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The Tragic and True Story Behind Candyman’s Cabrini-Green

Source: TriStar/Getty Images & Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Located in the Near North Side of Chicago, Cabrini-Green used to be an affordable and popular housing community. The apartments had a deep history of racism, neglect, and government corruption, ultimately leading to its tragic demise. Cabrini-Green is best known for being the backdrop of the 1992 horror film Candyman

For years, there was no response or action taken, leaving the residents of Cabrini-Green frustrated and hopeless. But, $2 billion and numerous unkept promises later, the apartments are now unrecognizable and unlivable. 


A New Beginning

The Frances Cabrini Rowhouses were built in 1942 by the Chicago Housing Authority. They served as low-rise affordable apartments for veterans and war workers. The area had expanded greatly by 1958 and even included a high-rise extension, with the addition of William Green Homes in 1962. Thus, the neighborhood was granted the nickname “Cabrini-Green.”

Cabrini-Green was built to appease the increasing number of slums operated by landlords. These landlords often exploited people of color with outrageous rent prices and horrible living conditions. Being located in Chicago’s north end, Cabrini-Green’s residents were a mix of Italian and Irish immigrants, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans who came together because of the rampant racial segregation of the 1960s. 


A Chicago native and activist, Dolores Wilson, reflected on her time living at Cabrini-Green. She was one of the very first families granted an apartment in the brand-new community. Wilson, her husband, and their five children lived there – a nice change of scenery from their usual basements and tiny apartments (conditions Black residents had experienced before relocating to Cabrini-Green).

The apartments were equipped with necessary amenities such as heating and running water, and elevators. There were also rent-adjusted rates to match income, as well as assistance for those struggling. Many residents had similar experiences and came from similar places, so Cabrini-Green quickly turned into a close-knit community – everybody looked out for each other. 


Cabrini-Green’s Decline Was Due to Racism

Initially, Cabrini-Green was supposed to be a short-term housing solution for individuals in need, to reduce poverty in the immediate area. However, there was a lack of opportunities in other aspects (such as housing or proper jobs for people of color) – this meant that families had no other option but to stay long term. 

Jobs and businesses began to arise as more and more people arrived at Cabrini-Green, in large part because of the manufacturing and food product industries that were flourishing. Residents were earning enough money to buy their own homes, but insinuated rules regarding the topic of race in neighborhoods meant that Black men and women couldn’t purchase homes from white owners.

A practice called “redlining” occurred, meaning that predominantly Black neighborhoods were denied access to basic services and infrastructure – all based on one’s address. Furthermore, mortgages and business loans were typically denied, and emergency services rarely (or never) responded to calls. Progress, ultimately, was stopped. 


As if that wasn’t enough, the CHA also failed to budget an adequate amount of money for building maintenance. In a matter of time, high-rises appeared to look like the destitute housing they were trying to avoid. And, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, racial tensions grew in Chicago’s West Side during the 1968 riots. 

Families lost their apartments after they were demolished during the riots. Relocating the West Side families to empty apartments on the North Side of Cabrini-Green was Chicago’s sole solution. The city wasn’t prepared for what might result from the forced collision of two communities. 

North and West Side gangs started to battle for control of the area (despite them rarely having fought each other prior). The issue of organized crime became a glaring issue, steadily contributing to the escalating rates of violence, drug use, and poverty. 

When the early 1970s rolled around, a majority of the essential jobs for residents weren’t plentiful anymore. Young people didn’t have many options. 

A sense of community was offered by gangs, and being in one provided a reliable source of income. So, their influence over Cabrini-Green kept growing. 

The “failure” of Cabrini-Green was national news, and the neighborhood was described as the “Wild West” of Chicago, in the throws of poverty and gang violence. The press criticized the residents, but they didn’t have anything to do with the community’s decline –  if anyone was to blame it was the city of Chicago. 


In the 1980s, up-and-coming areas surrounding the community (such as Lincoln Park and the “Gold Coast” along Lake Michigan), prompted officials to start finding ways to leave the marginalized neighborhood at the hands of gentrification. 

Finally, after consistent pleas from residents, Mayor Richard Daley sent prominent Black officials to the community in 1997. He planned to have a gathering and present a transformation plan that would cost over $1 billion. 

His vision was to tear down the high-rise buildings and start from scratch. While many residents saw this as a vital step toward better low-income Chicago housing, Daley had his mind somewhere else. 


Empty Promises

Mayor Daley promised to reinvigorate the neighborhood, but the news was also released that anyone who wanted to return to Cabrini-Green would be promised construction jobs. The plan would span 10 years and the city would spend $1.5 billion to tear down 18,000 apartments and the possibility of fixing up 25,000 apartments, additionally. A new library, an upgraded park, and a new shopping center were also promised. 


In 2011, the last high-rise building was destroyed. As of today, many of the revitalizations the CHA promised residents weren’t finished in the way that they thought would be. The initiative for renovation was disguised as a way to gentrify the whole area without the residents having a clue. By demolishing the existing buildings privy to the effects of racism on a marginalized community, it’s as if the history of racial injustice never happened. 


‘Candyman’ and Cabrini-Green

The 1992 film about an urban legend that was inspired by the Cabrini-Green projects, helped the neighborhood gain international notoriety. Candyman is the creepy figure that haunts the community, a symbol of the continual legacy of American racism and slavery.  

Helen Lyle is a white Ph.D. student doing a thesis on urban legends. She goes into Cabrini hoping to find some information about an ominous figure called “Candyman.” If you say “Candyman” in the mirror five times, he will allegedly appear and kill you with his hook hand. 

Cabrini-Green these days is a trendy, mostly white neighborhood with a riverwalk boasting boats and new apartments for tenants of different incomes. An Apple Store and Target were also put there, further signifying the gentrification and alienation of the community’s former residents.


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