70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green

Mar 24, 2016

When filmmaker Ronit Bezalel first arrived in Chicago as a film student in 1994, all she knew about Cabrini Green was its reputation. "I could see Cabrini from the windows of the 'L,' and people told me to avoid it at all costs. I wanted to know why I couldn't go there."

So, when plans to demolish the violence-ridden public housing project were announced, Bezalel saw an opportunity. She met another Columbia College student and resident of Cabrini, Mark Pratt, and set about making a short film. What she heard from residents fighting to stay, in spite of the crime and deplorable conditions, was a story of community.

"Cabrini is a place of so many contradictions. Sometimes everything is true. You would hear people say, 'It's awful, but I want to stay." Bezalel documented these contradictions in her film "70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green." She follows several residents impacted by the demolition of Cabrini and the relocation of its residents, some into public housing in other parts of the city, some into new mixed income housing developments that sprung up in the shadow of the public housing project.

Janet Smith is associate professor of Urban Planning and co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a consultant on the film. Smith says it's difficult for middle class suburbanites to wrap their heads around the sense of community that existed in Cabrini, in spite of all its problems. "Middle class people don’t commune nearly as much as those in public housing. In Cabrini, everyone’s an auntie, even if they’re not related to you. Everyone knows each other’s business. It feels like a small town."

She says that community was the support system that many residents relied upon. Smith says when residents were dispersed into other areas of the city, that support system was also dismantled.

In this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Bezalel and Smith about the film, which will be screened on the University of Iowa campus Friday, March 25th at 6:00 p.m. followed by a panel discussion. He also speaks with Anne Gruenewald, president and CEO of Four Oaks, a social service agency in Cedar Rapids about the Total Child pilot project. That effort is aimed at rehabilitating housing in the Wellington Heights neighborhood as a way to bring stability to families and children in crisis.