Tearing Down Cabrini-Green

Cabrini-Green Is Gone. Will The Replacement Work?

They’re finally tearing down Cabrini-Green. For decades, the red and white tenements near downtown Chicago have been a blot on the skyline – the nation’s most infamous public housing project, synonymous with gangs, drugs, misery and murder.

But Cabrini-Green is just the beginning. As Correspondent Vicki Mabrey first reported last winter, the plan is to replace all of Chicago’s projects with beautiful new "mixed-income" developments - rich and poor living side by side.

So what do you get when you take the country’s most disadvantaged families, add in some young professionals, and build them a brand new neighborhood?

Chicago is finding out.

All over Chicago, they’re tearing down the cinderblock dinosaurs known simply as "the projects."

They have been a disaster – with generations of children raised in the squalor. But by the end of 2009, all 53 of Chicago’s public housing high-rises will be gone.

It's the largest demolition of public housing in the nation's history, and it will uproot some 40,000 people - many of whom have never lived anywhere else but in public housing.

"I’d rather sleep on a cardboard box, in the streets, rather than keep going through what I was going through," says Larry Sargent.

Sargent grew up in Cabrini-Green, but when he took on sole custody of his baby son, he knew he had to break the cycle and get out.

However, he never imagined that "out" might mean a brand-new, $70 million development just 100 yards from Cabrini-Green.

It's called North Town Village and consists of 261 condos and town homes that represent one of the most daring concepts in public housing today.

A total of 79 families will have the chance to move out of Cabrini-Green and move in there - next to someone who bought one of the brand-new homes at market rate. A three-bedroom, top-of-the-line town home like that costs nearly $500,000. But an identical unit next door could be reserved for a Cabrini-Green family, whose rent is subsidized by the government.

The project started two years ago with a complex mix of public and private funding. The man on the ground was Peter Holsten, an idealistic developer selling this vision of gentrification with a twist.

"So here’s someone coming and buying a $500,000 town home, and we’re telling him in the sales trailer – or her – that the town home next to you, which is no different than yours, is gonna have a Cabrini-Green family in it," says Holsten. "And these people are not turning away. They're buying them."

Mark and Amanda Tomlinson, young professionals, stopped by the sales trailer the day it opened.

"I told her just for kicks, 'Bring the checkbook,'" says Mark Tomlinson. "And it was just a feeding frenzy in there."

The Tomlinsons bought a three-bedroom town house on the spot. Incredibly, all the units sold before they were even built.

But why would anyone invest in a neighborhood like this? Because Cabrini-Green, and now North Town Village, are just a mile away from Chicago’s ritziest strip.

"There’s tons of shops, great stores, restaurants," says Amanda Tomlinson.

"You go two blocks one way, you're in public housing," adds her husband, Mark. "You go two blocks the other way, you're at Banana Republic."

Finding buyers was easy. The hard sell was convincing public housing residents to apply, which Holsten discovered when he made his pitch to a skeptical crowd at a town hall meeting at Cabrini-Green.

Cabrini residents, already angry about being pushed out, thought Holsten’s offer sounded too good to be true.

"These people were amazed," says Holsten. "They're waiting to get taken advantage of. They're waiting to get screwed. They're waiting for something to go wrong."

But there was no catch, Holsten says. "The catch is, follow the building rules and enjoy yourself in a wonderful brand-new home."

But for many coming from the chaos of Cabrini-Green, the building rules are barrier enough. On top of the obvious - no drugs, no loitering, no loud music - there is perhaps the hardest expectation of all: that they fit in with their wealthy neighbors.

For Sargent, it seemed overwhelming. To get into North Town Village, he and the other applicants would have to pass a screening process so tough that many people simply dropped out. There's a home inspection, a criminal background check, and mandatory drug tests.

With that in mind, you might think Sargent's past would disqualify him from landing a spot at the new development. He spent his youth trying to escape all that's wrong with Cabrini-Green, joining the Army at 17 to get away. But after six years, he ended up right back where he started, and spent the last 15 years struggling with drug addiction.

But when North Town Village held its first orientation meeting, Sargent was one of the first to arrive.

At the time, Candice Howell was a vice president at Holsten’s development company, in charge of the screening process.

"We’re looking for things, red flags, like criminal behavior against property, criminal behavior against people," she says. "Guns, drugs, convictions. Because we’re not miracle workers."

Howell made it clear from Day One that North Town Village would be nothing like Cabrini-Green. And she literally gave lessons to prospective tenants on how to get along there.

"You get good neighbor training - how do I go out and be a good neighbor," says Howell.

They also required seminars that all families had to attend before moving in. "Every household has to go through these orientations, and we’re gonna have a bunch of social events, and we’re going to push it," says Holsten. "Push, push, push the concept of building a community."

Sheri Wade was desperate for a safer community. A run of bad luck landed her at Cabrini-Green eight years ago. And for her two youngest children – Travis, 12, and Jamilla, 9 – the projects have been a prison. In fact, Wade says, she had to keep them indoors in order to keep them safe.

Sargent and Wade both made it to the next stage of the application process, which included attending a meeting with some of the buyers.

Wade seemed a shoo-in, but her application hit a snag. Her on-again off-again husband wouldn't pass the drug test, and she knew it.

So she found herself in a difficult position: her husband on one hand, a brand-new home on the other, and Howell in the middle. Wade made a wrenching choice. She and her children would leave her husband behind.

"I couldn't keep having it happen to the whole family," says Wade. "It wasn't just affecting him. It affected the whole house."

Sargent was determined not to let drugs stand in his way either. He goes regularly for counseling at the VA hospital – a commitment that helped win him a spot at North Town Village.

As he and his son left Cabrini-Green for the last time, they began a new life just five minutes away, in a brand-new two-bedroom apartment with a bird's-eye view.

But not everyone will be lucky enough to live in a place like North Town Village. So far, 36 high-rises are gone, but aside from North Town Village, construction of new replacement housing has barely begun. And even when it's done, there will be 14,000 fewer public housing apartments than when the demolition first started. Holsten says this is the biggest hitch in the city's plans.

"There is a huge need in Cabrini alone," says Holsten. "I believe there are several thousand families left. It's going to be tight. It's going to be really tight."

"This is a crisis. Mixed income isn't the answer," adds Howell. "It's not going to accommodate. It's a fraction of the need."

The city has been trying to help others find homes outside public housing with mixed results. The developers say they expected some resentment to be directed at North Town Village. There's already been vandalism and a couple of break-ins.

But mostly, people at North Town Village are focused on settling in. Amanda Tomlinson says she met a Cabrini family who moved in next door: "They’re great."

They hope their presence there makes a difference. "There’s been this cycle of isolation that's gone on for, you know, 30, 40, years. And my hope is that this breaks the cycle," says Mark Tomlinson. "And 20 years from now, I think everybody will be happy we did this."

Larry Sargent is also glad he made the move, and 60 Minutes II visited him several months after he moved in. He's been working for the Holsten Group as a maintenance man.

For the first time, he's proud to call his apartment home. It's still a struggle every day, he says, but he hopes the move will give his son a chance he never had.

"He'll get to see a chance to see another part of life at a young age," says Sargent. "And, you know, won't fall into no snake pit like I did."

Sheri Wade still works hard to make ends meet, but says she's already noticed a change in her children, and in herself.

"We used to go over to people's houses and spend the night. Now they'd rather come home. And I like that," says Wade.