Tag Archives: mixed-income communities

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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The Cabrini kids: families still living in Cabrini-Green struggle to find child care

14 Jan

At the end of every month, Chalonda McIntosh pays her bills. First, rent, then her car loan, then child care for her son.
“Then, if I have enough left over, I put food in the house,” she said.

But most months, she doesn’t get there. She often can’t pay child care on time and racks up late fees. McIntosh said she’s lucky to have a spot for her son at St. Vincent DePaul’s child care center on North Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, even though the $226 a month she pays after the state’s contribution toward child care is more than what she can often afford. While she’d like to send her youngest son somewhere in the neighborhood, affordable options are limited.

“In the Cabrini-Green community, we have no reliable daycare,” McIntosh said. “They do not accept vouchers. You have to go out of your community to find adequate child care, but none of it’s affordable.”

It’s not only McIntosh who is struggling. A local group called Cabrini Mothers in Power has been working for more than three years to bring an affordable child care and early learning facility to the neighborhood. An analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows that a significant number of children live in the community even though the last of the high-rise public housing buildings was demolished in March.

Despite the perception that children are gone from the neighborhood, the Reporter’s analysis shows that more than 1,100 children under the age of 5 still live in the area, according to the 2009 American Community Survey. Of them, 74 percent are black. There are no longer any child care facilities in the Cabrini area that accept government vouchers, even though the number of young children in the area has decreased by just 20 percent, according to the analysis.

Deborah Hope, one of the leaders of Cabrini Mothers in Power, raised her two children in the Cabrini row houses and used to work as a crossing guard at Jenner Elementary School, a neighborhood school. She said she meets parents regularly who want to work but are struggling to find child care.

“One mom, she was crying her eyes out,” Hope said. “She had just been offered a job at Starbucks, but Jenner could only offer her a half-day program, and she needed a full day. There was nothing in the community.”

Hope said some parents drive their children farther, to the South or West sides, for child care providers who accept state and city vouchers. Other parents stop looking for work.

The community has seen resources for children dwindle as the Cabrini towers were demolished. According to data from Illinois Action for Children, in 2000, as the Plan for Transformation began, there were six child care centers in the census tracts that contained Cabrini that accepted Illinois child care vouchers. In 2010, there were none.

Patricia Ridings has witnessed that decline. She’s a Head Start teacher at Jenner and taught at another neighborhood school for several years before it was closed. In her first year at Jenner, the school had two full-day preschool programs. But in 2010, the school cut the program in half. Now there’s one classroom with a morning and afternoon session for 3- to 4-year-olds, both of which can accommodate only 17 children.

“When they cut the program, it hurt a lot of my families,” Ridings said. “Especially since the buildings have come down, everybody’s everywhere. They don’t have that support. They don’t have the back up, like grandma or auntie to watch the kids.”
The cuts also hurt children academically, many of whom end up not prepared to enter kindergarten, Ridings said. “That’s where the education gap starts.”

The community has tried to get the attention of city officials. Cabrini Mothers in Power has hosted forums and met with local officials, some of whom seemed sympathetic or offered promises but haven’t done much to help bring a child care center to the neighborhood, Hope said.
One of those promises came from former Chicago Housing Authority CEO Louis Jordan. Hope confronted him last year, and he promised that something would change within three years. Jordan has since resigned, and CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar could not confirm whether Jordan’s promise would be honored by new CEO Charles Woodyard.

“A working group composed of stakeholders is responsible for the redevelopment plan. It is unknown what that plan will include,” Aguilar said.

CHA refers residents who need help to Illinois Action for Children. The organization said there are seven child care centers within half a mile of Cabrini. Of them, two cater to government employees, and three have a waiting list of at least a month. Two centers did not respond to our request for information. Of the five that responded, costs ranged from $750 to $1,800 a month, not including registration fees. Even with a voucher, low-income families can end up paying up to 16 percent of their monthly income for child care, according to a recent report on child care in Cook County by Illinois Action for Children.

Cabrini Mothers in Power had also been told that the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services might be willing to fund a center if there were a facility willing to house it. Anne Sheahan, a spokeswoman for the department, said it wants to find a solution to the child care problem in the neighborhood, but there are challenges, including finding a space that won’t cost a lot and that is properly zoned.

As for McIntosh, she’s looking forward to next year when her youngest son goes to kindergarten, and she won’t have to pay for full-day child care. But she knows that the struggles of many of her neighbors won’t be over.

“If they had a full-day service, it’d make a lot of people get up, go to work and [have] more opportunities,” McIntosh said. “There’s not enough resources.”

This article was originally published in January 2012 in The Chicago Reporter.