SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Twenty-three high-rise towers on Chicago's North Side blotched by broken windows and bars over its terraces came to symbolize public housing for many Americans in the late 20th century. The Cabrini-Green housing project was depicted in "Good Times" - the long-running TV series - and films like "Cooley High," "Hardball, "Candyman" and "Heaven Is A Playground."
The towers were notorious for crime, gangs and drugs. But they were also home to 15,000 Chicagoans seeking better lives. The last of the dangerously overpacked and deteriorating buildings came down in 2011.
Ben Austen has written a history of the project and of its people, "High-Risers: Cabrini-Green And The Fate Of American Public Housing." Ben Austen joins us from Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us.
BEN AUSTEN: Thank you so much.
SIMON: The towers were named for America's first saint...
SIMON: ... Mother Frances Cabrini, and they were planned by social workers, liberals, self-described do-gooders.
SIMON: What were they trying to do?
AUSTEN: Yeah. They'd cleared out the slums - that housing that had been, some of it, since the Chicago Fire, temporary housing that became permanent. So it really was better housing - a step up for the people who moved into it.
SIMON: Yeah. Wasn't the whole idea, too, that the folks along the lake live in high-rises, so why shouldn't poor people, too?
AUSTEN: Yeah. So the high-rises came starting in the '50s. And it was, in one sense, a way to give affordable housing to the most people. And the modernist structures were being built all over the country.
SIMON: Yeah. We get to spend a lot of time with an interesting family - the Wilson family - in this book.
SIMON: Delores Wilson and her family were among the first people to move into Cabrini-Green. And Dolores Wilson is a very inspiring figure in this book.
AUSTEN: Yeah. So for her, public housing was this dream. She has five children there on the South Side in a basement apartment. And just the fear of a house fire and what that would mean and how that would keep her up at night. And moving into Cabrini-Green and feeling like this is heaven because it was fireproof. That in itself - the sense of safety - gave her such relief.
SIMON: Recognizing you've written a whole book trying to answer this question, so what happened?
AUSTEN: Many, many things. I mean, I think in one sense, public housing gets blamed for, really, the changing fortunes of cities. And, you know, they feel it the worst. But also being not funded well enough from the federal government, mismanaged and also the high concentrations were counterproductive at the same time. As cities became poorer, it was harder to maintain these places.
SIMON: In 1981, there was a lot of national attention because conditions had grown so dire in Cabrini-Green that Mayor Byrne and her husband moved in - clearly a political stunt. But as stunts go, was this a good one?
AUSTEN: Yeah. That's a great way to put it. And that's really the moment that Cabrini-Green becomes larger than life nationally. It entered sort of the Mount Rushmore of scariest urban places in America. And she also wisely, in a way, knew that services would come with her, and more work happened in those three weeks than happened probably in the previous two years.
But it really did bring attention to the gravest civic problems of the time, and they happened to be embodied in this one place. I mean, I wish we were having a kind of political stunt like that happen now, to be honest.
SIMON: Yeah. You describe a number of wrenching crimes that occurred in Cabrini-Green over the years - the kidnapping of a 13-year-old girl, Veronica McIntosh (ph), jumping rope with her friends. That story is hard to hear even now.
SIMON: How did that affect the history of how people saw Cabrini-Green?
AUSTEN: Those stories did happen. And there - in some ways, came to eclipse every other aspect of life there. And they're horrid. And no one should have to live amidst that. And it became part of the justification to tear it down.
I remember reading one newspaper editorial here when residents were fighting to maintain their home - to keep it because they were fearful of where else they would be moved. The writer said, what is it that they're fighting for? What is it they want to keep?
SIMON: I was just struck by something Dolores Wilson, I guess, said to you. There was more love than terror here.
AUSTEN: Something counterintuitive about this - and this is something that struck me in the reporting - is that the rich fabric of life there - that even amid crimes - that they didn't happen at every single moment of people's lives, that they lived ordinary lives - normal lives. And they also, out of necessity, created rich networks that they relied upon and that were powerful. And one of the things you hear over and over again when you interview residents is they say, we were all like family. We knew everybody.
And so to lose that, that's a different kind of loss - a psychological one - that if you feel like your history is gone, the place where you went to nursery school and the place where you played baseball for the first time and where you got in your first fistfight. If all of that has just disappeared, it feels like you don't matter. Your history doesn't matter to the city.
SIMON: Mr. Austen, let me get you to address what seems to be really one of the central tensions in the book. The towers have been torn down. People said for years, well, you know, part of the problem is the architecture. Part of the problem is you have people, you know, pent up in what become, like, these prison cells. And you have to put bars over the windows and tear the place up, distribute them throughout the city. But what did that really change?
AUSTEN: Yeah. We find that the sense of poverty and isolation were thought of as the major culprit in the problem. And we're seeing that still. And so we ended up - a critic of the demolitions of the high-rise said - or someone who was studying it said that we went from vertical ghettos to horizontal ones, and we didn't change the basic structure of the city.
SIMON: Why did you think this was a story that needed to be told? There are people who will say, oh, I know about Cabrini-Green. I saw "Good Times." I saw "Cooley High."
AUSTEN: Yeah. Well, I'm a Chicagoan. And you are, too. So I know you can understand this. It was actually the opposite. Once the last tower came down, I thought, this thing that had loomed larger than life in Chicago - that it could disappear - like, I thought, what does that mean? How is that possible? And starting to think about - and what does it mean for the people who live there? And what does it mean for the neighborhood? And what does it mean for the city?
So it made it seem more pressing to tell it and that some of the stories would be lost over time. And it seemed both a story that had been untold and told too much - and told too much in the way of the kind of coverage in the news - the story of infamy only.
SIMON: Do you have any thoughts on why it's been so hard to have good, humane public housing in the United States?
AUSTEN: I've thought about it a lot. You know, the failings here are so many, and it's such a need. It's such a - just a basic democratic idea that we would provide basic, adequate housing for those who have too little. But the government has also failed, in many ways, to deliver it.
But I also think that this is not only a story of the decline of public housing and the disappearance of high-rises, but our collective sense of responsibility has also changed radically in that time. And the mainstream - their appetite for social safety net programs has deteriorated, as well. And there's not a lot of people fighting for that in the mainstream.
SIMON: Ben Austen - his book "High-Risers." Thanks so much for being with us.
AUSTEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.