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‘Candyman’ and the Ghosts of Public Housing

Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project was the beating heart of 1992’s ‘Candyman.’ In reality, the violence wasn’t mythical at all — just the result of failed policies, over and over

There’s a critical moment early on in the 1992 film Candyman, when Helen and Bernadette, two graduate students studying the myth of the titular killer, are invited into the home of Anne-Marie McCoy. Anne-Marie is a young single mother, living with her infant son in a high-rise at Cabrini-Green, the Chicago housing project with an infamous reputation for violence and disorder. The inside of her tidy apartment is a distant cry from the graffiti-stained halls, broken elevators and gang activity just outside the door. But the violence is ever-near — and Anne-Marie shudders as she describes the murder of a neighbor, abandoned with no resolution. 

“They all been here, you know. The newspapers. Cops. Case workers. They all wanna know. I heard her screaming. I heard her right through the walls. I dialed 911. Nobody came. Nobody came,” Anne-Marie tells Helen. “Everybody’s scared. Th-they come right through these walls, you know? I’m scared. I’m scared for my child. They’re never going to catch him.”  

Anne-Marie is talking about the Candyman, a vengeful entity said to appear when you repeat his name five times into a mirror. In another sense, however, she could easily be talking about the Cabrini-Green complex itself — a vibrant community that, in real-life America, became the boogeyman representation of public-housing projects and the people who live in them. 

An apartment building stands behind a fence in Cabrini-Green in Chicago. Cabrini-Green is a 70-acre low income housing project. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Cabrini-Green depicted in Candyman was composed of 23 high-rise towers and a series of row houses, built in 1942. The buildings rise from a desert of blacktop, with every public space seemingly scarred by physical damage and haphazard graffiti. Even as the nearby neighborhoods of the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park grew white and wealthy, Cabrini-Green stayed Black, poor and nearly devoid of amenities — the end result of de-facto segregation in a highly racist housing market. By the 1990s, the complex had fallen into the worst shape in its history. It was overrun with waste, often lacked basic utilities and saw bloodshed regularly as ground zero of a Chicago gang war. Things got so bad that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) fenced in the open-air balconies and hallways to prevent trash, and humans, from being thrown over the side. It gave the towers the aesthetic of a prison building, no matter which side of the fence you were on. 

Thirty years later, the difference is stark. The Cabrini-Green of today is a modern-looking mix of newly constructed apartment buildings and the remaining 584 row-house units, all framed by sharp landscaping, upscale restaurants and a Target just across the street. While some of the homes here are subsidized for low-income residents, there’s been a major influx of market-rate renters, meaning it’s wealthier — and whiter — than ever. 

The contrast is captured in the new Candyman, written by Jordan Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta. Developed as a sequel to the original film by Bernard Rose, the new Candyman examines the legacy of Cabrini-Green’s violence in a society that has gentrified and ultimately erased its past. 

For decades, “Cabrini-Green” was used as a shorthand for unimaginable horror; the inexplicable killings of children like seven-year-old Dantrell Davis and “Girl X” in the 1990s only added kerosene to the fire of public opinion, further defining Cabrini’s residents as a symbol of Black poverty and urban decay. 

Now, with the towers demolished and the community displaced, the folklore of what happened at Cabrini lives on. Its mythology forever shaped the debate around public housing and the people who live in it. Even today, the stigma makes it impossible to talk about housing the poor without someone mentioning the specter of crime and violence. 

“When we obsess over the Candyman version of public housing, you stop considering a range of experiences. You start seeing only the crime and drugs and poverty. And there is that, but when you stop seeing the complexity of the community, well, the next policy response is to tear the whole thing down and try again,” says Ben Austen, a Chicago-based writer and author of the book High-Risers, tracing the legacy of Cabrini-Green. “The fear becomes that the ‘inner city’ can’t be contained, and that crime will seep to other areas. And that’s what Cabrini became in the eyes of the public.” 

The aftermath of that shift in the public eye was the slow degradation, and ultimately literal destruction, of the high- and mid-rise towers that dotted Cabrini-Green. Politicians and local news outlets pointed to the complex as a failure in urban design and planning. But as former resident and Chicago housing advocate J.R. Fleming says, the blame lies with a system that failed a community, not with the people who lived in it. “We were pissed when the last tower came down,” Fleming tells me. “It was the end of an era. And that era could’ve been so much better.” 

