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Walking to the Beat of the Wrecking Ball

As new homeowners in the up-and-coming neighborhood fret about preserving their uninterrupted view of the skyline, opposing the construction of luxury high-rises, residents of the original Cabrini high-rises worry about remembering what they had.


The five remaining William Green Homes, the tall reinforced concrete high-rises on Division, Larrabee, Evergreen and Burling, are reminders that there are ghosts in their presence. There are souls of lives lived and lost in Cabrini-Green, some dreams realized and many hopes ruined. Amid new developments, a Starbucks and a Dominick's, there are three vast empty lots, which once held buildings that were feared and loathed, structures that hundreds of people over four decades called home.

Like dominos in the midst of tumbling, the fate of the five standing buildings and those who occupy them is cast. The high-rises, constructed in the 1960s and known as the whites, will be razed to make way for mixed-income clusters of apartments, condominiums and town houses, as outlined in the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion, 10-year Plan for Transformation, which sets to demolish 18,000 housing units and build or rehabilitate 25,000. Those who still live in Cabrini-Green will need to rebuild life elsewhere in the city. Many are turning to Section 8 housing, largely relocating to the South Side, but others are finding themselves with nowhere to go.

At the heart of the Cabrini whites stands Schiller Elementary School, a blue, low-rise K-8 where the children who live in there attend. Standing in front of Schiller, looking at where buildings used to stand, at burnt out apartments that used to be occupied, at structures that used to be full and at playgrounds that used to be crowded, the impact of the demolitions and wave of relocation becomes more apparent. For the kids who still live there, who know the bad of Cabrini but try to hold onto the good, the community, the friends and family and the memories, seeing the buildings come down has been painful. As new homeowners in the up-and-coming neighborhood fret about preserving their uninterrupted view of the skyline, opposing the construction of luxury high-rises, residents of the original Cabrini high-rises worry about remembering what they had.

"You asked me to describe how Cabrini is or how it was?" questions 15-year-old LeAnna, who has lived there since she was born. "It was my life." LeAnna, along with five other Schiller students, all seventh and eighth graders who live in Cabrini, stay after school one afternoon in May to discuss the changes in their neighborhood. They recall the fun times, the memories and the sense of a community. They emphasize, in unison, that there was a community, key word being was, they say. The kids remember the dancing competitions and the building birthdays -- each building had one to celebrate the date it was finished. Every year, even as the high-rises wore an age well beyond their years, the residents would gather to celebrate the birthday.

"We just have fun," says 13-year-old Riyah about her building's birthday, which is July 4. Riyah and her family are waiting to move to Section 8 housing. "We have tents, a barbeque, a big old swimming pool, trampoline and a game out there. Then we have a big radio, and everybody's dancing." Anyone can come to the building birthdays, unless they have guns, says LeAnna. The best part about living in Cabrini? "Staying alive," LeAnna says, humming, "Don't get shot. Staying alive."

When asked what their neighborhood's like now, the kids say, "Dead. Everybody's gone." So goes the story of the complex sentiments about Cabrini-Green. From the outside, little positive can be seen about the housing project that became nationally known as a haven for crime, drugs, poverty, violence and despair. From the inside, though, especially in the eyes of the young, seeing Cabrini come down causes a deeply layered mixture of sadness, melancholy, fear and hope. They know, more than anyone driving down the street, looking through their car windows, the daily trials of life in Cabrini-Green. But the kids also know they might never be able to return to the only place they've known. As CHA housing regulations become more stringent, new mixed-income developments in Cabrini plan to allot more space to market rate units than to affordable or public housing.

"Sometimes Cabrini can be irritating," says William, 13. "Stuff can get on your nerves. When you want to get away from it, you do, but once you get away, you want to go right back. When you walk away from it, you can't walk away without turning back and looking at it." The other students nod their heads and cheer in agreement.

