High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen


I remember hearing about “the projects” when I was a child. I didn’t truly understand what it meant, or what they were, of course—that understanding wouldn’t come until several years later. When it did, the few things I read (or, occasionally, saw on television)  centered around African-American poverty, crime, and gangs; leaving me with the impression that it was a terrible, frightening place to live.

What I never learned about was how they came to be, or how different life was for the early tenants compared to what it eventually became.

High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing tells the story of the Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago, Illinois. Though it would later become notorious for crime and gang activity, the high rises were once a lovely, desirable place to live, as we learn in reminiscences of former tenants, such as Delores Wilson. Wilson (along with her husband and children) moved into one of the high rises in 1956. In the fifty years she lived there, she witnessed how Cabrini-Green went from being a well-maintained, safe and friendly place to live, to what it eventually became before the last of the high rises were demolished in 2011.

I can’t begin to comment, even briefly, on the politics and people involved that saw the construction and eventual demise of the Cabrini-Green high rises, and how it affected the lives of the people living there. Trust me when I say that all of it—the history of how it came to be, the politics involved throughout its existence, racism and deliberate segregation based on both race and financial status—made for some seriously interesting reading. The depth of Austen’s research is clearly evident throughout, and the book is written in a narrative-style similar in my mind to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City. This isn’t a dry retelling of the facts; it’s a heartfelt history that tells the story of Cabrini-Green and its residents, warts and all. If anyone can manage reading the portions telling the personal stories of former residents without feeling an ounce of empathy (and, at times, anger and a sense of injustice), it would truly shock me.

This isn’t a light read by any means, but I think it’s an important one. Poverty and a lack of affordable housing is an ongoing problem in the United States. Unless we’re informed about past attempts to solve the housing problem, we cannot hope to do better in the future. And unless we’re informed about the realities about people living in poverty—the day-to-day struggles they face, and how hard their lives are—we’re not going to make any headway on improving that, either.

If this is a topic of interest for you, I hope you’ll take the time to read this book… and I hope you’ll find it as informative and moving as I did.


I received an advance review copy of this book courtesy of Harper via Edelweiss.

Add to Goodreads

Author: Ben Austen
Title: High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing
Genre: Nonfiction, Social Science / Poverty & Homelessness
Publication Date: February 13, 2018 by Harper
Rating: 5 stars

About the Book

Joining the ranks of Evicted, The Warmth of Other Sons, and classic works of literary non-fiction by Alex Kotlowitz and J. Anthony Lukas, High-Risers braids personal narratives, city politics, and national history to tell the timely and epic story of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, America’s most iconic public housing project.

Built in the 1940s atop an infamous Italian slum, Cabrini-Green grew to twenty-three towers and a population of 20,000—all of it packed onto just seventy acres a few blocks from Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast. Cabrini-Green became synonymous with crime, squalor, and the failure of government. For the many who lived there, it was also a much-needed resource—it was home. By 2011, every high-rise had been razed, the island of black poverty engulfed by the white affluence around it, the families dispersed.

In this novelistic and eye-opening narrative, Ben Austen tells the story of America’s public housing experiment and the changing fortunes of American cities. It is an account told movingly though the lives of residents who struggled to make a home for their families as powerful forces converged to accelerate the housing complex’s demise. Beautifully written, rich in detail, and full of moving portraits, High-Risers is a sweeping exploration of race, class, popular culture, and politics in modern America that brilliantly considers what went wrong in our nation’s effort to provide affordable housing to the poor—and what we can learn from those mistakes.

6 thoughts on “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen

Comments are closed.