The reality of life at Cabrini-Green was different for Fleming, 48, who grew up in a high-rise as a child, left for a few years to go to school and play basketball in the suburbs, then returned as an angry 17-year-old, frustrated at his blown-out knees. The anger faded as he settled back into the rhythm of Cabrini-Green, eventually getting keys to his own apartment. He lived there through his 20s, and his voice lilts happily as he runs through the memory of his favorite summers there: “We were ballin’, man. Barbecues everyday. Someone’s birthday, or a child’s birthday, to drop into. Parties, dance clubs, drummers, all kinds of creativity.” 

“And all the folks who lived there supported this, like a family,” he continues. “You could rely on your neighbors for childcare, for something to eat, for anything. It was a social and safety network, and my mama always used to talk about that — how family and community is the safety net. How we all need a safety net.”

During Cabrini-Green’s development in the 1950s and 1960s, the complex was seen as a practical place for cash-strapped families to settle. The destructive riots of 1968, in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. left many Black families looking to move out of damaged neighborhoods, says Kim Foxx, who grew up in Cabrini-Green and is state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois. “Opportunity was just scarce,” she says. “Meanwhile, Cabrini was located on the Near North Side, by the lake and downtown. So it meant a family that was growing could have affordable, fairly new housing, live near a school and have a community around them.” 

In the 1970s, however, a series of high-profile killings, including of two police officers, and increasing crime led to a chilling effect for resources at Cabrini-Green. It was most noticeable in the fact that police barely bothered to come by anymore — a theme repeated in the original Candyman film. Foxx, who lived there until she was 10 and continued to visit afterward, can still picture how various gangs controlled the elevators and stair access for the towers. “There wasn’t a police presence that made the community safer. Policing efforts were done by the gangs. And the key was, they were very respectful with elders, and there was a code about how to behave near kids,” Foxx says. “But that wasn’t because of the police. That was a culture they had grown in the absence of police.”

Fleming credits this type of “structured violence” for helping limit the worst blowback for the residents. For decades, there was a sense of hierarchy in the towers, he says, with elder women often holding power and respect, even amid criminal activity. But Fleming points to a few major developments as subverting the balance in the 1980s and 1990s: The misappropriation of resources by the Chicago Housing Authority, the dismantling of resident management of Cabrini-Green’s buildings and the rise of a devastating crack epidemic that changed how violence happened on the ground. 

All of it led to deteriorating conditions, both inside homes and in the public square. “Ultimately, it felt like the forces in charge wanted people to leave Cabrini. The CHA put together the tools of displacement — not fixing the building, neglecting work orders, removing resident security, basically making it harder and harder to live there,” Fleming explains.

The feeling of abandonment ran deep, and as the toll of neglect and lack of amenities mounted, so did the feeling among residents that they were being set up to fail. “I remember very, very clearly my grandmother saying to me, ‘They’re going to take these buildings from us because it’s too close to the goalposts. We’re too close.’ I must’ve been in the second grade, so I remember being confused — what does that mean to take a building?” Foxx says. “What I realized later was that she was using second-grade terminology for gentrification. There was a sense that management was letting it go to waste. It wouldn’t be about them taking Cabrini from us. It would look like we destroyed it ourselves.” 

The formal dismantling of Cabrini-Green began in the mid-1990s, when the federal government stepped in to clean up the mess CHA had wrought. Even then, it was obvious to Fleming that the endgame was less renovation and more revocation; under a new Clinton administration policy, the office of Housing and Urban Development had new directives to demolish any public-housing projects deemed to be beyond repair. By 1999, HUD had destroyed 50,000 units nationally, with 50,000 more razed in the following decade, according to Austen. 

At that point, only one high-rise remained at Cabrini Green. It was demolished on March 30, 2011. Like Fleming and Foxx, 49-year-old Teri Davis watched the building crumble with bittersweet emotions. She lived at the complex for more than 20 years, growing from a child into a young woman while observing things get worse and worse. “When my building came down, where me and my aunt used to live, it was kind of sad just because I knew it was coming,” Davis tells me. “I’d been told since I was in the third grade that they wanted to tear down Cabrini. That we needed to move out because they wanted this area, and this land, so bad.” 

The forces of whiteness and gentrification are acknowledged in the original Candyman, especially when Helen, standing in her beautiful apartment with skyline views, tells her friend Bernadette that the tower once used to be a public-housing building, but was converted once city leaders realized it was too close to a wealthy neighborhood (“They covered the cinderblock in plaster,” Helen quips). 

