In this years-long reporting project on Chicago's Cabrini-Green, journalist Ben Austen narrates the political and cultural currents that led to the rise and fall of one of the nation's most notorious housing projects as well as the complicated lives of several long-time residents, who lost beloved homes and communities when the complex was finally demolished in 2011.
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.