The view of building 365 wrenched with poverty and absorbed by violence is where I used to call home. Those red brick buildings were a playground, sometimes forts during wars of the rival gangs, and even a fall out shelter during a natural disaster. And although it may have been stricken by these ills, it was a nurturing place as well. Nevertheless, my mother and father taught me lessons that would keep me safe from the ravaging wolves of the streets. Although I did run with the wolves, I felt a sense of hope growing up in Cabrini Green.
Located on the Near North side of Chicago, Cabrini Green stood out like a sore thumb. As cities have their financial district, a Gold Coast and a Diamond district, Cabrini was “the Poverty district.” Lines for drugs extend from the 4th floor down to the lobby of the building; imagine walking home from school through these conditions. It always amazed me how I could walk down four blocks east from my building 365 W. Oak St. and can stand in front of Barneys New York or the Prada store. How could we be so poor and be surrounded by so much wealth? Alas!
The row house, the low-rise section of Cabrini Green is where I spent most of my wonder years. Sort of like a maze to police running after us, to the point they chopped down all the trees so they could see clearly down each row leaving only the trees in backyards; how is that for going green. Mainly kids riding bikes, girls jumping rope, gang bangers gang banging and drug dealers selling drugs but it was still our community. I remember how they use to tell me “lil James go in the house… We bout to be shooting.”
In the row houses my address was 941 North Cambridge, I witnessed a lot of things while living there, good and bad. I remember getting sent home from summer camp because I got caught smoking weed, such a bad habit for a 12 year old right. Or the time a woman’s body was recovered from a sewer across the street from us. My nephew, age six, witnessed the entire thing, when they pulled the body out he thought it was a Ninja Turtle.
We would just sit back in amazement looking at the John Hancock building. Words like “architecture” were not a part of our vocabulary yet but we understood the building was special. We could view it right from our bedroom window; as a matter of fact we could view the entire Chicago skyline right from the projects. We did not realize how valuable the real estate truly was until the gentrification started.
Vivid memories of us hopping those black gates playing “it” a project version of “hide go seek,” running after each other. We would watch the older guys in the projects and try to emulate them from smoking weed to carrying guns. This was the cycle that trapped so many friends of mine who didn’t have parents or whose parents where hooked on hard drugs. It was very common for parents to be addicted to drugs and allow the streets to raise their children, but there were also very strong parents who were disciplinarians who raised their children to be independent thinkers.
The project’s favorite pastime seems to be basketball. I knew several friends who could’ve received full athletic scholarships to Big Ten schools and blew it because they lacked discipline. Personally, I love basketball, but my father always put emphasis on providing and maintaining my family, so instead of me waking up and running to the court to play during the summers, I had to work my Chicago Sun Times newspaper route on Adams and Dearborn, and then I could go play ball. At age 9.
St. Philip Benizi was, I believe, a Quaker church originally, but we knew the church for its Summer camp “Cycle.” Cycle provided summer jobs for teens in the community and a safe haven from the ills of the projects. There were several community centers like this in Cabrini but all seemed to disappear as the gentrification increased. Cycle was one of eight community centers in the 80’s and 90’s but by 2000 that number decreased to one. As one can see from its boarded up windows, Cycle is no longer a place where the project kids can come for activities.
Graffiti is something you can find in any neighborhood, but what’s special about Cabrini is that most of it is paying homage to fallen friends. Cabrini Green has witnessed a lot of blood poured into her streets, claiming its place in American history as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, but I am evidence that it’s a place that teaches you life lessons of survival and hope.
Honestly, I feel somewhat like a veteran of war, because, frankly, I cannot recall how many friends I have lost, and to be perfectly honest, its hurts to count. For some, like B Love Ink Dog, their names have become as beloved as Jesus. And at any given moment you will hear someone swear to their names “I put that on Ink Dog” or “on B Love” similar to how someone would “swear to God” to show they are sincere or prove that they are telling the truth. Somehow, this keeps their memory alive, and just how the young emulate the old, this is sometimes the ultimate goal of the living; to have their name mentioned in this way after they die.
It felt more like a maximum security prison than a gated community when the Chicago Housing Authority tried to beef up the safety of the neighborhood. Moreover, with the invasion of privacy by police cameras watching our every move. I guess it is true a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.
But it is also true that the poor people here in Cabrini do not produce the drugs that they shoot in their veins nor do they produce the guns that spill their blood into the streets. Moreover, the poorly funded schools and lack of education has a direct correlation with delinquent behavior. That’s why my mother emphasized education and drilled this into my head “Jay, never walk by an open door; walk through and establish yourself, ask questions and learn, your education can never be taken from you. Use it to open doors for others, but first you have to walk through.”