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A Garden Grows in Cabrini-Green

19 Feb

Community garden along Chicago avenue near Cabrini-GreenSometimes, building community is as simple as salad dressing.

Last week, Linda Bazarian harvested fresh lettuce from her plot in the Chicago Avenue Garden. She made her ownndressing, but it wasn’t any good. This week, she’s trying a new kind, a french dressing recipe that’s a favorite of Johnnie Jones, another gardener.

These kind of recipe swaps are common among neighbors and friends.

But it’s unlikely that Linda and Johnnie would have even met before. Linda lives in upscale Old Town, and Johnnie’s a long-time resident of the Cabrini rowhouses.

It’s the garden that’s brought them together. It’s what the garden is about.

Fourth Presbyterian Church bought the lot on Chicago Avenue between Hudson and Cleveland, the southern border of the Cabrini-Green housing project,several years ago. Eventually, they hope to put a community center here, but for now, the garden serves as a way to bring people together, feed the community, and provide a safe space for kids to play

Ms. Jones, who’s 73 years old and lived in Cabrini-Green since 1963, lives by mantra she’s passed on to all her
kids and any one she’s known: “Wherever you go, get involved in the community.
And so Ms. Jones walks down to the garden several times a week to tend to her tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cabbages. She says when she returns home, bag of home-grown produce in hand, she gets stopped by everyone she knows.

“Ms. Jones, Ms. Jones, they say, what do you have?” she says, smiling.

She wishes more residents would get involved in the garden. Only five or six families from Cabrini come there regularly, she says.

It’s a challenge for the garden, says director Natasha Holbert. She says kids flock here in droves, but it’s tougher attracting adults, something the church is working on and committing time and resources to.

I’ve read about a lot of community initiatives like this one, and a lot of them seem to fall into the same pattern. If adults
come, it’s more likely to be the middle and high income ones, while public housing residents are a little less willing and may feel less welcome.

Church members point to the kids as the evidence that it’s working. At first, I was a little skeptical of this. Kids are great and all, but if the adults aren’t here, mixing and learning from each other, where’s the potential for lasting change?

I asked Robin Snyderman about this. She’s a housing expert at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that has done a lot of work in building community in these new mixed-income sites. Are kids the easy target, I asked Robin, eschewing meaningful adult community?

Nope, she said. Kids are the gateway. People will go to things they would never go to because their kids want to or are already there. And places like this garden create a space for that to happen.

“This stuff can’t be phony,” Robin says. “You can’t create intimacies where intimacies don’t exist. But you can create common space, common goals, and a common vision.”

MPC is actually sponsoring a contest designed to get Chicagoans thinking about these common spaces. “What makes your place great?” is one of their new initiatives on placemaking – creating shared public spaces where people can enjoy and interact with each other, bringing a community together. Places – they think – have the power to make neighbors out of strangers.

I experienced it myself, spending time in the garden. I was there only a few minutes when a little girl decided I should help her pick out just the right colored pencil for her rainbow. Ten minutes later, when another child pushed her, she ran to me for comfort. There’s something about a tiny person who doesn’t know your name, but feels free to wrap their arms around your neck and cry hot tears, that breaks down your pretense, your cautiousness and your cool, reporter-like attitude.

It’s unrealistic, I think, just to expect to throw people of different income levels together and hope they get along. And maybe it’s also unrealistic to expect that the change we’re looking for – the weaving and binding together of different kinds of people – would happen right here and now. Perhaps the work we do now is for the next generation. And children, as the cliché goes, are the future.

”This next generation helps us grow out of our own segregated past and succeed in a diverse society,” Robin says.

Perhaps the seeds we plant will be theirs to harvest and theirs to plant again. Just like a gardener plants, waters, prays and hopes – we can only do our best to bring people together and hope it grows into something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe it will.

Ms. Jones thinks so. After 50 years at Cabrini, she’s ready to see it grow again.

“I was here when it was good. I was here when it was bad. It’s gonna be good again, and I’m still gonna be here.”

