Gina and Jeremiah want to know why a crowd is loitering outside the last high-rise in Cabrini-Green. We tell the two polite teens that we’re waiting for the sun to set, so we can see lights flicker on in the 134 apartments of 1230 North Burling Street. They’re not lamps: The building’s last tenants were forced to leave in December 2010, and it has since been stripped to a windowless concrete hulk. The only signs that the structure was once a residence are a few flashes of color from idiosyncratic paint jobs and, as of March 28, the blinking white lights.
Those lights, which will be visible 7pm–1am every night for the next few weeks until the building’s demolition is complete, are part of “Project Cabrini Green”, a collaboration between artist Jan Tichy; his partner, social worker Efrat Appel; Tichy’s students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and 110 teenagers from local nonprofits Cabrini Connections, Marwen, After School Matters and ThaBrigade Stamps Marching Band. The teens wrote and performed poems about Cabrini-Green. The SAIC students created software that translates the sounds of the teens reading their work into signals that control the lights in the high-rise.
Light and architecture are crucial to Tichy’s practice. In June 2009, he produced an installation with Illinois Institute of Technology and SAIC students at IIT’s Crown Hall, projecting videos and photos from within the building through its glass walls. While the critical response to Lighting Crown Hall emphasized the building’s design by Mies van der Rohe, Tichy says the project also reflected his interest in Chicago’s public housing. “I encouraged the students [to think about] not only Mies but the campus and Bronzeville, and obviously, the projects that were not there anymore: the Robert Taylor Houses,” the artist tells me during an interview at his dealer Richard Gray’s gallery. “I’m living not far away from Cabrini, so I’m passing it every day” as its buildings are knocked down, Tichy adds. “I realized that this historical moment was going to happen here.”
Imposing his own work on the site seemed inappropriate. Tichy says he and Appel were interested in what “kids, the next generation” thought about Cabrini-Green. “We looked for an organization that worked in the neighborhood,” he says, “serving those that are there and those that were dispersed but coming back for programs like the marching band.”
After School Matters student Natrice Weathers has relatives who lived in Cabrini-Green. “It’s history that’s going to be destroyed,” she says. The regret in her poem “Distorted Class”—“In the history books, it’ll say the community was broken. / But we weren’t broken…”—echoes through much of the teens’ writing. Savon Clark, who participates in Cabrini Connections, feels lucky that his family was able to move from Cabrini-Green to mixed-income housing nearby, unlike many friends who were displaced to the South and West Sides. He wants people who see the light installation to grasp that “a lot of people lived in those projects for a lot of years.”
“Project Cabrini Green” can’t undo decades of disenfranchisement, but its young writers’ messages will outlast the obliterated high-rise. You can find their poems on the project’s website and in a book on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art. (The MCA’s exhibit also includes live video footage of 1230 North Burling Street and an interactive model of the building.) Though the installation at Cabrini-Green can’t convey the teens’ exact words, the alternating lights—LEDs mounted in ultra-durable ammunition boxes, which Tichy intends to recover from the rubble—evoke a conversation.
Gina and Jeremiah tell me they approve of the project and hope it keeps people from forgetting Cabrini-Green. Their history classes have never covered public housing.