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Housing Tue Dec 21 2010

The Story Behind One Cabrini-Green Eviction

This article was written by Rory Fanning.

Stepping out of the elevator onto the 14th floor of the Richard J. Daley Center, Sheriee Woodland was greeted by a world-famous panorama of high-rise architecture.

The Chicago Temple Building, Holabird & Root's 23 story, neo-Gothic masterpiece; Kohn Pederson Fox's "Birthday Cake Building" at 311 S. Wacker; and The Legacy, Solomon Cordwell and Buenz's 72-story condominium tower of ocean-blue glass, were a few of the many well-maintained buildings that looked back through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Woodland was at the Daley Center because of a different high-rise. She was on her way to eviction court.

In her early sixties, she walked into the courtroom with her son Bo to contest her eviction from 1230 N. Burling, the last crumbling high-rise at the Cabrini-Green housing development on the near north side of Chicago. Months before its emergency closing order from CHA, she and her son were accompanied by activists from RUSH (Residents United to Save Housing) and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign for a more personal reason.

Nearing the End
1230 N. Burling, Photograph by David Schalliol

Woodland was in a coma lying on a hospital bed when her nephew, charged with first-degree murder, was found in her apartment. Her daughter Yolanda paid the rent for two years while Woodland recovered in a nursing home and was on file with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as having power of attorney for Woodland; Yolanda was unaware anyone was staying in the unit.

Due to a prior arrest record, her nephew had long been barred from entering the building. Two armed guards and two Chicago police officers are stationed at the front entrance around the clock to ensure that unauthorized people stay out of the tower.

But Chalonda McIntosh, a one-time resident of the tower, said, "Despite the guards, it's very common for someone to break into a unit when they know the resident won't be home."

When Woodland returned home with severe short-term memory loss she was promptly served with an eviction notice, citing the discovery of the murder suspect as the cause. Although the conditions of the CHA lease states that no one may stay in a unit with a felony, it also states that no one maybe evicted from housing with a mental disorder.

In court, Bo did most of the talking before the bench. "Judge, my mom is mentally unsound ... We request a 30-day continuance in order to find an attorney."

Judge Orville E. Hambright, seated under the words "In God We Trust," lectured Bo, "I know what it's like when people stand in that spot without a lawyer. It doesn't go well. I know it ain't easy, but you need to have a plan A, B and C for your mother. If it was my Mom, I would make sure all my ducks were in a row ... I'll give you 30 days, but you need to get on this."


Regardless of the specific reason for Woodland's eviction, McIntosh thinks the "CHA is looking for any and all excuses to evict people right now" in order to clear the way for the demolition of the building for its Plan for Transformation. Under the plan, high-rises are being torn down and "mixed-income" developments are going up; however, the CHA says that there won't be enough housing units for everyone. According to the Chicago Reporter, "16,183 families could be vying for half of the available family units -- 7,647." This statistic does not consider the 29,000 families on the wait list for public housing.

Those not assigned an affordable family unit may be eligible for a Section 8 housing voucher, which allows them to live in a market rate apartment with a subsidy. While the city asserts that the vouchers will allow residents to live most anywhere in the city, a 2007 Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project report found that "Nearly half of all voucher holders live in just 10 of the 77 of the community areas in Chicago."

Woodland is one of the few who were moved to a CHA unit in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses. The 68-year-old housing development is located a short distance from the recently renovated Montgomery Ward Complex -- a Chicago architectural landmark. Standing atop the prairie-style building and gazing down at the rowhouses is "The Spirit of Progress," an elegant, 16-foot-tall, bronze statue of a woman shrouded in linen and holding a torch.

Drying Car Wash Towels, Cabrini Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, Photograph by David Schalliol

The unit CHA reserved for Woodland was boarded up and had a broken toilet sitting on the balcony. Woodland was the only person living in the 8-unit low-rise. Although dozens of units in the Rowhouses had been updated, Woodland's unit had not been. She will likely be moved into an updated unit, but when and for how long remain to been seen.

Jacqueline Pratt lives in the low-rise next door. "I have been in public housing since 1973," she says. "They moved me into this unit two-and-a-half years ago, and they just gave me a 180-day notice. I have to leave because the building is considered unsafe. They are trying to give me a section 8 voucher."

