How Candyman Reclaims the History of Cabrini-Green

14 minute read

Long before a man with a bloody hook tormented the alleys of Cabrini-Green in the 1992 film Candyman, the Chicago housing projects were understood by many to be a place of horror. For decades, local and national media told stories of murders, rapes, gangs, drugs and poverty run rampant, making it one of the most feared places in America.

But many of the residents who actually lived there felt differently: to them, Cabrini-Green wasn’t just a cesspool of immorality but also a tight-knit, family-oriented community that supported each other in the face of neglect, governmental corruption and police violence. And when filmmaker Nia DaCosta was given a chance to create a sequel to Candyman, she strove to show a different side of the maligned projects; to preserve the scariness of the original film while separating the monster from the community itself. “The original film definitely fed into a fear of the Black community, and the Black man in particular,” DaCosta tells TIME. “I didn’t want to do this approach of, ‘Oh, god, this terrible place where terrible things are happening, because these brutes are living here.’ This is a community that was chronically underserved for a very long time.”

In anticipation of the film’s release on August 27, TIME talked to filmmakers, historians and community members about the history of Cabrini-Green and Candyman’s role in its lore.

Decades of notoriety

When the Cabrini-Green housing projects started being built in the 1940s, the area’s reputation for violence was long established. In the 19th century, the neighborhood on the north fork of the Chicago River sat next to billowing, stinking gas refineries and factories, and became the landing place for waves of European immigrants searching for cheap housing in the city. The neighborhood soon became known as “Little Hell,” with frequent reports of mafia activity. “There was a mythical quality and almost a Candyman-like aspect of the ways the violence and gangs were described in that time,” Ben Austen, a Chicago journalist who wrote the book High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, says.

In 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority was founded to reform these sorts of slums while also combating a severe housing crisis precipitated by the Great Depression. They would soon embark on an ambitious public housing development project that mostly consisted of extremely segregated high rises, pushing Black families—many recent migrants from the South—into a “Black belt” on the city’s South Side. Further “urban renewal” projects and redlining displaced many other city dwellers and forced them into public housing; a 1955 study found that such projects served the interests of wealthy businessmen and institutions to keep public housing out of their wards.

Cabrini-Green, however, was supposed to be different from the others: an integrated, utopian community with affordable rent prices in the heart of the city, not far from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. In 1942, Mayor Edward J. Kelly proclaimed that the apartments “symbolize the Chicago that is to be,” adding, “We cannot continue as a nation, half slum and half palace.”

But before long, the 3,600 public housing units of Cabrini-Green would soon become almost entirely Black and poor. Funding for upkeep and social services vanished, leaving buildings rotting and full of broken appliances and elevators. Shoddy construction even meant some apartments connected through their bathroom mirrors (a detail that would show up to grisly effect in the original Candyman). With little oversight, city-wide gangs like Vice Lords and Cobras moved in and warred with each other. In 1982, a study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the Chicago Housing Authority was one of the worst-managed public housing agencies in the nation.

It was this Cabrini-Green, in 1979, that the six-year-old Teddy Williams moved into with his mother and siblings. Williams says that the project’s reputation initially made his family scared to move there. He recalls: “The feedback that my grandmother got about Cabrini-Green made her leery about her daughter and grandchildren moving there. We connected with the same fears and were like, ‘Oh my god. Will it be bad?’”

Those fears were assuaged when the residents there quickly welcomed them into the fold. “It was like a little village: everybody knew everybody,” he says. “There was gang activity, but also a lot of structure amongst others that weren’t involved: after school programs where they’d have games, trampolines, screen painting, quilt sewing. We put on dance routines and dressed up like the zombies in the Thriller video.”

Among the children in Cabrini-Green, there was certainly mythology about menaces, including a crazy man who lived on the otherwise-deserted 14th floor where the elevator would sometimes accidentally drop people off. (“If we had to get off on that floor, we would run really quick before he came out,” Williams says.) But a more frequent threat was the police, who were essentially engaged in warfare with the gangs in Cabrini-Green after two cops were shot dead by a sniper in 1970. “The police were kind of aggressive: I do remember some harsh moments,” he says. “When it came to police presence and gang members, it wasn’t a, ‘Go over, talk to you, and do an intervention’ kind of thing. It was, “We go over there, strong arm you and make you act right.’”

