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The 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, which observers such as Tom Wolfe celebrated as a bullet to the head of urban renewal, was in reality just the beginning of a painful and protracted end. Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, arguably the best known of the housing projects and the setting for the CBS sitcom Good Times, didn’t start coming down until 1995; the last tower block was razed in 2011. Earlier this year, the Chicago Housing Authority finally unveiled a draft plan for redevelopment of the 65-acre site. (As for Pruitt-Igoe, today most of its 57 acres are overgrown forest, untended and awaiting redemption.)
It takes time to dismantle an institution. As enthusiasm and funding for the welfare state have waned in the United States, so too, it seems, has the incidence of grand public gestures in infrastructure, architecture, and planning. Certainly, the Cabrini-Green replacement scheme is nothing spectacular. It requires design bravado in small doses at most. And that may be almost alright, to borrow a phrase from Robert Venturi, FAIA.
The new Cabrini-Green plan follows the received wisdom for remediation of American cities these days: complex public-private partnerships instead of top-down government-led initiatives, a restored street grid instead of Corbusian megablocks, and proximity to parks and transit instead of isolation behind the barricade of an interstate highway. Add to all that a careful mix of densities, uses, and incomes. Social scientists continue to debate the merits of this planning strategy, but time will tell on the ground. Build the place, let it set for a decade or two, and we might just have ourselves a sustainable neighborhood. […]