Tag Archives: Cabrini rowhouses

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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Cabrini row houses to go?

23 Jun

Policymakers and tenant leaders aren’t in agreement as CHA considers the future 586 public housing units

Cambridge Avenue in Cabrini-Green, just north of Chicago Avenue, is a study in contrasts.

On the west side of Cambridge, refurbished yellow brick surrounds new metal doors and sleek house numbers while cheerful landscaping brightens the space in front of row houses.

On Cambridge’s east side are dilapidated, mostly empty structures worn by decades of use and neglect.

Barbara Lott, a longtime resident of Cabrini, feels lucky that she secured a rehabbed unit near Cambridge. She keeps it smartly decorated and spotlessly clean.

“I love it here,” she said. “I just love where I live.”

The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation has already brought big changes to Cabrini, knocking down all but four of the old high rises that used to dominate the landscape in this part of town. But after promising to rehab all of the row houses — 586 units of public housing — CHA has confirmed it is now considering doing away with many, if not all, of them.

At the beginning of the Plan, the Cabrini row houses were to remain as newly rehabbed and 100 percent traditional public housing, set apart from the mixed-income neighborhood the Plan is seeking to create.

And it’s that proximity that now has some policymakers concerned. They’re worried that having a block of concentrated poverty so near to the new neighborhood will be detrimental to public housing residents themselves and the broader community.

Resident leaders, however, are pushing back against any demolition of the row houses, making the case that traditional public housing communities can be vibrant, safe places. Losing additional units of public housing in an area that’s difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to find places live would be a travesty, they say.

Whether the east side of Cambridge will ever look like the west side, or whether some of the units, if not all of them, will see the wrecking ball is an open question at this point.

Unlike other residents who were afraid of the Plan For Transformation — CHA’s effort to remake the city’s public housing system — Lott hoped for the best and has been happy with the results.

The 41-year-old mother has seen both the promise of public housing and the desolation it produced. She’s lived in the Cabrini row houses most of her life, moving to Chicago when she was two years old with her parents from Calhoun, Mississippi. They were seeking a better life, and Lott remembers those early days well.

“People were a lot friendlier back then. My best friend lived just down the street,” she said. “We played all the time. There are activities for kids. It was different.”

She had a daughter when she was just 17 and dropped out of high school to take care of her mother, who became ill due to sickle cell anemia.

Lott has lived on almost every street in the row houses — Hudson, Cleveland, Oak, Mohawk and now Chestnut, near the corner of Cambridge. She’s loved it there, but she’s not blind to the neighborhood’s faults.

One summer night when her daughter was 12, Lott left her with a babysitter for the evening, but got a frantic call an hour later. Gang crossfire had gotten so bad that a bullet pierced her kitchen window, grazing her daughter’s forehead as she ate dinner.

“We were scared. I didn’t like it, but we couldn’t afford to move to someplace better,” Lott said.

She still worries. Her youngest son is 11, and she keeps close tabs on him, tracking who he plays with and warning him about the dangers of getting involved with the wrong people. Gang violence and drug dealing have certainly waned since the high-rises have come down, she said, but there’s still plenty of criminal activity around to make her wary.

That, in part, is what concerns Alex Polikoff, an attorney and the former executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy group.

Polikoff has long had an interest in the composition of residents at housing authority properties around Chicago.

Through BPI, he served as lead counsel in the Gautreaux case, which challenged the housing authority’s practice of putting public housing in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

The lawsuit, first filed in 1966, resulted in a consent decree calling for scattered-site public housing development in Chicago, which has long been overseen by a federal judge and the Habitat Company. That monitoring will be phased out over the next three years, CHA announced earlier this year.

Back in September, Polikoff and his colleagues filed a motion with the judge overseeing the Gautreaux case, asking the housing authority to reconsider keeping the row houses traditional public housing.

“History tells us over and over again that a concentrated urban poverty situation is not going to be good for the families, and it’s not going to be good for the adjacent neighborhood,” Polikoff said.

Polikoff cited research shows that areas of concentrated poverty produces negative outcomes — higher rates of out-of-wedlock births, inferior schools, more residents with criminal backgrounds, higher rates of crime and drug trafficking.

This kind of activity within the row houses, he said, will bleed over into the surrounding communities. And that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood he doesn’t want public housing residents to have to deal with.

“Why would we impose this additional burden on them?” Polikoff said.

Tenant leaders at Cabrini-Green don’t believe Polikoff has the residents’ best interest in mind.

Carol Steele, the president of the Cabrini Local Advisory Council, said public housing residents are indeed able live in a peaceful, positive neighborhood if given the right conditions.

”You can’t say you’re doing right by people and you don’t put good management or good security in the buildings,” Steele said. ”In this city, the Plan has been about moving low-income people up and out.”<

She dismissed Polikoff’s concerns that maintaining the row houses as traditional public housing will negatively impact the groups of condos and town homes that surround it.<

“Who died and made Alex Polikoff God?” Steele said. “I don’t care what he thinks. Gautreaux is done. We no longer need Gautreaux.”

Steele’s lawyer, Richard Wheelock, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, agrees that with proper management, good security and supportive services, the row houses can be vibrant public housing community.

Demolishing them, he said, will mean a loss of almost 600 public housing units, further limiting the number of families that can return to the Cabrini-Green area.

“We’re concerned that CHA is going to break its word to the residents and not pursue rehab of that site, which would be a terrible decision,” Wheelock said. “It’s a huge loss of public housing. Where would you build the remaining units? Where would that be made up? Certainly not in the Cabrini area.”

Wheelock also took issue with the idea that the new residents of the row houses are going to be troublesome.

