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Closing a Condo-Cabrini Chasm

After months of working around it, time had arrived to talk about the elephant in the room.

For a year now, at monthly meetings of the Near North Unity Program, area residents have discussed the need for more youth activities, safe-feeling public spaces and meet-your-neighbor events. Together they helped plan last summer’s jazz-in-the-park concerts, a Friday afternoon basketball league, even a neighborhood clean-and-green patrol.

Are these guys just hanging out--or about to cause trouble? The mostly African American lower-income residents of Parkside say they sometimes feel overly watchful eyes on them when they're in common areas of the complex.

Eric Youhg Smith

Still, something didn’t feel quite right … didn’t feel, well, neighborly. Just below the surface there seemed an unspoken tension in the NNUP meeting room. Nearly everyone knew what it was, but none dared give it voice: It’s the tension between public housing tenants whose families have lived in the Cabrini-Green area for decades, and newcomers who’ve purchased condos and townhouses in the new mixed-income developments.

CHA tenants feel they’re being monitored and regulated like second-class citizens even though it’s their longtime neighborhood.  Homeowners feel they’ve invested their hard-earned money in a “new” neighborhood. And they don’t want that investment—or their sense of decorum—threatened by what some consider low-class behaviors.

“There’s an undercurrent going on here,” acknowledged Stanley Merriwether, who was brought in by LISC/Chicago to guide meetings and help plan events. “There’s animosity in some cases,” she shared at a recent gathering, “but mostly it’s fear and uncertainty—and we need to talk about what that is.”

The redeveloped mixed-income complex where Cabrini-Green once stood, developed by Peter Holsten and Holsten Real Estate Development Corp., is a mix of market-rate homes, subsidized rentals and leased public housing units.

John McCarron

And so they’re talking.  At several sessions this fall Merriwether has presided over what she calls “a great and candid conversation.” (For several samples of what they're saying, please click here.)

The meetings were even split into morning and evening sessions to accommodate folks who work days … and seniors who prefer to be out-and-about in the a.m.

“The goal was never to solve this,” Merriwether opened a recent session at Park Community Church, “but to begin a dialogue. If we’re really serious about moving forward we have to be willing to deal with issues that are barriers to moving forward.”

National Import
The conversations have been up close and personal … but reflective of an important dynamic that’s also taking place in dozens of cities across America. From Atlanta to San Francisco, from Seattle to Miami, untold thousands of city-dwellers are trying to understand and overcome frictions triggered by the abrupt juxtaposition of middle-class homeowners and public housing renters.

It’s all part of the federally-funded Hope VI (“Hope 6”) program, a massive undertaking launched by Congress in 1992 to replace much of the nation’s worn-out and socially isolated public housing with privately developed complexes of townhouses and mid-rises. A third of the new homes are being sold to middle-class families, a third rented to moderately-subsidized renters, and a third leased long-term to local public housing agencies for sublet to their low-income tenants.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who grew up in Cabrini Green, asked LISC/Chicago to develop the Near North Unity Project to bring together residents of different races and economic strata.

John McCarron

Chicago received its first Hope VI grant in 1994 to begin demolition and replacement of the Cabrini-Green high-rises, where more than 2,000 African-American families had long endured slipshod maintenance, broken elevators and safety issues that kept decent stores at a distance and playgrounds unused.

But the old Cabrini was home to the good people who lived there. And with a series of legal actions organized tenants managed to block demolition until 2000, when City Hall and the Chicago Housing Authority committed to a Plan for Transformation that is remaking not just Cabrini but public housing across the city.

Resentment vs. Annoyance
This contentious history helps explain the lingering resentment among Cabrini-area tenants over demolition of the high-rises and the personal upheavals that resulted. Some tenants took federal rent vouchers and moved to other neighborhoods; others moved to CHA developments on the South or West sides. But more than 500 displaced families moved to new apartments built on or near the old Cabrini-Green site, such as Parkside of Old Town, a 718-unit campus being developed by Holsten Real Estate Development Corp.

