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Times Already Changed at Cabrini-Green

By Arts & Culture

illustration by Zach Cooper

illustration by Zach Cooper

“Good Times” is a classic television series that aired from 1974 to 1979 on CBS. Set in one of Chicago’s infamous high-rise housing projects known as Cabrini-Green, the sitcom offers a satirical take on the hardships of urban poverty. Embedded artfully between humor and hard truth, “Good Times” reveals the oppressive effects of class stratification and residential isolation in American cities. Despite the veil of comedy and hardship, “Good Times” integrates heartwarming expressions of familial love within an empowering narrative of a strong, unified black household. Remembering the layered history of Chicago’s urban spaces is therefore vital at a time when the ubiquitous issue of gentrification has caused modern, eco-friendly towers to spring up on the same soil that grounded this notorious setting.

The opening sequence of “Good Times” begins with a panoramic shot of downtown Chicago and then zooms in on a faraway image of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. Though never explicitly stated in the show’s six-season run, external shots of Cabrini-Green are repeatedly featured in the opening and closing credits. For the rest of the segment, images rhythmically oscillate between static shots of Cabrini-Green and footage of Chicago’s bustling center, emphasizing the structure’s isolated location within the city. The visual contrast of stagnant life in the public housing towers in comparison to continuous flows of public transportation signals a difference in levels of access and navigability. It sets the stage for some of the underlying social conditions that the cast of “Good Times” encounters throughout the show. These environmental challenges, mixed with the complexities of race, affirm a narrative that is common within the legacy of public housing and the way it impacts communities of color.

Each role — from the confident housewife Florida Evans to the hardworking father James Evans — conveys character traits of bright and strong-minded individuals.The first episode of season one begins with a still of the family’s middle daughter Thelma sporting a chic afro and reading the historic black publication Ebony Magazine. The younger son Michael, known for his militant assertion of the black perspective, repeatedly responds to his mother’s word choice with phrases like, “Momma, ‘boy’ is a racist white word.” His burgeoning understanding of the social dynamics of race and poverty signal his high level self-awareness of his position within America’s racial hierarchy. The older son J.J. is a budding artist whose studio is set up facing the largest window of the apartment. “Good Times” thus depicts a positive, socially conscious portrayal of African American life on primetime television that was highly unique for its time. It challenges the negative stigmas frequently plaguing the history of public housing complexes that associates sites like Cabrini-Green with the negative tropes of violence, drugs, and gang activity.

“Good Times” therefore differs greatly from other celebrated representations of black families on TV such as“The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-air,” “Family Matters,” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” These subsequent shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s transparently showcase bourgeois lifestyles and material wealth through expansive spaces and a multiplicity of domestic interiors. In contrast, the residence of the Evans family takes place in dim and enclosed spaces, coupled with fragmented exterior views exposing the uniform architectural aesthetic afforded to public housing complexes. Beneath the design schemes of buildings displayed on “Good Times,” the built environment serves as a metaphor for the way the ideal of the American Dream was not attainable for everyone.

The eventual fate of Cabrini-Green — from its demolition in 2011 to its current remaking as luxury apartment buildings— brings the story of “Good Times” into the contemporary moment. As a structure that took over 20 years to complete, this project is a principal example of the way in which the Chicago Housing Authority’s social experiment with urban housing was unsuccessful despite its claims to being a philanthropic act of urban renewal. Remembering the vivacious characters of “Good Times” can help memorialize the 15,000 residents that once called this structure home.  

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