lion, half-rabbit creature — one in a series of similar works installed throughout Chicago during the artist’s recent visit. The piece has since been partially torn down.
Though the New York-based artist may not have guessed it at the time, the quasi-graffiti was to be the opening act for another work that would grace the lone building.
Last week, a group from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled plans for a visual art project at Burling, to take place concurrently with the development’s demolition.
The installation, led by SAIC instructor Jan Tichy and dubbed “Project Cabrini Green,” was prepared in collaboration with a group of Cabrini-area students who wrote poems about the passing of the development as part of the project.
The team placed LED lights in the hollowed-out units of the building and used sounds taken from recordings of the students reading their work to set the rhythm of the flickering lights, which were housed in army ammunition boxes, Tichy said.
A Czech-born visual artist who has used time-based light as a medium in past works, Tichy hoped that the Cabrini project would get people thinking about what it means to have a home.
“If you read the poems, especially by the kids coming from [Cabrini], there’s a feeling of loss,” he said.
On the evening before demolition was slated at Burling, Tichy spent the night planting the remaining lights throughout the bared units of the building.
The impulsive white glow from the boxes illuminated spray-painted tags on the walls of the apartments and casted shadows of ceiling fans that turned slowly as cold winds blew through the building.
Shawn Lee watched from the street as Tichy walked through a hallway on the building’s 14th floor, shining a flashlight on the empty parking lot below.
“Throw me down a brick, man!” yelled Lee, hoping to get a souvenir from the place he once called home.
Lee, 16, lived in other Cabrini developments before moving to the first floor of the building six years ago. He and his family relocated to the Dearborn Homes on the South Side after receiving their notice to vacate Burling last year.
He had come up that night to pay his final respects to Burling.
“My feelings are hurt, because I was born here, raised here,” he said. “From Division, Halsted, Clybourn and Larrabee, this is our area.”
“They took the ghetto,” said Lee’s friend, a woman who called herself Boo.
Lee hadn’t heard about Tichy’s project, but he thought the lights were a good homage to the residents who had lived there.
If he had been involved in the project, Lee said that his poem would have been called “The Love of Cabrini.”
“Something nice, tell them how much fun I had, how much fun my kids would have had, something like that,” he said.
Demolition at 1230 N. Burling is expected to take eight weeks.