A photo of Teddy Williams from the 2013 documentary, 'The Greens' | Photo courtesy of Groundswell Educational Films

Teddy Williams is shifting anxiously in his seat at an Oak Park cafe, a west Chicago suburb he currently lives in but doesn’t consider home. It’s been almost two decades since he was forced out of his apartment in the Cabrini-Green Homes housing projects, once located in the near North Side neighborhood. While visibly uncomfortable, his frustrations — from feeling out of place in his current neighborhood — reveal a homesickness as he shares his favorite childhood memories. He vividly details the foot races, dance competitions and rejected Milk Duds from the nearby candy factory that he enjoyed throughout his childhood days in the 1990s. 

He also describes feeling powerless when Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his 1999 plan to demolish the high-rise towers pushed his family and friends out of a community they called home. The Chicago Housing Authority had unveiled the Plan for Transformation, which saw the city pledge to spend $1.5 billion over 10 years to tear down 18,000 apartments and build or rehabilitate 25,000 apartments, including Cabrini-Green, to the benefit of developers who had long sought properties in the neighborhood.

“We were like a black spot on a white collar that they were trying to wash away,” says Williams, who is now in his late 40s.

The outside world may have only known Cabrini-Green for violence and squalor. But for Williams, life in the projects was a good one; abundant with community, support and acceptance. 

“If we were poor, we didn’t know it,” he says.

As time passed and the near North Side neighborhood continues to make room for more five-star restaurants and coffee shops selling five-dollar lattes, former Cabrini-Green residents and those who worked in the area are faced with the delayed horror of gentrification: complete cultural erasure. 

Tanika Carpenter, founder of Black Owned Chicago, didn’t grow up in Cabrini-Green, but she did witness the transition of the neighborhood firsthand while mentoring youth who lived in the community at the time.

Watching the last Cabrini-Green tower go down in 2011 inspired Carpenter to want to preserve the memory of the neighborhood. Knowing what happened to Cabrini-Green, she says, is an essential part of Chicago history. Today, she fears that, with gentrification, the whole community is being forgotten. 

“If you were somebody who was not from Chicago, you would never know this existed,” says Carpenter.

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The Cabrini-Green housing projects has had a complicated reputation.

Introduced in 1942, the decision to invest in public housing communities around the city was an effort aimed to replace slums and provide affordable housing for low-income families. Many working-class Black families migrating from southern states took advantage of this opportunity. By the 1980s, Cabrini-Green consisted of 23 high-rise buildings and barrack-style row houses, housing close to 15,000 people at its peak. 

However, the failures of Cabrini-Green were blamed on the systemic bad management of CHA. 

Carpenter remembers the city’s neglect, saying that even garbage collection wasn’t enforced. 

“People from the outside looking in would say ‘look how dirty they are. They have garbage everywhere.’ Not knowing the city of Chicago is not making the garbage men come in to get the garbage to dispose of,” says Carpenter. 

After years of disinvestment under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s and CHA’s leadership, the federal government took control of CHA in 1995, citing mismanagement, fraud and rampant neglect of tenants. 

By then, Cabrini-Green, popularized by negative national media attention, had a renowned reputation for its unlivable conditions and horrific acts of violence, including the 1992 death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, who was shot by a stray bullet while walking with his mother. Headlines publicly villainized the community, highlighting its crime, gang activity and dense concentration of poverty. 

Movies, like the popular 1992 film “Candyman” added insult to injury furthering a violent narrative with a fictional story of a legendary serial killer living on Cabrini-Green’s grounds. Even the movie’s director Bernard Rose, admitted he chose the location because of people’s “palpable” fear, specifically towards African Americans and poor communities. 

“Movies like that portray Black neighborhoods as being places where the boogeyman lives,” says Leila Taylor, author of “Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul.” 

In her book, Taylor connects Americans’ obsession with crafting horror stories as people’s way of dealing with larger cultural issues that cause anxiety, stress and fear. 

“All it does is dehumanize and negate the actual lives of individual people,” says Taylor.

While public housing communities like Cabrini-Green earn a horrible reputation, Taylor also says that it is new development and displacing families that presents the most imminent threat. 

Given its proximity to the Loop and wealthy surrounding neighborhoods like Gold Coast,  Cabrini-Green became very attractive to developers starting in the 1990s, according to Places Journal.

Many residents of Cabrini-Green, like Williams, were evicted and forced to relocate — some even outside the city. By the conclusion of the 10-year overhaul that ended in 2011, there was very little representation of the Cabrini-Green people knew. Only a small number of previous residents would be able to take advantage of the new housing, since returning to the neighborhood was heavily dependent on meeting specific requirements, including no criminal record and income. 

“I think there is a haunting of Black lives that remains in gentrified spaces and I think one of the goals of gentrificationwhether people admit it or notis to replace that history with their own,” says Taylor. 

Gentrification is impacting major cities across the U.S. In a study done by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Chicago is one of seven cities that accounts for nearly half of all gentrification nationwide. While the change often brings new development, tourism, and an economic boost, the horrific underbelly of gentrification is the cultural erasure that impacts residents who still consider these neighborhoods original home. 

“Nobody would know there was a whole community of people who lived here, who have memories here, who had children here and who died here,” Carpenter explains. “You would never know that because it’s covered with $300,000 condominiums, expensive offices and fancy restaurants. That history is literally wiped away.”

A photo from Carpenter’s fundraiser video for her screenplay, “Cabrini: An American Story”

Carpenter is now working to memorialize this history. Alongside two co-writers, Resheida Brady and Allyson Scrutchens, Carpenter is raising $45,000 for their screenplay, “Cabrini: An American Story,” that they hope to turn into a TV pilot by the end of 2020. The story provides a fictionalized representation of life in Cabrini-Green from the perspective of three Black women. 

Carpenter says that knowing what happened in Cabrini-Green is an essential part of Chicago history. 

“I look at how it impacted the culture. It’s in our music. It’s in Hollywood. It’s a huge part of Chicago history that I feel like the city of Chicago is trying to keep under wraps,” she says. 

The popular 1970s sitcom, “Good Times,” originally written by Cabrini-Green native Eric Monte, represented the community in its opening credits and had a reboot this past month. Jordan Peele’s “Candyman” remake is scheduled to come out this year. 

However, Carpenter says it’s important that Black Chicagoans preserve its memory. 

“It’s our story to tell,” she says. 

Teddy Williams | Photo courtesy of Groundswell Educational Films

As for Williams, he would move back to Cabrini-Green, if given the opportunity. 

“If I could buy a nice piece of land, I think I would try to replicate Cabrini-Green.” Williams says before pausing to chuckle, “And make it gated.” 

For now though, Williams has to settle for memories and mementos — including a brick that he managed to grab during the demolition. 

“They were going to trash it anyway.” says Williams.