Thursday, March 31, 2011

White Walls/All of the Lights

It's a strange, almost eerie feeling to visit the near ruins of a housing project high rise at dusk. Fans still spin in the very topmost apartments. A satellite TV dish hangs from one window. Graffiti screams "I NEED MONEY" from one of the interior walls made visible after the first day of demolition. LED Lights in each apartment blink off and on, almost like a laser light show.

Yes, LED lights. The last standing high rise of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project has been reclaimed as art for its last weeks standing. These lights will continue blinking from dusk to dawn until demolition is complete, one fading each time an apartment is lost to the wrecking ball. Actually standing there, right on Halsted, the effect  made the building seem alive. Visit to see the continuation of the art, an interactive piece where one can listen to poems and stories of actual Cabrini-Green residents. The blinking lights are actually set to the vibration of their voices reading their stories.

My community visited this site last night after our Community Night featuring Brad Hunt, a professor at Roosevelt University and author of Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing. He explained to us a short history of public housing in Chicago, how it was meant to clear slums but as a result of many factors (racism, ineffective policy, site location, design, youth density) became a black mark for the Chicago Housing Authority, one that they are currently attempting to erase by demolishing practically every high rise ever built in the city, regardless of the need to do this.

This event is relevant for us MercyWorkers not only because we are living in Chicago, and the housing projects are very much connected to Chicago's past, present and future, but also because of the population we work with. I personally have one youth in program who used to live in Cabrini-Green, but now lives in the new mixed income housing only blocks from the current demolition site. To some the closing and tearing down of Cabrini-Green is just the razing of some super ugly buildings, getting rid of the places where a lot of shitty things happened, but to him this is the destruction of home, of his community, the place where generations of his family grew up.

There is a lot of debate and emotion at play with the whole public housing situation, but regardless of where people stand and what they think of it all, everyone recognizes this as an end of something, and most, accepting that this is happening, only want to make sure it is remembered and documented for future Chicagoans. Hence this light show art installment, plus many other documentaries, class projects, photo journals, newspaper articles, and perhaps the most important thing to come of this, the National Public Housing Museum. Still in its infancy, the museum hopes to preserve the entire history of public housing--the good and the bad--for the entire nation. I hope I'm still in the city once it opens in its new location, only several blocks from my apartment.

Until then, I'll be reading up on my history. (Chicago ain't no Rome, but it'll do.)

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