The tensions were obvious to Bernard Rose, the British filmmaker who wrote and directed Candyman, when he visited Cabrini-Green while location-hunting for the film. But what surprised him most was the gulf between how outsiders viewed Cabrini-Green versus those who lived there. In his first visit to the complex, Rose was accompanied by nervous staff from the Chicago Film Office and a squad of local police. When he returned to speak with Henrietta Thompson, the inspiration for the character of Anne-Marie, he walked in alone. 

“And inside her house, things were just… perfectly normal. She was a single mother with a young child, but the normality of it really struck me. It made me think hard about this disproportionate fear that outsiders had just walking near Cabrini, which is a home for all kinds of people,” Rose tells me. “And so it became obvious that this was about racism in the U.S. and the fear that people were out to rob and kill you. The exaggeration was grotesque. It left quite the impression on me.” 

The notoriety around public housing has stunted its growth. The national stock has fallen in volume since the 1960s, when it became the target of private developers who saw subsidized homes as cutting into their market. The 1980s saw Reagan-era austerity measures that greatly choked the flow of federal resources to housing projects. Today, there are only about 1.1 million public-housing units in the country, despite a serious housing crisis in almost every major city. 

Part of the cultural shift away from building more public housing, and instead favoring tools like Section 8 housing vouchers for renters, is tied to the stigma and belief that these large complexes are doomed to fail, says Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. It’s a distinctly American point-of-view — Monkkonen notes that in places like Hong Kong, France and Scandinavia, far more people live in government-subsidized housing.

“The products of the policies created poor conditions. The common narrative around higher density living and public housing, and why it became untenable, is a belief that residents didn’t take care of their home. But the reason it fell apart was a totally different one,” Monkonnen explains. “It’s just ironic that you see high-density towers in Manhattan — some of the most expensive real estate in the country — yet people still have this kind of persistent myth in their minds.”

Davis left Cabrini in 1998 after securing a CHA-owned townhouse just a few minutes’ walk from where she grew up. It’s beautiful and comfortable, and the area teems with pretty much any amenity she could desire. She’s one of the lucky ones; others who were relocated from Cabrini-Green during the demolition years have had mixed results, with reports of rampant racial discrimination toward low-income renters trying to resettle in different communities. 

“I definitely remember thinking, okay, this relocation is going to be a scam, with a lot of hoops to jump through. Nobody had a car, so nobody wanted to end up in the suburbs,” Davis says. “There were also so many conditions to qualify for a home. That’s why a lot of people fought against relocation and fought to stay in the area and live in the new buildings.” 

With only a handful of subsidized units available in the “mixed-income” development, however, the vast majority of Cabrini-Green residents have fanned out across the city. This is part of a worrisome trend in the eyes of Fleming, who has hustled to create more low-income housing solutions in a market that favors big capital and fast profits. Same for Foxx, who notes that Chicago is “hemorrhaging” Black people because they’re priced out of homes in the region. 

It makes her miss the sense of community fostered at Cabrini-Green. “I miss seeing the gig economy of ladies selling candy, doing hair, making it happen. There was this real sense that we were left to ourselves, but were capable of being loving, smart, bright, deserving hustlers,” she says. 

Chicago announced its “Plan for Transformation” in 2000, setting an ambitious goal to phase out public housing and integrate residents into the aforementioned mixed-income neighborhoods, all while creating 25,000 units of affordable housing. Unfortunately, Mayor Richard Daley lied about Cabrini-Green residents not being displaced. And after more than $3 billion and two decades of work, there are more disappointments than victories. Fleming remains skeptical that sinking another $600 million to finish redeveloping Cabrini-Green, as the city plans, will be anything more than a waste of resources when poor people are being evicted. 

Across the country, public housing remains a scapegoat, spoken of with the same kind of horror Helen displays when meeting Candyman for the first time. But public housing, on its own, doesn’t have the power to segregate, stalk and terrorize a community. It was fear that was weaponized to isolate — and it was people, working in bad faith, who destroyed Cabrini’s towers in the end. “Things used to be good when the residents had more control. But when outside forces weaken that control, you weaken the community,” Fleming says. 

It almost sounds like one of the lessons of 1992’s Candyman, and perhaps a theme of the new film, too. Yet the fact that Cabrini-Green is transforming irreversibly hasn’t stopped Fleming from working to cement his old community’s legacy on the block. Every Friday in the summer, he gathers with a group of former residents on a patch of green near the row houses to grill meat and shoot the shit about how things used to be, before the towers came down.