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Housing

The Rise and Fall of American Public Housing

In High-Risers, Ben Austen recounts the hopes, travails, and vilification of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green.
Cabrini-Green, foreground and mid-photo, seen against the Chicago skyline in 1996, a year after demolition began.
Cabrini-Green, foreground and mid-photo, seen against the Chicago skyline in 1996, a year after demolition began.Beth A. Keiser/AP

Of all that came out of the mid-20th-century liberal consensus, perhaps nothing ended up so reviled as public housing. Bedeviled by hyper-segregation, urban decline, de-industrialization, and other social ills, government-funded affordable housing in large cities of the United States suffered from decades of bad press. By the 1990s, its failure was so broadly assumed that most of America cheered on the Clinton administration when it demolished huge swathes of the nation’s public housing.

Ben Austen’s new book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing offers a tenant’s-eye view of life in one of the most infamous public housing projects, Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago. At its peak, the massive complex on the Near North Side of the city had 3,600 units, mostly in high- and mid-rise buildings, and 20,000 residents. All but several hundred townhouses were demolished from 1995 through 2011.