Bookworm: High Risers by Ben Austen

High Risers is a compelling story about life in one of the nation's most notorious public housing complexes - Cabrini Green in Chicago, Illinois. The book explores the rise and fall of the complex through a more complicated and nuanced story that we're used to being told: through the lens of longtime residents. Instead of a story framed through the lens of mostly white politicians, architects, lawyers, and other puppeteers of public housing policy, its a story of resident's hopes and dreams as well as their struggles and fears as day-to-day inhabitants of what the nation once say as one of the scariest places in America.

As a supporter of #housing as a human right, I've always been interested in the nuances of housing access and affordability. In general, housing is complex - there have always been (and will also been) unseen puppet strings choreographing why it looks the way it does, why its located where it is, and why those who live there choose to (or don't have the choice).

Along the way, I became enamored with all that is public housing. In school, I watched documentary after documentary and read book after book about Hope IV programs, Cabrini-Green, and Pruitt Igoe. I became interested in housing policies like Section 8 vouchers and Moving to Opportunity tax credits. And eventually, during my senior year, I dove into the research and data about how where we live impacts our life outcomes - #education, access to opportunities, and #health. So much of who we are is, simply, because of the zip code we grew up in.

So much of who we are is, simply, because of the zip code we grew up in.

When this book came out in 2018, I knew I wanted to read it, and I was not disappointed!

Public Housing and Urban Development

This part isn't really about the book, but to give some context to the book, it would help to have a 50,000-foot understanding of the environment in which the development occurred; the public housing and urban development landscape, if you will.

Once known as "Little Hell," the neighborhood around what would become Cabrini-Green experienced an influx of Germans, Irish, Swedes, and Sicilians throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s. These immigrants moved to Chicago to work in low-paying, laborious jobs in steel mills and gasworks all along Goose Island and the Chicago River, when the river was seen as a means to a prosperous industrial economy (and not the public recreational and natural resources that we see it as today). Factory smokestacks rose up above the ramshackle houses and tenements thrown together as emergency housing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. At this time, much of the housing available had no running water or indoor toilets, fires were common, and space was limited, with entire families from children to grandparents sharing a single room or two.

The squalor of "Little Hell" was in stark contrast with the visions of the various planning movements occurring across the nation. Across #Chicago we saw the 1893 World's Fair, major investments in the city's parks, and the 1909 Burnham Plan of Chicago - the first-ever metropolitan regional plan. These items were cornerstones of the City Beautiful Movement which sought to emphasize balance, dignity, harmony, and neo-classical architecture, though it primarily catered to the upper-class and had limited practicality. The late 1800s also saw the birth of the Public Health and Sanitary Reform Movement, which stressed healthier living conditions and clean water (both of which were nowhere to be found in "Little Hell") and the Settlement House and Reform Movement, in which we saw the rise of social consciousness and improve living conditions for poor, immigrant, and minority neighborhoods. It was the principles of these movements that led to the policies and plans that would eventually seek to graze "Little Hell" and start anew.

As industrialization continued to spread across Chicago, bringing massive population growth and increasingly poor living conditions, the City sought more ways to respond to concerns about public health and safety - namely, more regulation. Following in the footsteps of New York, Chicago developed its first zoning code in 1923 as an attempt to regulate the location of specific uses, separating housing from the stockyards and shaping the economic and spatial fabric of the city. Six years later, and barely enough time to see any drastic level of improvements from the new zoning code, the stock market crashed, leaving thousands unemployed, especially those in the manufacturing sector, which was the hardest sector hit.

Like many other social assistance programs, public housing itself was born out of the Depression and the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works Administration, which was tasked with constructing public buildings, infrastructure, and parks to create jobs and improve the economy. A flurry of Federal legislation over the course of three decades influence the development of public housing. Under the Wagner-Steagall Act (1937), slum clearance was tied to public housing. For each public housing unit built, one slum housing unit had to be torn down. Out of this legislation came our public housing authorities, including the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which were formed to address the housing shortages war-industry workers and returning veterans faced. Unlike the associations many have today with public housing, at its conception, it was built for white working- and middle-class families in mostly all-white neighborhoods. This was supposed through the Lanham Act of 1940, which provided the funding for defense worker housing.

The Housing act of 1949 increased the funding for slum clearance programs and led to the construction of more than 800,000 public housing units, and the Housing Act of 1954 shifted the government's focus from slum clearance to prevention, and from urban renewal to urban redevelopment. In other words, the 1949 Act focused on constructing new units, while the 1954 Act focused on rehabilitation and conversions. Across the board, black neighborhoods were often the main targets for clearance, and when they were unable to find suitable, affordable private market housing because of things like racial covenants, or unable to purchase their own home because of racist lending practices like redlining, they ended up in public housing.


