High-Risers is a smart, humanistic exploration of Cabrini-Green. Rather than vilify a governmental body, Austen shows how generational poverty, systemic racism, political cronyism and a desperate desire for belonging facilitated the downfall of the projects’ promise ... Austen writes with a lyrical, poetic affection for the four main characters. Here we see there are as many Cabrini-Green origin stories as there were people living in Cabrini-Green. To merely stereotype is to willfully ignore each resident’s humanity. Austen deftly tells the stories of Wilson, Fleming, Cannon and another woman, Annie Ricks, without distance, bringing readers intimately into their lives. It is compelling writing, sure to separate Austen’s work from other, more anthropological examinations of Cabrini-Green.
In an otherwise nuanced book, Austen labels the social workers and officials who vowed to clear slums and house the poor as 'do-gooders.' Implicit in his scorn is a hindsight appreciation that, for the poor to thrive, their communities must include working- and even middle-class families. The urbanist Jane Jacobs knew as much, but her The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961, after evictions of working-class public housing residents were already well underway. Until the sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged, in 1987, few comprehended the terrible consequences of cleansing urban neighborhoods of the stably employed. In 2018, Ben Austen has illustrated these repercussions; we can now better consider remedies by contemplating the lessons High-Risers offers.
[W]ith a journalist’s eye, Austen explores the intersection between discrimination and income inequality through the lens of the men and women experiencing some of America’s worst housing conditions ... Austen describes key moments in painstaking detail, and he weaves in pop culture and public policy to provide broad context for the poverty and violence that come to define this patch of Near North [Chicago] ... There are moments when the level of detail is overwhelming ... Not every incident in a person’s life holds equal significance, and at times, the book’s granularity robs compelling moments of their power. And the tough assessments Austen makes of the project’s outsiders rarely extend to those inside it ... Throughout the book, Austen succeeds in giving Cabrini-Green residents the kind of agency few policymakers are willing to offer them. There is no happy ending for many former Cabrini-Green residents, but there is no question that they made their mark on not just the American psyche but public policy.
Austen handled his book more as a chronicler than an embedded reporter. This is perhaps the most reasonable and respectful approach to the subject matter that a middle-class white writer who's never lived in public housing could take. Rather than posturing as an intrepid journalist on a poverty safari, Austen sets out to give the general audience a long-overdue history lesson on where Cabrini-Green came from, who lived there and how they lived, and why the 23-building project ultimately became the primary symbol of a national public policy failure ... One drawback of the narrative is that some moments in history that were emblematic of massive intellectual and ideological shifts in the way America positioned itself vis-a-vis the poor are glossed over in a couple of sentences ... if we're ever to understand that the fate of Cabrini-Green and public housing as a whole wasn't fated, that the ultimate results weren't inevitable but rather designed, then it's necessary to denaturalize what has so long been presented as unavoidable ... But even without these critical perspectives from Austen himself, the book is hardly approving of Chicago's decision to dismantle Cabrini-Green, and demonstrates that in many ways the solutions to its problems created more problems than they resolved.
Austen’s impressive study of Chicago’s 23-tower Cabrini-Green public housing project, razed but its legacy looming still, was conducted during years of reporting and interviewing ... Highlighting these many-faceted lives and the care Cabrini residents took to safeguard and improve their part of an ever-changing neighborhood, Austen examines the finger-pointing and buck-passing among power players that gravely impacted the most vulnerable occupants ... As the buildings’ demolition, completed in 2011, has left former residents in worse and more precarious situations, Austen’s fascinating narrative demands much consideration.
Austen is an expert on his subject, and the narrative at times feels bloated with an excess of his experience and research. Nevertheless, urban planners in particular will find this an instructive guide, or, perhaps more importantly, a cautionary tale about a failed attempt to provide affordable housing for the poor.