This post was originally published on Sept. 23, 2009 at One Story Up.

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Don’t Fall in the Poverty Trap – You May Never Get Out

18 Feb

I wrote this post in Nov. 2009 and it’s one of my most viewed posts of all time. I think the concept is one that helps people think about poverty and programs that are supposed to help people get out of poverty in a new way. Take a look:

Until you earn about $40,000 a year, you’re pretty much stuck in poverty, an economist’s numbers show.

In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.

Take a look at this story from economist Jeff Liebman, who now works in the Obama Administration.

The poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S.

A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs, etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

Take a look at this chart by economist Clifford Thies, via Greg Mankiw’s blog.

The Dead ZoneFrom the green dot, you can see that earned income rises… for a while. Then there’s this screwy wavy line. That’s the mother making a little more, but earning a little less.

$40,000 a year is about $19 an hour. Over 40 percent of Chicagoans don’t earn that much.

There aren’t that many jobs out there that make $19 an hour. Bank Teller? $13.33 an hour. Office clerk? $15.60. Retail salesperson? $11.80. Security guard? $16.14. (Statistics via Chicago Rehab network).

Our tax incentives work… initially. Then they only serve to hurt people. They say the poor don’t work hard enough, but that single mother sounds like a pretty hard working person to me. The story goes on to say that she got a weekend job, to try to make ends meet. Except after childcare and gas, it didn’t help at all.

So if working harder means people might actually earn less, how is it that we expect people to work harder?

Making the Invisible Visible

21 Nov

IMG_2214-thumb-300x225-18814I didn’t even see her, sitting on the West side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, but Mark did.

She was young, small, sitting with her orange tabby cat next to one of the bridges tall sculpted posts. Hundreds of people walking by almost blocked out here small, cardboard sign.

We stopped, and Mark knelt beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

Mark Horvath does this for a living. Well, sort of. He runs a site called Invisible People and travels the country, talking to homeless people and documenting their stories. He used to be homeless himself, 14 years ago on the streets of Hollywood after battling addiction. He now dedicates his life to helping people really see the homeless we walk by every day.

People like Sandra.

Sandra was sitting on the bridge because she lost her job. She moved here a few months ago, just her and her cat, and was doing alright until she got laid off. Now, she doesn’t have any money and no place to stay. She’s trying to save up enough to get back home to Seattle, but it’s hard to save money living on the street. She panhandles to raise $40 for a hotel room every night, but there isn’t much extra to save for a ticket home.

“It’s hard. If it weren’t for him,” she says, pointing to her cat, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mark gave her a pair of new, clean socks, and we moved on.

He stopped in Chicago for two days on his tour around the U.S. He’s been to Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and many more cities, just over the last two months. He let me follow him on Saturday on his journey to meet the homeless in Chicago.

It’s barely 20 feet, just the other side of the bridge, before we meet the next person.

Reggie’s been homeless for years, since his mother and brother died. After their death, his grief deadened him, making it hard for him to do anything. He lives on the street now, and he says he doesn’t even want to be here.

His pain was so visible. He’s wounded he could barely raise his head to talk to us.

I held his hand for a minute. Maybe a little longer than you should hold a stranger’s hand.

When I got on the train that morning to go down and meet Mark, I had a song stuck in my head. It was an odd song, sort of came in out of the blue. Cheery and sunny, I imagined Doris Day waltzing around a bedroom, putting her little boy to sleep.

I still had it stuck in my head when we went to meet AnnMarie. Mark had connected with AnnMarie over Twitter.Even though she’s homeless, she uses twitter and facebook to keep up with friends and family, to express herself and her frustration with a lonely world.

We sat and ate together, and AnnMarie told me about the abuse in her past that caused her PTSD and how it keeps her from holding down a job and making a more normal life for herself. She has two kids, 15 and 9, who she almost never sees.
She has a picture of them on her phone from a few years ago – smiling and waving at her. She’s applied at several supportive housing places, but they’ve turned her down because of her PTSD. She’s working on getting a place to stay and getting good health care to deal with her problems, but it isn’t easy. She takes the bus and the train for hours and hours each day, looking for someone who will be able to help her.