Cabrini-Green wasn’t the poorest, or the most crime-ridden, neighborhood. But its proximity to wealthier sections of the city made it a target for not only the police, but the local and national news. (Its status as the setting of the film Cooley High and the TV show Good Times also increased general interest.) Newspapers and television crews would swarm in, hoping to capture stories of gore and poverty porn—and Cabrini-Green developed a reputation as one of America’s worst projects. On Saturday Night Live, Danitra Vance, the first Black female cast regular, played a 17-year-old mother of two named Cabrini-Green Jackson. (Vance later quit the show, frustrated after repeatedly being assigned stereotypical roles.) In 1981, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne actually moved into Cabrini-Green to signal her commitment to the area—but she moved out within weeks, with the crime rate unaffected, and was voted out of office two years later.

Cabrini-Green in 1966.Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The original Candyman and the razing of Cabrini-Green

Cabrini-Green essentially symbolized the plight of the American inner city—and in 1990, the English filmmaker Bernard Rose decided to capitalize on that reputation by transposing a short story by Clive Barker about a monster in the Liverpool slums to Cabrini-Green. His film followed Helen Lyle, a white woman, who ventured into the ghetto to research an urban legend about a hook-handed spirit who kills anyone who says his name five times into a mirror. Rose spoke to residents and actually filmed in Cabrini-Green, and ultimately created an atmosphere in which the streets were lined with garbage, feces was smeared on restroom mirrors, and vicious attackers popped out of the shadows and the walls.

Residents of Cabrini-Green and other low-income areas of the city viewed the film with both reverence and frustration. Some loved it, including J. Nicole Brooks, who would go onto act in the new Candyman and also write a play about Jane Byrne’s foray into Cabrini-Green, Her Honor, Jane Byrne. “It’s like asking a Chicagoan about Michael Jordan,” she says. “It was beautifully shot, thoughtfully done and terrifying.”

Brooks also says the mythology at the center of the film was not dissimilar to stories she heard growing up living right outside the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project on the south side. “The folklore could actually save your life,” she says. “For example, ‘Do not go under the viaduct west of Comiskey Park unless there’s a White Sox Game.’ You grew up thinking the boogie man was all over Chicago—and for the most part, it was true.”

Others were wary about the way that the film fed into prevailing stereotypes about public housing. “Projects were so misunderstood and vilified,” the Chicago-based author and scholar Ytasha Womack says. “Their vilification was almost a reflection of the failures of social services to help support people when they were put in those places.”

Teddy Williams saw the film while living in Cabrini-Green, and says that conversations he had about the film at the time there were mostly positive. “I think the community was mostly okay with the movie, because it put us on the map again,” he says. “The only thing we would talk about is that Candyman could never live over here and do what he was doing, because he would get f-cked up.”

Candyman opened on Oct 16, 1992. Three days prior, the 7-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot to death by a local gang member in Cabrini-Green while walking to school. The incident made national headlines and shook the community to its core, with local gangs entering a truce. The historian Ben Austen says that the combination of those two concurrent events only exacerbated anxious views from public officials about the inner city that were circulating at the time—and could have played an implicit role in the demolishing of Cabrini-Green. “This is the same time as the crack epidemic, the image of gangs wilding in Central Park, John DiIulio talking about superpredators,” he says. “This mythology takes real world effect and shapes policy—and we get isolation, demolition and mass incarceration.”

In 1999, Chicago Mayer Richard M. Daley and the Chicago Housing Authority kicked off a $1.6 billion Plan For Transformation, in which they sought to rip down public housing across the city, build or rehabilitate 25,000 new public units, and turn the land over to eager developers. Daley said that that mixed-income would take the place of slums and said of the relocated, “I want to rebuild their souls.”

But historians and community members say that the transition was mishandled. “It was a human rights disaster,” Austen says. Residents were forced out of the homes and support systems that had kept them upright for decades; the section eight vouchers they received often pushed them to poorer, more segregated areas of the city. And despite all the headlines about Cabrini-Green being an uninhabitable place, a group of residents actually unsuccessfully sued to stay there.