There they live down hallways and across courtyards from condos and townhouses purchased by young couples—most, but not all, whites with double-incomes—for $200,000 and up. Some of that latter group bought because they believed in the Transformation Plan’s goals of racial diversity and economic integration. Others just saw a good deal, what with Parkside’s public subsidies—from steeply discounted land to an assortment of local tax breaks—lowering purchase prices some 20 percent below those for comparable properties on the North Side.

According to developer Peter Holsten, some buyers intended to “flip” their units for a profit, or move elsewhere once their children reached school age. But the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08 all but negated those options, and now some owners with no intention of participating in a grand social experiment find themselves, reluctantly, in the middle of one.

Meetings of Parkside condo owners are closed to the public, but sources say owners’ complaints often include shouting, cursing, loud radio playing, roughhousing and “hangin’ out” in lobbies or common areas. Complaints also have been lodged against barbecuing on balconies and front porches and overly frequent visits by relatives, boyfriends and so forth.

Facilitator Stanley Merriwether (standing) says one frustration of the meetings has been that the most annoyed market-rate residents have not attended--but she's optimistic that some common ground is being built among those who do.

John McCarron

One frustration, says Merriwether, is that the most annoyed condo owners haven’t been coming to NNUP meetings. Instead it’s the peacemakers. But by creating opportunities for people to get together, she argues, word will get out and more owners will learn how to work out their differences with renters. And vice-versa.  After all, renters have their own complaints: from uncollected dog feces to snooty looks and a lack of eye contact. 

Expert testimony 
Especially useful have been the contributions by Hope VI “experts” who may not live in the Cabrini area but have deep experience with its clash of cultures.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) grew up in the Cabrini rowhouses—146 of which have been rehabbed and re-populated with CHA tenants—but has moved since to a more affluent part of his ward. 

“Sometimes our mom wouldn’t let us kids leave the front porch so she could keep an eye on us,” Burnett shared at one meeting. “So even now you go to the [CHA] row houses and you see a lot of people on the front porches. That’s just what we do. That’s how we grew up.”

Burnett, who originally approached LISC/Chicago about starting NNUP, challenged condo owners to have a little more understanding about why black kids “hang out” in front of where they live.  “Folks say they’re loitering but the truth is we are different, and we have different cultures.”

Longtime residents who considered Cabrini Green home challenged the proposed demolition of the old high-rises in the 1990s in court, which begat the mixed-income Plan for Transformation.

Eric Young Smith

The alderman acknowledged, however, that owners sometimes have a point, as when his own nieces and nephews come visiting to Burnett’s house and do things like bounce balls off walls or swing on a fence gate.

“I said, man, don’t swing on that fence. You’re going to break it and I [not some distant landlord like the CHA] have to pay for that. But when I told them that, they changed. So the challenge is that a lot of us have high expectations, and a lot of us don’t know what to expect. But, if we communicate, we can change some things. ... We just need to understand each other.”

Earnest Gates, executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corp., shared his experience at West Haven Park bringing together condo owners and tenants transferring from nearby CHA high-rises at Henry Horner Homes.

“Be honest”
Gates was especially candid about the worldview of some buyers.

“There is a resentment,” Gates said, “when someone has to spend $300,000 for a condo, and there’s someone next door who didn’t have to spend anything. And that person has to go to work, to a job he or she probably doesn’t like, and then they come back and deal with the reality of someone who, they think, is living on their dime.”

“If people can be honest about that, that’s where you start. I’ve sat in these meetings for years, hearing the same arguments, watching the same activity. You have to be honest about what’s going on in your buildings and in your developments.”

“We’re all part of this grand experiment,” summed up Gates, who served on the CHA’s governing board during Transformation’s early stages. “Originally, it was all about bricks and mortar. There was no conversation about the impact of suddenly bringing 300 families into a ‘new’ neighborhood that didn’t really exist … the impact on the people already there, the impact on the people moving in.”

Parkside's new condos and townhouse units start at $200,000 for market-rate buyers.

Eric Young Smith

“Some of this stuff we’re not even aware of because we’re dealing with it on a gut level,” Gates said. “That’s why you have to put it on the table. Be honest about it and push toward resolution.” 

More information:

Keri Blackwell, LISC/Chicago, 312-422-9558,
Stanley Merriwether, 312-504-4706,
More on what Parkside residents are saying:

Posted in Housing, Near North Side


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