In the 1990s both municipalities across the U.S., and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were overwhelmingly in favor of moving away from high-rise public housing developments and toward a new strategy for housing the poor. The prevailing preference was for low-rise public housing, privately developed mixed-income developments, and Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) that gave qualifying low-income households rent subsidies to take into the private housing market.
Often, the political will to tare down high-rise/elevator buildings was so great that thoughtful projects to rehabilitate them were quickly rejected without serious consideration. This was certainly the case in Chicago, home of some of the most notoriously degraded housing projects in the country, such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green.
Thought high-rise public housing projects began their lives as innovative, modernist solutions to the problem of slum neighborhoods in the 1940s, ’50s and 60s, these buildings soon met a starkly different fate. On the one hand, the projects successfully fulfilled the city’s desire to get rid of unsightly slum districts while keeping neighborhoods segregated and freeing up valuable land near downtown. On the other, this warehousing of poor, African-America populations resulted in the creation of “vertical ghettos”.
The buildings had not truly been designed with the needs of families in mind and the costs of maintaining them had not been properly calculated; they fell into stagnant disrepair quickly. The severe lack of economic opportunities for the residents led to the growth of illicit activities among some to generate money by other means. Eventually, rival gangs and a flourishing drug trade riddled the high-rises, further deteriorating living conditions. Despite this, in many cases, the communities of families and friends living there remained resilient and organized for decades. When the sweeping tide of public housing policy reform came in the ’90s (to the triumphant jubilation of all those who didn’t live in the projects), the tenants faced it with deep ambivalence. (The experience of this transformation has recently been chronicled in a poignant collection of oral histories by Audrey Petty.)
Though most high-rise projects were slated to be torn down with no chance at rehabilitation, a few did get a new lease on life, and continue to serve low-income populations in Chicago today. One great example of an inexpensive but finely tuned restoration can be seen at the Archer Courts in Chinatown. The main seven-story building is today a property reserved for senior citizens, and in general senior properties have been built or rehabbed with far more care than family housing in the city. Nevertheless, the case of Archer Courts is an important one because it gives us an idea of how it could have been possible to improve some high-rises for a price lower than demolition, all while saving residents the extended pain of relocation.
Archer Courts featured a very typical modernist touch – open-air galleries along the façade, along which one accessed the front door of every unit. Besides being inhumanely cold for a good portion of the year, these galleries quickly proved to be unsafe. Soon after construction, many housing projects faced the tragedy of children falling out of the galleries that did not originally include proper railings. The solution, applied at most sites including Archer, Cabrini-Green and the Taylor Homes was the installation of floor-to-ceiling chain link fencing. Though it solved the problem of kids falling out, it created a cage-like environment for the residents and did nothing to make the galleries any warmer.
So, in their 1999 renovation, Landon Bone Baker Architects did a simple thing: they installed glass pains to seal off the galleries and create farm hallways. These airy, brightly lit spaces extended the domain of social interaction beyond the threshold of the home. The galleries became community spaces where people could relax and interact, children could safely play, and the skyline of the city could be enjoyed. This, in addition to unit renovations, elevator fix-ups, some new landscaping, and the construction of low-rise town homes on the site transformed a decaying high-rise project site into a welcoming community. Archer Courts has continued to serve low-income tenants, but some of the town homes are sold and leased at market rate. As a revitalized community is presents one of the rare examples of a successful mixed-income site in the city.
Some argue that the renovation of Archer Courts has been successful in large part because it was meant for seniors, whose lifestyles present significantly less ware and tare to a building. However I would argue that the near-constant presence of grandchildren on the site puts it under much of a same pressure as one would expect in a family development.
After the success at Archer, the same team of architects proposed a similarity low-cost redevelopment of the Cabrini-Green site (which by the early 2000s had already experienced some building demolitions). But, as developer Peter Holsten described to Ben Austin of Harper’s magazine: “The political will was not there to do it.”