When "Little Hell" was grazed in the 1940s, it was first replaced by the Frances Cabrini Rowhomes which opened in 1942. These 586 units were constructed in low-rise, two-story barrack's style buildings, and named after Mother Frances Cabrini, an Italian-American Roman Catholic nun. The 15-building extension was built in 1958 and provided more than 1,900 units. These were informally known as "The Reds." Finally, in 1962, the William Green Homes, also known as "The Whites," finished out the 70-acre complex, adding 1,096 units. Altogether, there were 3,607 units and at one time, was home to 15,000 people. The general concept of the development was based around the idea of "superblocks," or concentrated populations housed in tall high-rises surrounded by open space and the street network. This concept was born out of Le Corbusier's Radiant City philosophy and was proliferated by Lewis Mumford and other modernist planners.

I found the video below on youtube, and it has some amazing shots that give a great overview of the different phases of the development

Demolition of the buildings started in 2000, and the last building came down just over ten years later in 2011.

Dolores, Kelvin, JR, and Annie

Austen's book tells the story of Cabrini-Green primarily through interviews with long time residents Dolores Wilson, Kelvin Cannon, Willie "J.R." Fleming, and Annie Ricks. Dolores was a native Chicagoan, raising five children in the various apartments and buildings of Cabrini with her husband, Hubert. Hubert worked as a building supervisor, while Dolores spent her life supporting the families in the community through her activism and organizing.

Kelvin was born and raised in Cabrini-Green, and flocked to the charisma and fatherly-aura of Jesse White and his tumblers. When White left, he ended up embattled in the gang community, rising the ranks to become a leader, eventually serving time in prison for murder. Upon release, he moved back to Cabrini and traded gang leadership for community activism, eventually becoming the president of the Local Advisory Council.

J.R. had hopes of a college athletic career after moving with his mother to suburban Dolton, but he returns to Cabrini less than a year after his move to escape the quietness of the suburbs. He became a key voice and advocate for quality public housing, and head of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.

Annie Ricks was the last woman standing in Cabrini, notoriously refusing to leave her home at 1230 N. Burling Street until 2010. Ricks moved to Cabrini, originally living in the 660 W. Division building, and raised 13 children in the high rises.

This array of experiences and perspectives brings depth to the story of Cabrini-Green. Through these perspectives reveal something beyond the images of disarray and dysfunction portrayed by the headlines in the media. Through these perspectives, you finally see Cabrini-Green as the complex, nuanced community that it was. A community of family dinners and back to school block parties. A community that was full of close-knit families and neighbors who sat together on the breezeways to gossip and tend to each others' kids. A community living within and impacted by policy decisions that, most times, treated them as statistics instead of people.

When after years of disarray, by no fault of their own, Cabrini residents were slowly forced from their homes and relocated to neighborhoods where they had no network, no safety net, and no familiarity of place or community. While on the surface, and in the media, Cabrini-Green was portrayed as this symbol of failure - failure to create a livable, safe, vibrant community - it did, in fact, have the strong interconnected, informal, or "underground" networks that these residents needed to survive, and missed when they were relocated.

Cabrini was not perfect, but for its resident's it was full of memories of laughter, sadness, joy, and sometimes struggle. It was home.

Cabrini was not perfect, but for its resident's it was full of memories of laughter, sadness, joy, and sometimes struggle. It was home. And the loss of this network and foundation is part of the "Cabrini story" that I'm not sure has been told until now, at least not as clearly and succinctly as Austen did in his book.


Looking back, urban renewal and urban redevelopment programs, dovetailed by Federal transportation policy provided safer housing, at the cost of concentrated poverty and segregation. The people who ran these programs, like Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, subscribed to ideas about "neighborhood composition" which resulted in not only proliferating existing segregation but creating new patterns across the United States. Unfortunately for the professions of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning, too many of our "pioneers" were also pioneering more and more ways to keep Black communities segregated from white ones, and poor communities segregate from affluent ones.

Currently, 1.2 million people live in public housing units across the nation. In Chicago, the nation's third-largest public housing authority, there are 20,000 households in public housing. In recent years, the CHA, like other housing authorities, have shifted their approach to create mixed-income, mixed-use developments instead of the tall towers of concentrated poverty that was the Cabrini-Green model. The plan for Cabrini-Green was developed out of a Federal consent decree, and was known as "The Plan for Transformation." While a positive change in terms of deconcentrating poverty, new development/housing supply has not kept up with the demand for affordable housing. As of September 2020, there still a shortage of nearly 120,000 affordable homes. There continue to be ongoing efforts to evaluate how residents have actually fared out of this effort.

I highly recommend High Risers to anyone interested in learning about Cabrini-Green beyond the headlines and news profiles about crime and decay. Interested in reading it for yourself? Click below! I've also included some additional recommendations if you're interested in learning more about Chicago, its neighborhoods, and public housing.