"That's exactly how it is," says LeAnna. "If I'm going in the house, [I hear] all the hollering and the arguments for no reason. To get away from it, you either walk away or go in your room, like me, and there are times you just lay back and go to sleep with a headache. When I was living in 500 and we were about to move, I was like, 'Yeah, we're about to move.' Then we go to another building, and I tried to come back to play with all my friends, and everybody was gone. The building was torn down. I was mad. I missed the good times. There were swings. Now there ain't nothing there but poles."

Sarah Anderson, a first grade teacher at Schiller, is a girls softball coach at the school. She's worked at Schiller for two years and is affiliated with the Academy for Urban School Leadership. Last year, she created a summer program for several eighth grade Schiller girls, focusing on softball, leadership and anger management, taking them to areas of the city they hadn't experienced, like Millennium Park, some museums and the lakefront. LeAnna, Riyah and five other girls participated. That summer the building right behind Schiller was being demolished. The kids remember "walking to the beat of the wrecking ball."

"In the summer, there were so many kids out playing right here," says Sarah, whose energetic teaching philosophy revolves around giving her students the option of making good choices or bad choices. "There's a swimming pool -- it's a community. The wrecking ball was like a drum. You got used to it. It kind of just became part of your life." Ashley, 15, says seeing the buildings come down has been "painful."

One afternoon, LeAnna mentioned to Sarah that she wished "people could see the good in Cabrini. People always think it's all bad." Struck by the comment, Sarah presented her girls with 35mm disposable cameras the next time they met, instructing them to document their neighborhood, the good and the bad, before it was too late. This assignment became the Neighborhood Project, a series of photographs and words describing Cabrini-Green from the youths' perspectives. The photographs, along with the words the girls wrote accompanying each of them, were hung this year in the Schiller gymnasium, and all the classes came through to look at them. Kids who'd spent their entire lives surrounded by the whites saw them from another perspective.

"There were a total of a couple hundred kids who walked through the gallery and got to see it," recalls Sarah. At the end of the exhibit was a sign that said, "Stop. What do you feel about what we've created?" "Every kid who came by wrote how they felt when they saw it. If they were in kindergarten, they drew a picture."

After leaving Schiller, the exhibit moved to a gallery space elsewhere in the city, and the comments kept coming. "People came in off the streets, not knowing anything about Cabrini," says Sarah. "We have currently about 56 huge poster boards full of comments. The girls have read them all to me at one time or another. There are more than 15 pages of single-spaced comments that people have written, and the whole idea is just to see how we're affecting people and if we're changing their minds, if they still have the negative stereotypes of Cabrini or if they are truly seeing some of the positive sides of Cabrini-Green."

The comments, especially the long ones, were important to all the girls. Even the kids not involved in the Neighborhood Project were moved by other people's words about the photographs opening minds and hearts to Cabrini. "I think the comments where people said how they feel about what's happening probably meant the most," says William, who adds that he was impressed by the photographs. "[When I first walked through] I didn't think it was them taking good pictures like that, until they started showing pictures of their family."

What followed was a grant from an individual donor, which allowed Sarah to buy digital cameras for each of the girls to use. They then set out to document the demolition of 714 W. Division, which was occurring last winter. As the building became fractured, opening up to the world what the notorious interior actually looked like, the girls captured the intrigue of the rubble, a once hopeful housing development that was becoming shattered and obliterated. The sliced open rooms revealed a rainbow of colorfully painted walls.

"If we can preserve a bit of Cabrini, some of the good history lives on," Sarah says. "Riyah writing about all the games she used to play in that field is going to live on even when that building's not there. Nobody can take that away, even when it is gone. That's the coolest part about this project."

Now pros at handling the cameras, the girls snap photos during our interview, making their own documentation as the tape recorder rolls. LeAnna, who wants to be either an artist or an actress, acknowledges the long-term value of learning to use a camera. "If I'm an actress, I'll think back to all the things we did and made into this," she says. "Look at how I made it -- someone taught me to use a camera."

