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The real story of living in Cabrini-Green projects

April 8th, 2014 10:00 PM

1982 Pulitzer prize winning photograph by John White. (Photo by John White)

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By Sandra Johnson

The other day I mentioned to Mary — a young lady who helps me cook and to clean my house — that I once lived in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. While she was poking a fork in the pot of smothered chicken, I thought I would tell her that the city might tear down the Cabrini Green Row Houses. I didn't get a chance to finish my point. Mary is the type of person who loves to talk and she has, so she thinks, a vast knowledge of any topic.  

"You don't look like you lived in the Cabrini-Green projects — you are the wrong color," she said.  

As I looked at her in amazement, she continued. "My mother's cousin lived on the 19th floor in a Cabrini-Green high-rise. I was about 10 or 11 years old when we went there to visit. I remember the children playing on the balcony were all a blue-black color. My teenage cousins and their friends were blue-black too. They were gangsters, thieves, and criminals of all sorts. If I had not been careful they would have stolen me. And later say, 'Oh, we thought you were a mannequin.'"

She continued on. 

"I was a curious child; I wanted to know why about a lot of things. Why the apartment walls were made of brick? Why there were roaches in the ceiling corner? Why the balcony's steel mesh fence remind me of an animal's cage? I was asking so many questions my mother thought it was best …" 

When Mary took time to catch her breath — 30 minutes later — I got a chance to give my opinion. 

"You are stereotyping!" I shouted.   

"I'm not," Mary responded. "That's the way it was in Cabrini-Green projects. It was all black people living in poverty."  

I told Mary that her impression is based on occasional visits when she was too young to get a total picture.

Not everyone black who lived in Cabrini-Green, I added, was a "blue-black" color. "You can see I am a witness to that," I told her. "Neither was everyone black. My neighbors to the south of me were Italians who had lived in the row houses since the '50s. Across from me in another building on Mohawk Street lived a Puerto Rican woman and her children. And every black male was not a criminal. 

"My neighbor to the north, Anthony Watson, was a 1970 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy. He retired as the first African-American in the history of the U.S. Navy's submarine force to be promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral." 

Still disbelieving, Mary said, "It is hard for me to believe that you lived in Cabrini-Green projects." 

She put her hands on her hips and stared straight at me as she said that. She then added: "After the high-rises had been torn down the TV news still reported how crime-ridden and poverty-stricken the community had been." 

I saw that I had to use some compelling evidence to convince Mary.

I said: "The name Cabrini-Green projects brings to mind an image of violence, crime, fear and danger and poverty. Before Cabrini-Green projects gained the reputation of the most notorious project in the United States, I lived a happy life from 1965 to 1971 at 950 N. Cleveland in a row house. Anything that I could want was in walking distance. 

"My husband and I went to picnics in Lincoln Park, jazz concerts at a church on Sedgwick, movies in the Loop, nightclubs on Wells Street, and walks at the Oak Street Beach. In 1967, I became a member of Holy Family Lutheran Church at Hobbie and Larrabee Streets. One time, my pastor asked members to host an after-service Sunday dinner for white members visiting from Iowa. My husband and I had a lot of fun preparing the meal and seeing our guests enjoying it. 

"Furthermore," I said, "the name brings an image of lazy black people unwilling to help themselves. But, black people in Cabrini-Green fought for equality just as black people in the Austin community fight today. I remember a group of residents called the Concerned Parents of Jenner Elementary School. They protested for quality education for their children, and they brought charges against the principal, Miss Mildred Chuchut, until she left the office."

Mary asked if there was a difference in living in a high-rise as to living in a row house.

Because of the nature of her question, I could tell Mary was beginning to soften. 

"The only difference that I knew was that row-house residents paid a gas bill," I told her. "I can't speak for the high-rise residents, but living in the row house was nice. The CHA hired good janitors and maintenance workers. The janitors cut the grass when it was needed; the maintenance workers painted the entire house after five years. Any repairs were taken care of immediately. 

"CHA gave light bulbs and furnace filters to residents. A laundry room building was provided where free washing and drying of clothes took place. My children attended a well-organized daycare center at Oak and Hudson streets. My husband and I were grateful to have a warm, clean, and safe place to raise our children." 

"So all that stuff I read in the newspaper and listen to on TV was not true," she asked.  

I said: "It was true, all right, but it began in 1968.

"After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., things were never the same in Cabrini-Green. Rumors started that snipers positioned on the roofs of high-rise buildings were shooting at anyone passing by. Later in 1970, TV and newspaper reporters publicized the killing of two police officers by gang members who shot them from a vacant apartment window. As a result, some of my neighbors brought property here in the Austin community and left Cabrini-Green."  

"I didn't have a complete picture of Cabrini-Green projects," Mary confessed. 

Lots of others did not either, I told her. I achieved my goal. 

Cabrini-Green shouldn't be viewed as only a poverty-stricken project. Mary would never think one section of a population represented the whole. As for me, I believed what I was told, that the public housing projects were there to help families get on their feet. 

It was not the place to make a permanent residency.