One of the residents who hoped to stay was Williams. When his tower came down in 2011, he didn’t receive a voucher, since he was living with his mother at the time. Unsure of where to go, Williams says he was homeless for about three years, staying on the couches of friends and family or riding the trains. He got a job as a barber and slept in the salon basement until he was able to afford his own place; he now lives in Oak Park, Illinois. “It was kind of a rough transition,” he says.

The area is now gentrified, covered with gleaming offices and condos and fancy restaurants. While Mayor Daley said that the new developments would include plenty of affordable housing for residents to return to the neighborhood, the 15,000 promised family units in the city overall pale in comparison to the city’s actual need. When the CHA opened its public-housing waiting list in 2010, more than 215,000 families applied.

“It was just like, ‘We’re going to bring upper class people here—we don’t need riffraff around here, causing trouble,’’” Williams says.

Residents walk past one of the few remaining Chicago Housing Authority Cabrini-Green public housing buildings in 2005.Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Reclaiming history through film

The filmmaker Nia DaCosta isn’t from Chicago; she grew up in Harlem, and says that seeing Candyman as a child was “the first time that what was happening in a horror film could absolutely happen to me. Candyman was actually just over there, across the street.”

But even though there were similarities between Harlem and Cabrini-Green, DaCosta made it an utmost priority of her Candyman sequel to learn about the neighborhood’s specific history through historians and residents. DaCosta says that she and her team talked to dozens of locals about their experiences, who emphasized similar aspects as Teddy Williams did—of pride and community. “We wanted to take that pride and expand it as opposed to chip away at it,” DaCosta says. “We wanted to show this amazing sense of community and the way people took care of each other and looked after each other. And even when we introduce Candyman, it’s not the monster we think it is.”

Candyman was shot on-location, including in some Cabrini-Green row-houses that are still standing. (They also used CGI to recreate the torn-down towers.) “There are certainly places you can use to fake Chicago, and shoot something that would be more inexpensive,” Win Rosenfield, a co-writer and co-producer on the film, says. “But that was never a question. We always felt it was important that this film, like its predecessor, live in Cabrini-Green and relate to the people of Chicago in an intimate way.”

So, the film’s cast includes local actors, like J. Nicole Brooks; presents explicit conversations about gentrification, erasure and neglect; and also mentions the names embedded in Cabrini-Green’s history, including Dantrell Davis and Girl X, who was raped and tortured in Cabrini-Green in 1997. Their names are invoked by the character William Burke, who laments how their stories have been forgotten before referring to the Candyman character Helen Lyle: “A white woman dies and the story lives on forever.”

“When people think about Cabrini-Green, they think about this fake thing as opposed to the real children who were harmed there,” DaCosta says. “Fiction tends to spread farther than nonfiction—and as a filmmaker, it’s important to be cognizant of not perpetuating the same old stories.”

One way that DaCosta tried to tell a real story of erasure embedded in her genre piece was by shooting at the Northside Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street. It once was a flourishing community center that displayed a vibrant 1972 mural called “All of Mankind” by William Walker, a Chicagoan known as the father of the urban art movement.

But once the neighborhood started to change, the church lost its constituency and was shuttered. In 2015, the lot went up for sale for potential use as a single-use family home, and the mural was whitewashed over, to the dismay of preservationists. In 2018 the lot sold for $750,000 to a private bidder. But before it was converted, the new owners allowed DaCosta to shoot inside the church for Candyman’s pivotal scene.

“It was completely rundown and toxic fumes and mold and all this terrible stuff,” DaCosta says. “Part of the reason why we wanted to shoot there was because we’d seen these amazing pictures of the beautiful mural, and people on the right outside in their Sunday best. It really was a symbol of what had been erased. “

DaCosta hopes that her new Candyman will both provide big scares in theaters while also forcing audience goers to reckon with the impacts of displacement and gentrification. Meanwhile, in real life, some of the old residents of Cabrini-Green have been able to move back into the newly refurbished neighborhood—but say they face discrimination and complaints from the new, wealthier residents. Many more are still shut out, including Williams, who is holding out hope that he might be able to someday return. “Even though it had rough patches, we had love for our community,” he says. “Even if they didn’t upgrade anything, I wouldn’t mind going back to my neighborhood.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at