He pointed to a recently imposed work requirement for public housing residents, along with new admissions policies that encourage moderate income families to move in and strict rules for lease violations.

These changes, he said, will make the row house population more stable and cohesive.

“There are plenty of examples where you have low-rise public housing, if the families are being provided proper social services, proper management, proper repairs to the units and police protection — it can work,” Wheelock said.

Polikoff doesn’t want to take that chance. Can traditional public housing work? Yes, he acknowledged. But will it work? He’s not so sure.

“Everything we know tells us that it’s not inconceivable, theoretically, that we could produce great results in a 100 percent public housing community,” Polikoff said. “But what is the likelihood of that happening? We’re not sure.”

Both Wheelock and Polikoff expect the Chicago Housing Authority to announce a decision soon. The agency has been tight-lipped about when that decision will come or what it will be.

“No official decision has been made,” Matt Aguilar, a CHA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

Any decision, he wrote, be it demolition or some sort of reconfiguration of the row houses, would be discussed and determined within Cabrini’s working group, a committee of community members and city officials that plans the site’s redevelopment.

Lott said she isn’t losing sleep about the decision.

If the row houses stay, Lott will stay in the home that she loves. If they go, she has an idea of where she would like to move. Either way, she wants to live in a community where she feels safe.

“I just want everybody to be able to get along, even if you’re from one end of Cabrini or the other,” Lott said. “I love my apartment. I love where I’m at. I just want less violence and more community.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on June 23, 2010.

Poetry and memories: From the West Side, a former Cabrini-Green resident remembers what was

19 Mar
Doreen Ambrose’s first memories of Cabrini-Green are as wholesome as any young child. Going to preschool, visiting her grandmother, playing with the neighbor kids — these are the fond, sunny memories she recalls from her early days.


It wasn’t until she was 14, in 1983, that she realized her neighborhood had changed.


“My mother and I were sitting in the living room, just talking and stuff, and we heard shooting. We looked out the window, and we saw people running and screaming,” she said.


A boy she knew — Derrick Savage — had been shot, murdered in cold blood blocks away.


“I just froze,” Ambrose recalled. “I just remember not feeling like a kid anymore.”

Although it was the only home Ambrose had ever known, the day Derrick Savage was killed was the first day she realized she wanted to leave Cabrini-Green. When gang members started threatening and chasing her older brother home from school, she and her family packed up and moved from the building at 365 W. Oak on the West Side of Chicago, where she still lives today.

Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing said Cabrini experienced a major shift in the kinds of families that lived there while Doreen was a child.


“In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working-class and two-parent. By 1974, over 80 percent of family residents were dependent upon state aid in one form or another,” he said.


The Cabrini-Green that Doreen knew as a child — the good times and the scary ones — is almost gone now, razed by Chicago’s Plan for Transformation. Only four of the more than 30 high-rises that once towered over Chicago’s Near North Side remain today. It is likely the rest won’t be around much longer.


The Chicago Housing Authority has planned to close the last four buildings — 364 and 365 W. Oak, 1230 N. Burling and 1230 N. Larrabee — for the past several years, listing them in its annual plans. In the last year, CHA has closed two buildings, at 660 W. Division and 420 W. Chicago, moving residents out and slowly demolishing each site.

How long the remaining buildings will last isn’t just up to CHA.

A group of residents sued the housing authority in 2001 alleging that the rapid destruction of their home was a discriminatory act against the primarily African-American women and children who lived there. They won their case, and since then, every decision at Cabrini is carefully negotiated between the residents, their lawyers and the housing authority.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar says they haven’t yet determined when the final buildings will be closed.

“Discussions are currently underway with the Cabrini LAC and its counsel regarding the timing of the closure of the four buildings,” Aguilar said. “As of this date, no specific timeline has been determined.”

Lawyer Richard Wheelock, who represents the residents, says they have recommended consolidating the remaining buildings, either by grouping residents together on lower floors or cutting down to two buildings instead of four.

“They’re all largely vacant, so our best argument is to consolidate them,” says Wheelock.

Wheelock says he and Cabrini president Carole Steele have been concerned about the process of relocating residents. The housing authority has been holding voluntary relocation fairs, giving residents the option of using a Section 8 voucher to move out of Cabrini.

“It seems like CHA is hoping that at the end of the day, there will be a handful of families left to relocate,” Wheelock said.Aguilar said the relocation fairs at Cabrini are not unique.

“CHA is offering voluntary relocation to Cabrini residents just as it has offered voluntary relocation to residents at other properties,” he said.

Ambrose will be sad to see her old building, at 365 W. Oak, be torn down, even though she knows it’s inevitable.

“As a mature adult, I know it has to go. I know I don’t want to see anybody else die here,” she said. “But I will be sad. I will cry, for sure. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

Ambrose still has family that lives in the remaining buildings, and her memories of her first home are very much alive.

Doreen remembers Cabrini as the place she discovered poetry, sitting in her third grade classroom at nearby Byrd Elementary School. She was captivated as her teacher read Dudley Randall’s “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and says she knew then that she wanted to write poetry. “I just loved the way poetry made me feel. You could just say exactly what you were feeling, and that was beautiful to me,” said Ambrose.

She went on to write two books of poetry. The Diary of a Midwestern Ghetto Girl and Raised in Da Sun are published, and a third is coming out soon. But no matter how much she writes, anytime she picks up the pen, she’s carried back in time to her home in Cabrini-Green.

“When I write, I feel like I’m 9 years old again,” says Doreen. “I feel like my mother’s cooking some pot roast. I can hear her talking to my grandmother. I can see my father watching TV, my sister toddling around. When I write, I write from here.”

Will it be harder to write once her old building is no more? “A little,” Ambrose said wistfully. “A little.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on March 31, 2010.