Jacqueline stood in her kitchen, which resembled the inside of a small commercial fishing boat; two cabinets were hung over the sink, a washer-dryer was crammed between a refrigerator and stove, a small table stood in the corner. "When I moved in here, there was black mold covering that wall," she said, pointing to the living room by the TV. "We tried to clean it, but I'm sure it is still growing on the other side of the wall, in the abandoned unit next door."

She changed the topic: "They call me Mom around here, whether they're my kids or not. I always make sure that freezer is full. I know how it is to go hungry -- if someone knocks on my door, I feed them. I went to bed hungry as a kid. I don't want anyone to have to go through that."

She pulled the couch in her living room away from the wall and revealed a square foot of swelling drywall and said, "It gets real cold come December. They need to start winterizing these places. The temperature swings cause all kinds of damage."

When she learned that Woodland would be moving into the abandoned building next door she said, "What? Now how are they going to tell me to move out of a building because it's unsafe, and move someone into another building worse off than mine? That doesn't make any sense ... The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right is doing around here."


While CHA CEO Lewis Jordan declared in May, "First and foremost, our job is to put people in better and safer housing," Cabrini residents argue that most are being scattered to neighborhoods with less economic potential than Cabrini's Near North Side location.

Stairwell at Cabrini Green 6, 1230 N. Larrabee
A Cabrini-Green tower stairwell, Photograph by David Schalliol

To get a better view of the neighborhood that the residents want to keep, anti-eviction campaign member Willie "J.R." Fleming and I climbed a blood-red stairwell to the 10th floor of the Burling tower. Arriving at the floor, we walked down what some might call an open-air corridor; my shoes stuck to the floor with each step, and my nose was assaulted by the smell of urine and stale grease.

To the west, windows of the units were spray-painted white from the inside. To the east, a hand railing studded in metal teeth divided a dense honeycomb of bars that left just enough space to see the skyline shimmer orange in the setting sun. Starbucks and Dominick's are now well established in the neighborhood, and residential construction continues between the highrise and the Magnificent Mile. Cabrini will be an expensive place to live one day.

We asked a group of kids passing in the hall what they thought of being sent to live in random parts of the city. "We don't like it," said two of the four in unison.

The sun had set as we walked down the stairs -- the same metal grates that obstructed the view of the skyline dimmed the yellow light fixtures in the stairwell. I stepped over a puddle of urine on each floor.

In 1891, Louis Sullivan built the Monadnock Building, the world's first skyscraper, on 53 W. Jackson. Chicago has since developed a reputation as one of the architectural capitals of the world. People from all over take architectural tours of the city--where docents explain the form vs. function relationship of Mies van der Rohe's IBM building; the poetic contextualism of 333 W. Wacker; and how Steve McQueen jumped a car into the Chicago River from the iconic, corn-cob towers of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, while filming the movie Hunter in 1979.

A. Epstein and Sons, the firm that got the contracts to build Cabrini housing in the 1950s by selling Papa Daley on a "fast-track method" of construction, isn't mentioned on any tours.

In the city with "big shoulders," the residents at Cabrini will continue to be transplanted. Another location for world-famous architects to design thought-provoking office space or condominiums will be sewn up. Sheriee Woodland's million-dollar view will likely be given to someone who can afford it, and Chicago's architectural tradition will live on.

In a few years, the city will have to make sure they donate a few architectural tour tickets to Sheriee Woodland and the former Cabrini-Green residents, so they can see all the great things done with their old neighborhood.

About the Author:

Rory Fanning has been a sales manager at one of the largest mortgage banks in Chicago as well as a manager at a Chicago architecual boat tour company. He is perhaps best known for his cross-country walk, which raised funds and awareness for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Steven Dahlman / December 21, 2010 6:27 PM

" Steve McQueen jumped a motorcycle into the Chicago River from the iconic, corn-cob towers of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, while filming the movie Hunter in 1980."

It was actually a 1980 Grand Prix Pontiac and the stunt was filmed on September 21, 1979.

-Steven Dahlman, Editor,

David / December 21, 2010 8:28 PM

Thank you, Steven. Updated.

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