Sarah was in college in Indiana when she heard the tragic story of Girl X, a nine-year-old who was found in a Cabrini stairway raped, beaten, choked, poisoned with insecticide and written on with gang symbols. The story riveted her, she says, believing it's "fate" that she's now a teacher at Schiller. When she started working there, some of her family mentioned how dangerous the area is. "Everybody's heard of Cabrini-Green, and I knew that I wanted to work here," she says. "I think I saw it even the first day I was here. It's no different than any other school. The parents are bringing the kids, and the first graders are so excited to be here. When I have report card day, all the parents come in. And if it's not a parent, it's a grandparent or an aunt. When I'm standing waiting for the bus to come, I see people drive by in really nice cars and see this look on their face, or I think I see this look on their face like, 'Oh, [Cabrini's] almost gone.'

"We all know sitting in this circle that this is going to be really expensive property," Sarah continues. "I think that's always made me upset because I feel like if these people only had the chance to know what type of kids are in here, the strength of these children, the kids who want to read and learn and know more about the world. And these eighth graders, they're absolutely unbelievable -- how much time and heart they've put into this. That's what I'd want people to see because if we don't show that to them, it'll be gone, and then there'll be new condos, which will be great, and maybe some of them will be mixed-income housing, and that'll be nice. But there's a community being torn apart, and that's what's the hardest. People don't realize that it's family out here. Everybody knows each other. It's a neat thing that's going to be gone soon. You don't have communities this close knit in other parts of the city. That's something that people drive by and don't realize because they hear the headlines. There is crime. No one here is going to deny it. This is a hard world, but these kids are really strong. They come to school every day and try their hardest."

Diana Jackson is a single mother of six children, ranging from ages 5 to 16. She lived at 624 W. Division, and her children were enrolled at Schiller until they moved last January. The 30-year-old mom was raised in Chicago. She moved into Cabrini with her mother in 1989, and all of her own children were born there. Diana now lives with her family in a Section 8 home in Englewood.

"It was a big change," Diana says about moving, which involved not only her children but also her sister's two. "Doing the packing and unpacking and getting the kids from there to here, without any type of transportation was hard. I called two of my friends, and there were two cars. We had four kids in each car. Without my mom and my sister, I don't know what I'd do. It was hard -- it was real hard."

When the notice came to leave Cabrini, Diana's feelings were mixed. She had a lot of memories from her youth and to watching her children grow, but she knew it was time to leave. "For the people who live in Cabrini, it's what you make of it," Diana says, although she admits she wouldn't have felt comfortable continuing to raise her children there. "I was the type who stayed to myself and kept my kids to themselves. If you kept to yourself, you wouldn't have to worry about all the negativity. But when people got to acting ignorant, they got to acting ignorant. I was thinking about moving [before receiving the notice], but at the time I didn't have the finances. It's more expensive to live in Section 8. Moving was a big step for my kids because all of them had been born and raised in Cabrini-Green. It was time for them to get out and explore other things instead of just staying in Cabrini around all the negativity. It's negative wherever you go. It's what you make of it. If you can make it the best, that's what you do -- you make it the best."

Diana says she wanted to move to northwest Chicago, but found the Englewood home to be a good fit for her family. The two-story house is simple and clean, and the atmosphere is quieter than Cabrini ever was, she says. There's also an adjacent, empty lot where her children can play baseball and football. When asked if she feels safe in her new location, Diana says, "For now, since I've been here, I feel like this is a positive area, but a lot of people say, 'Oh, the Englewood area, I wouldn't live there,' negative things, just like they said negative things about Cabrini."

One of the most difficult aspects of moving, Diana says, was that her children had to transfer in the middle of the school year. She says that was stressful for them and that they had to catch up. Despite the challenges, Diana realizes that she's in a better position than a lot of other former Cabrini residents. With stricter housing requirements, such as hours a week worked and background checks, some of those evicted have ended up without a home. "There are a lot of people with no place to go," she says. "It's kind of hard for other people. I can say that I had it easy, but then again, I don't have it easy. A lot of other people don't have help like I have help [from my mother and sister]."