Often times, she comes downtown, just to spend the day, like today. She walks around and looks at things. Says hi to a few homeless people she’s made friends with.

Living on the street has been hard on her, especially because of the way men often treat her. Homeless men can be aggressive when they see a woman alone, she says, and their advances often trigger her most violent and hurtful memories from her childhood.

Mark and I walked back, he to his hotel, me to the train. He had given Annmarie a little money, something he doesn’t normally do. He does this for a living, talking to people day-in, day-out, but AnnMarie really got to him.

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.

This story was originally published at One Story Up on Nov. 21, 2009.

LeClaire Courts conundrum

3 Jun

Rosie EuRosie Eubanks and her sister listen for details at a meeting with the Chicago Housing Authorityon what will happen at LeClaire Courts, a public housing complexMartha Abraham has lived at LeClaire Courts for over 30 years. She’s attended LeClaire Baptist Church every Sunday and
raised three children there, all of whom have gone on to get college degrees. She’s the woman that other residents come to when they don’t know what’s going on or who to trust.

But her community is dying a slow, painful death. And while Abraham and others are screaming for life support, city officials say they need to pull the plug.

It came to a head this week, when LeClaire residents sat down in a room with Chicago Housing Authority staff, to talk about closing down the development.

At several points during the meeting, Abraham stood up at the conference table and bellowed, often with tears in her eyes, about the injustice she felt was taking place.

“You told us we can stay here. We love LeClaire Courts. We’ve been here for years. You gonna take our home from just because we’re poor?” shouted Abraham.

If it sounds like the housing authority is the Big Bad Wolf threatening to knock down people’s homes, then we just because we haven’t gotten to the real heart of the situation.

Here’s the skinny on LeClaire: It’s a sprawling, low-rise development on the city’s far South West Side, out by Midway. It’s actually two different developments rolled into one: one part that’s nicknamed “city/state” and the other “federal.” The federal side is traditional public housing, but city/state is actually project-based Section 8 housing. The distinction is one of boring, complicated housing policy, so let’s just say for now that the money for each side comes from two different parts of Uncle Sam’s money pot.

With the city/state side closed, only 40 families would remain at LeClaire. And officials say that’s treading on dangerous territory.

“At some point, there’s going to be so few people out here that it’s not gonna be safe,” said

CHA chief Lewis Jordan at last week’s town hall meeting.

“I don’t want some child walking past 30 vacant units to get to her house with God knows who’s in those 30 vacant units. That’s the kind of choice I have to make.”

I certainly don’t envy Jordan’s position. It’s a tough one. There are no easy answers on what to do at LeClaire.

Ultimately, the hardest thing about this whole situation is that you have a whole group of people who are so heavily invested in their community. People like Martha Abraham. People who have put blood, sweat and tears into a neighborhood, and ultimately, because it’s public housing, they have no say over what happens there.

That fact sort of boggles my mind.

I mean, I know the government pays for it, and so the government decides. But isn’t it sort-of weird that the people who live in a place don’t have any control? Their lives are in someone else’s hands, no matter how much they’ve invested.

It’s such an obvious idea, but so profound. In one sense, the very essence of being American is the idea that you control your life, your home. The whole idea of representative, local government is that people know best what to do with their community because they live there.

But not at LeClaire.

And so Abraham and others will just have to wait and see what Jordan and his staff decide to do. I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA’s spokesperson, if there’s a cut-off point for when federal side residents would have to go. He said there’s no set point at which federal side residents would have to leave their homes, but if things become unsafe or it doesn’t make good business sense to keep LeClaire open, it’s going to have to shut down.

Rosie Eubanks has lived at LeClaire for 40 years, working as a pre-school teacher in the local headstart. She told me she
doesn’t think that other people should be able to make decisions about someone else’s community, but that’s the way it happens in public housing.

“Because it’s low-income, they have the hammer over our heads. What can we say?”

This story was originally published on June 3, 2009 at One Story Up.