When the last tenant moved out of Chicago's notorious housing project, it signaled the end of an era and raised questions about the future of displaced tenants -- and public housing itself.
Sometimes, moving is a happy event. Sometimes it's not. Last week, when Annie Ricks and five of her children left the 11th-floor apartment in the dilapidated, 15-story high-rise complex where she has lived for the past 22 years, it was a media event. And Ricks, the last tenant in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project, was not happy.
"I didn't want to leave, but I didn't have a choice," she said in an interview with The Root, while sitting among a sea of boxes in the kitchen of her newly renovated Chicago Housing Authority apartment on the other side of the city. Indeed, the 54-year-old mother of eight from Alabama didn't have a choice about leaving Cabrini. The building where she lived is scheduled to be demolished early next year. She moved there about a year ago, after another Cabrini building, where she had lived for 21 years, was also torn down.
Ricks successfully challenged the housing authority's order to evacuate the building by the end of November. She wanted to move to a rehabbed apartment in a low-rise building, but it was not ready. When Ricks was finally forced to vacate last week after CHA officials decreed that the high-rise building was no longer inhabitable, she was first offered a home in a Cabrini rowhouse apartment. But Ricks was concerned about gun battles between "the reds," residents of the red brick apartments, and "the whites," who live in Cabrini's high-rise towers, an ongoing rivalry fueled by gang and drug violence. "That would have put my kids in jeopardy," she said.
Instead, she was forced to choose between two low-rise CHA properties on the South Side. She also has the option of returning to Cabrini next year when more units are rehabbed. "It was the Dearborn Homes or Wentworth Gardens," she said. "I settled for this one [in Wentworth] because it was not a high-rise." But she said the new apartment is too small.
Though it is completely renovated, with new kitchen appliances and bath fixtures, it has only three bedrooms, compared with the five she had in Cabrini. As a result, Ricks' oldest daughter and her baby son, who lived with Ricks in Cabrini, had to move to their own apartment in a different complex. Ricks also said that the low-rise building hallways are too narrow to get her queen-size bed into the apartment. "I just feel like they didn't try hard enough to accommodate me," she said.
Annie Ricks' frustration and unhappiness are not unusual as the CHA and others struggle to improve the physical living conditions of hundreds of thousands of poor and low-income families stuck in substandard public housing across the country. At one point, 15,000 people lived in Cabrini-Green before deteriorating conditions, gang and drug violence, and other crime earned the 58-year-old complex a reputation as the most notorious of Chicago's dangerous housing projects and transformed it into a national symbol of inner-city warehousing of America's largely black and brown urban underclass.