Although the Halsted bus runs right up to Cabrini, Diana hasn't been back since she left on that January day. She hasn't seen any of her old friends. "I choose not to for now because I'm trying to make myself comfortable in my new area and get my kids into the feeling of being somewhere else other than what's considered as living in the projects," she says. Her typical day starts at 5:30 a.m. She gets the kids ready for school, sees them off and then stays home with the youngest two and fills out job applications. She's looking for a job near her home so she can juggle parenting and work, commuting without a car. Diana's dreams for her children are "for them to finish school, go to college and make something of themselves, to become somebody," she says. "Being a single mom, raising six by myself, I strive to push and do the right thing, keeping their heads in their books."

If Diana ran the CHA, she says she wouldn't be razing Cabrini-Green -- she'd be working to make it better. She also doesn't look at the housing development as a failed public project. "I don't think building Cabrini was a stupid idea because you had a lot of people who didn't have a place to go. It goes back to what you make of it. It was the people who were tearing it down, doing negative things."

When asked if she'd ever go back to the Cabrini area, once it's redeveloped, Diana says that's a hard question. She used to tell herself she never would, but now she wonders. "If it came to it, I think I would go back because there were a lot of people I knew and a lot of memories."

The students at Schiller savor their memories and tease each other about getting lost in their new neighborhoods in Chicago. LeAnna, like the other kids, doesn't like when people make judgments about Cabrini-Green. "People judge Cabrini by the way it looks, but they don't know half of the things that we go through that they just talk about," LeAnna says. "You aren't supposed to judge nobody. You at least ask questions. They don't know what it's like until they find out for themselves."

"I'd say don't judge [Cabrini] until you've seen it," adds Riyah. "There are people who love everybody around here, and it's not all bad."

The kids don't know whether or not building the high-rises, criticized nationally as poor public housing design, were a bad idea. They do believe passionately, however, that the elevators, of which most buildings have just one, need to be fixed and the gates, which critics have compared to prison bars, must be painted. "A gate is supposed to be silver, but they're brown," says LeAnna, who lives on a first floor unit in one of the buildings. "On the top floors, it's all brown and crusty and rusty. They've got to fix that, but that's about it, if the elevators keep working. Some people break the elevators, and old people have to go upstairs. I'd be feeling so sorry for some of the old people I just want to switch units, like make us get up to a higher floor and make some of the old people move to the first floor. They have groceries. They don't want to go through all that. If I had my own crib, I'd help somebody else out. I'm not that type of person to leave somebody on the street. That's rude."

According to the students, 1230 N. Burling is the "baddest" building, largely because it has two elevators. "It ain't fair," LeAnna says. "What .are you going to build, one building better than the rest? Why can't they be the same?"

Like Diana, the students say that if they were in charge, they wouldn't be tearing down Cabrini. They would instead direct efforts toward the residents to "clean up their thinking." When asked how they'd do that, LeAnna quickly answers. "If I was before Adam and Eve, I would have never ate that apple off that tree," she says. "I'd change all the drug dealers, the gun shots, the nasties, all the loud talking. That's how you get shot around here. I would stop all the drugs, weed and all. People always say except weed, but no, weed and all. If it weren't for all this crack stuff, people would still have houses, people would still have somewhere to live at, instead not finishing school, being a crack baby and living on the street, holding up a sign to get some money. That's your fault. You should have been in school instead of being outside." LeAnna talks to the tape recorder like she's reprimanding it.

"Drugs are killing our people," somberly says Aneisha Dale, a 13-year-old.

The colors on the cinder block walls inside Cabrini always added brightness to the space and were a way to personalize a very standardized home. The walls were also a means of recording life. LeAnna's walls have had green, blue, red and black. "On the wall where my sister used to sleep, she had all the people who died in our family, all of what happened in this room," LeAnna says. "On my side, I have my name, where I used to be at, all the people who are dead, all my cousins [and] all the things we went through. I have a sign that says we were the second place on this day or that day. I have the house that I want to do in the future on my ceiling, with little stars. I look at it every night."

