Urban Prisons

June 2, 2014

Issue statement by Iker Gil, editor in chief of MAS Context.


Mas issue surveillance cover opening

It felt more like a maximum security prison than a gated community when the Chicago Housing Authority tried to beef up the safety of the neighborhood. Our privacy was invaded with police cameras watching our every move. I guess it is true a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.
—James Lockhart, Former resident of Cabrini-Green

Mas issue living in cabrini 13

Police post at one of the access to Cabrini Green, Chicago, 2009. © Iker Gil.

The image above shows one of the post guards that are still visible in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, the oldest and only surviving portion of the Cabrini-Green housing development in Chicago. Positioned in the entry points to the different areas of the development, the bulletproof glass posts were the first thing to “welcome” you to the development. The entrances to each one of the buildings were no different. Police officers, security guards, ID checks, and metal detectors were there to greet you.

During a visit to Cabrini-Green with James Lockhart, a former resident of the development (documented in our Living issue), we tried to access one of the buildings where one of his relatives lived. To our surprise, we were told we could not get inside if we did not live there. Not only was our access to the building denied but we were also “invited” to leave the premises of the building. Outside the building, streets showed no sign of trees or other obstacles that could obscure the sight of the police. Steel fences and blue-light surveillance cameras were present at every corner, a reminder that this was no ordinary neighborhood. In fact, as the quote above by James describes, it was much closer to a prison than to a neighborhood.

It is undeniable that Cabrini-Green had many problems. James did not hide any of them when we spoke to him. Living in an open prison, in a constant state of surveillance, did not help matters. Security and surveillance measures varied during the different decades, many being implemented after horrific crimes occurred in the development, including the killing (by a sniper) of the seven-year-old Dantrell Davis on his way to school in 1992. As James mentioned, he witnessed a lot of things while living there, good and bad. But to him and many others (15,000 at its peak) Cabrini-Green was home.

Unfortunately Cabrini-Green is just one example of the many public building developments that faced similar conditions in Chicago and other cities across the United States. Under the Plan for Transformation started in 2000 by Chicago Housing Authority, Cabrini-Green, along with most of the public housing developments in Chicago, have been demolished. I hope we can learn valuable lessons from the mistakes done in the past, and moving forward we can design with and for people, and not behind their back. Lathrop Homes, one of the last public housing projects remaining, could be a great start.


Surveillance has had invaluable help from Petra Bachmaier, Ethel Baraona Pohl, Roy Behrens, Michelle Benoit, Krovi Chen, Andrew Clark, André Corrêa, Kyle Fletcher, Alex Fuller, Alex Gilbert, George Gingell, Kyle Green, Dan Hill, Jinhwan Kim, Christo de Klerk, Manu Luksch, Luzinterruptus, Eugenia Macchia, Jennifer Mahanay, Mike McQuade, Simon Menner, Julie Michiels, Mukul Patel, Ruben Pater, Jason Pickleman, Bud Rodecker, Isaac Rooks, David Schalliol, Jens Sundheim, John Tolva, Rick Valicenti, Henrietta Williams, and Magdalena Wistuba.

We would also like to take a moment to thank our editor Paul Mougey who, after being part of MAS Context for the past four years, is moving on to other personal initiatives. Paul made each issue better with his sharp observations, unfiltered comments, and his capacity to uncover the story hidden in each contribution. Most importantly, it was just great to have him around. We will miss him and we wish him all the best moving forward. Thanks so much Paul!