The term “Cabrini Green” carries a particular stigma both on a national and local scale. It is a location associated with an impoverished and failed system of public housing, conjuring images of destitute black communities and the horrors of criminality and deviance. It’s even associated with the supernatural, serving as the backdrop for Bernard Rose and Clive Barker’s Candyman, where a black man with a hook for a hand is summoned through bathroom mirrors in the projects when his name is repeated five times. But Cabrini Green is but one public housing community among many, and given its proximity to the affluent north side of Chicago, has become a valuable piece of land for prospectors and developers. In Ronit Bezalel’s 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green, the director observes, through a 15 year span, the demolition of the neighborhood, the relocation of its inhabitants, and the subsequent policies that preclude their return. It’s a powerful documentary on the displacement of a community, the socioeconomic disadvantages that plague so many Chicago residents, and the immediate and ongoing concerns of gentrification that plague the city.
Bezalel details the oppressive history that spurred the creation of the Cabrini Green projects, citing the development as a response to racial tensions in the city that segregated blacks from white neighborhoods. The subsequent development, at its peak, sheltered 15,000 people, most of who were of African-American origin. With a Chicago economy that shifted away from manufacturing to perceived “professional” development, a domino effect occurred: a large portion of the Cabrini Green community lost their jobs and with their failure to make rent, were evicted. The amount of evictions and abandoned residences rose as the Chicago Housing Authority no longer had the funds to maintain the 70 acres of land and its high rises. Squalor pervaded throughout the area, with the immediate social effects – a rise in criminality and impoverishment – resulting in a reassessment of the projects themselves.
Bezalel positions the historical narrative alongside the personal narratives of three residents of the projects who were displaced – a child who lives in an adjacent row house in the newly gentrified area, a father whose family has been displaced to the impoverished south side, and a mother who successfully procured residence within the gentrified “mixed-income housing” of the redeveloped Cabrini Green, though contends with stringent bureaucratic red tape to maintain her residency. These stories individually expose the city’s penchant for humiliating the working poor, whereby the associated privilege of wealth subjugates and disenfranchises the poverty-stricken. As the film interviews members of the new neighborhood, there’s a degree of righteous indignation placed against those members of the community who were there to begin with, suggesting that while opulent members of this redeveloped land may seem fine with former Cabrini Green residents securing shelter within their locale, they’re still very aware of the dynamic they represent – specific quotas are to be met to maintain socioeconomic “balance”. Which more often than reinforces the new hegemony.
Spanning over 15 years and including a wealth of personal and historical material to cover, this brisk documentary clocks in at under an hour, which is a disservice to the complexity of the Cabrini Green housing situation. The individual narratives themselves could have justified a feature-length film and to see them condensed certainly strips the film of some of its more stirring emotional potency. There’s something especially moving about seeing a young black boy’s development from childhood to adolescence that could have benefited from a longer runtime and a more focused narrative trajectory. While Ronit Bezalel’s broad strokes may not complement specifics, they do shed light on a specific Chicago problem that demands the city’s attention; this is an important Chicago document.