As the walls come down, the Schiller students keep wondering how Cabrini will change. All of the buildings, except the row houses, are scheduled to be demolished within the next couple of years, and Schiller will likely close. "If we ever do come back here, we aren't going to know anybody," says Ashley. "It won't look the same."

"I'm going to miss it," says LeAnna. "If you leave and come back, you're going to be wondering where all the buildings used to be, and you can't walk in there like we used to. That'll be sad."

"I wonder how it'll be when everything's gone," says Ashley. "When all this is down, I want to see the type of houses they're going to build [and] who the new people will be. This is my community, and I lived through here."

"And I want to know when we get old, are we going to be like Martin Luther King?" asks Riyah. "Like Harriet Tubman? How are we going to be when it's that time?"

"I want to know if the people who are going to move here are going to be just like us," says LeAnna.

"Or will they be different?" questions Riyah.

"Are they going to do the same things we did?" wonders LeAnna. "Once we're gone and somebody else has kids, will they be just like us, doing the same things we did, like softball [and] basketball? Will they play like us? If we come back, we can remember all the good times we had, and they can tell we used to do the same things they do. 'Been there done that,' like some grownups do. I think it will look really different. This can't be redone. We can't do the same thing over again because we did it. The same people can't be the same." o

Visit www.neighborhoodproject.org to see the photographs and essays of the Neighborhood Project.

Published: June 01, 2006
Issue: Summer 2006


A New Year In Cabrini (In Memory Of Curtis Cooper
Back in the day New Year’s Eve in our apartment in Cabrini Green sounded a lot like the intro to Marvin Gaye’s, Got to Give It Up or Luther Vandross,’ Havin’ A Party. Lots of laughing, talking, singing and folks just have a good time. For occasions such as these Ma and Dad would break out the card table and the bubbly. They always had a non alcoholic beverage for the kids. We didn’t need a designated disc jockey we could turn on the radio and hear all of the latest sounds on local stations as they did a countdown of the top 100 records of the year. Kids were running around showing off what was left of their Christmas toys. There was definitely a spirit of bliss in the air. However, as the night grew close we’d have to lay low because of flying bullets. Some residents chose the most dangerous ways to ring in the New Year. In past New Year celebrations we’d hear about someone who didn’t make it to ring in the New Year. In our apartment the music and festivities seemed to reach unheard of decibels, yet not disturbing a soul. In preparation for the nights festivities we had to move the wooden phonograph that held trinkets more so than albums. When we removed Ma’s album covers which sat like family photographs off the top of the wooden encased phonograph, Ma would always yell out ‘be careful with my Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday records they are collectors items.’ We’d have a dance contest against the young and the old. Everyone chose a dance partner. The grown ups bragged about their agility back in the day at the quarter parties and waist parties. They’d break out doing the jerk, cha cha cha, watusi and the mashed potato. All of the older folks would gather around egging them on. The kids stood around laughing begging them to stop. Don’t get me wrong, the watusi and the jerk were cool dances but they looked funny being done to Parliament Funkadelics Flash Light and Peter Brown’s Dance With Me. When it was the younger folks turn they’d show off all of the latest dances like the gigolo, spank, freak and the 360. Then a grown up and a kid would start battling and the grown up started doing the robot or the pantomime like they were trapped behind bars or in a box and shut the party down! Somehow the robot and the pantomime had that effect on people young and old. They were universal. You could moonwalk all you wanted or do the bump if you wanted but to bring down the house you had to bring out your ace card and do a dance that everyone understood. At the end of the night everyone old and young would gather together and perform a toast to the New Year and all of it’s possibilities. Some of our wishes came true rather quickly. Some families who actually saw Cabrini Green as a stepping stone to greater possibilities moved out before another New Year was ushered in. Even though my family was fortunate to make the transition out of Cabrini, we will always cherish these memories. Because as the old adage goes, ‘home is where the heart is.’ Doreen Ambrose-Van Lee doreenambrose@yahoo.com 773-265-7827
Doreen Ambrose-Van Lee, Dec-21-2009