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'The Projects' Explores The Evolution Of Chicago's Public Housing System


Now a story that's often full of contradictions and controversy - the story of public housing in this country. There's a documentary play on stage in Chicago that's tackling this. It's called "The Project(s)." It focuses on what worked and what went wrong when Chicago tore down its troubled high-rises to build mixed-income communities. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In a Southside Chicago neighborhood, about a 10-minute drive from downtown, a mix of smart brick condos, townhomes and apartments line up in an area called Oakwood Shores. This used to be the home of three huge contiguous public housing developments. Annie Smith-Stubenfield lived in two of them. The photographer now lives in one of the new rowhouses.

ANNIE SMITH-STUBENFIELD: In this spot, exactly where we're standing, is the Clarence Darrow Homes.

CORLEY: Looks entirely different.

SMITH-STUBENFIELD: Totally different - totally - and I love - that's what I love about it. The new community - I love the look of the new community.

CORLEY: The Darrow Homes was just one of several public high-rises housing developments. One of the most infamous was Chicago's Cabrini-Green. Another was portrayed in one of Smith-Stubenfield's photos projected on one of the stage walls during the play.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) I love this photo.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) What are these?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Back there? The high-rises? Robert Taylor Homes. At the time, it was the biggest housing project in the country. I think 27 - 28,000 people live in there.

CORLEY: Playwrights P.J. Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger interviewed some of them over a five-year span. They talked to former and current public housing residents, like Smith-Stubenfield, scholars and gang members.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) (Singing) Just looking out of a window, watching the asphalt grow...

CORLEY: The American Theater Company's production of "The Projects(s)" begins with the lyrics of the theme song for "Good Times," the 1970s sitcom about an all-black family making the best of it in the Chicago housing projects. "Good Times" was fiction imitating life. Papparelli, artistic director of the theater company, wanted to capture the story behind the city's saga with public housing.

P.J. PAPARELLI: We made a mistake and built these high-rises and concentrated the poor. And ever since, there's been such a fear. Like, that's the dirty word - public housing. But the need hasn't changed. In fact, the need has increased for subsidized housing. And so, to me, it seemed like it was worthy of debate. It was worthy to get it up on stage and talk about it.

CORLEY: Paparelli spoke to me during rehearsals of the play. On May 21, he died, following an automobile accident. One of the things he and Jaeger wanted to show was that, initially, the massive structures built in Chicago were an oasis for the city's working poor. That came out in the interviews they adapted.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As character) Oh, Lord, it was so beautiful, and it was ours.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (As character) I just remember thinking, this is my home - my home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) These early residents showed an intense affinity for their new communities. The word paradise gets thrown around a lot.

CORLEY: An ensemble of eight black actors play all of the characters in the play, even the white ones, including Chicago's first Mayor Daley, who initially supported low-rise public housing. The federal government funded high-rises for less cost per unit. Even so, the promise of the housing was still strong.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Hey, my brother.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (As character) Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) You're looking good today.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (As characters) Oh, no, my brother look good every day.


CORLEY: But the promise faded quickly, said Paparelli.

PAPARELLI: The problems that then stemmed out of the decisions that're being made - concentrating the poor in one part of town, putting them into these high-rises, not thinking about the number of kids inside these buildings - all of these things playing at the same time, of course, creates generations of problems.

CORLEY: To fill its high rises, the Housing Authority began renting to welfare recipients, obliterating the income base needed to maintain the buildings. Many working families would leave, and the buildings would become notorious for gang violence.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As character) It could be the littlest thing that would set it off. The next thing you know, it's on red alert, and everybody running up the stairs, locking their kids inside. And you look out on the fire lane, and you see there's a war going on.

CORLEY: Still, the developments created their own infrastructure and their own economy.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: (As character) You'd just open up shop, right at the apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (As character) They had a store, I'm talking with shelves and stuff. I'm not lying - anything you wanted. You name it. They sold it.

CORLEY: Everything from groceries to household needs. Chicago eventually gave up on high-rises, bringing a close to one huge experiment to create another with its 1.6 billion-dollar plan for transformation. It's all depicted in the play.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As character) And now we're building townhouses with market-tested names, like Oakwood Shores.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As character) I mean, look at this. There's, like, this this cute little white couple and a dog, and look, they're eating pizza. And this is in the black neighborhood, where previously could you couldn't even get police, much less a pizza delivery.


CORLEY: In the post-demolition era of public housing, the gleam of new neighborhoods has brought frustration, displacement and even, say some, a spread of new violence because of the movement of gang members to different areas of the city. But for others, it's brought hope.


CORLEY: As the play comes to an end, its message that public housing, despite its troubles, is still home to those who live or lived there, rings true to audience members like Russel Norman (ph).

RUSSEL NORMAN: This is not a play to me. I live this. I mean, these are my neighbors, my family members, my friends, my classmates, my coworkers, my community.

CORLEY: And that was the goal of the playwrights - to tell a true story about the bonding, dismantling and transformation of community in public housing. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.