Walking and watching the sun set between the twin buildings of 365 and 364 West Oak seems like yesterday. Long before the high-rises turned to rubble, before the neighborhood was named one of Chicago’s Best Places to Live in this magazine, I was a teenager living in Cabrini-Green and had no idea about real estate or had even met a real estate investor for that matter. Though we were witnessing the first phases of redevelopment—the new library on Division, the relocated 18th District police station—we didn’t really know what the future held.
My father moved to Cabrini-Green in the 1960s, and my mother moved soon after in the ’70s for affordable housing. Growing up, I called four addresses in Cabrini-Green home. Somehow I parallel our experience to the First Nations people. We always understood that there were people who wanted the land, but to us who were young, we thought our buildings couldn't possibly be moved. They stood tall like the Roman Pantheon or the Pyramids of Giza—the Big Three high-rises (The Rock, 1150-1160 North Sedgwick; The Castle, 1117-1119 North Cleveland; and The Bankroll, 500-502 West Oak), all of which faced east toward the John Hancock and Water Tower on the Magnificent Mile, less than a mile away.
Although surrounded by poverty and violence, we found ways to grow together as a community. Some of the older tenants kept gardens in the courtyards of the building, tending vegetables. My father helped create the Cabrini-Green food co-op. There were swimming pools, tennis courts, summer camps, and schools with teachers that cared about the students. We had local businesses like Robbin's Barbershop, where I received my first haircut, and Hips, a convenience store my mother would send me to. Every summer we could hear the sonic boom of the jets overhead for the Air and Water Show on Lake Michigan, and every year the community would come together for the gym shows at Seward Park—where gang members from rival factions could train together in peace, even though they’d be willing to take each other’s lives outside the gym.
Not all of the youngsters in Cabrini participated in drug sales; many of us had paper routes selling final market papers downtown after school. From Cabrini, we would walk to Halsted then jump on the bus and take our earnings down to Maxwell Street where we would buy our gym shoes and have enough money left over for bus fare and a polish.
But I did grow up in the era of excessive drugs and gun violence: I started losing friends to gun violence in grade school. Where there is overwhelming poverty there is crime. Truly, after the death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis in 1992, we witnessed the beginning of the end. Police said he was gunned down from The Castle, which was my home from 1986 through 1989. When we realized this highrise would be torn down, it was apparent that the talk of demolition and redevelopment was no myth. We saw the conditions of the remaining buildings rapidly deteriorate, including less maintenance of the building grounds, reduced funding, and the disappearance of after-school programs and summer jobs.
In the years leading up to the city’s Near North Redevelopment Initiative of 1997, the top floors of some high-rises were emptied out. Boarded-up windows gave the face of Cabrini another black eye. City officials used lower occupancy numbers as justification for redevelopment. Dave Tkac, a mayoral appointee in charge of the NNRI, said in a 1997 interview that only 600 units of the 1,324 slated for demolition were occupied, and that there would be room for those families in the new development. Looking back almost 20 years later, this was a betrayal: We were told the redevelopment would rid Cabrini of the isolation and separation of public housing and create a complete community. Instead, the entire community was displaced.
Some of us who survived that era suffer from post-traumatic stress, some still haven’t grown from their adolescent habits, but most are just trying to make ends meet. Plenty of people went on to make great contributions to society: politicians, actors, musicians, educators, Gates scholars, the list goes on and on, but somehow this legacy is overshadowed by the negativity that once was associated with our neighborhood.
My mother moved out of our two-bedroom apartment on Oak Street, which once housed all six of us, in 2008. Our family was part of the fabric of the neighborhood for over 30 years; some residents came from families that even pre-dated the construction of Cabrini-Green. We were all forced out, leaving behind generations of memories and a trail of tears.
Yet the developers keep the neighborhood’s name for its shock value. From Flatbush in Brooklyn to Anacostia in D.C., across America it seems that newcomers have romantic ideals of redeveloped so-called "dangerous neighborhoods.” The name gives the new development an identity, important for marketing purposes, but devoid of the history and community that defined the neighborhood during a tumultuous time.
Looking at Cabrini-Green now, I see the gentrification as a sign of what could have been, without the displacement of residents. Multimillion-dollar housing developments, Starbucks, an Apple store, a Target, and other shopping centers in the vicinity where Cabrini stood might not remember the vibrant life that occupied these grounds before their erection, but we do. All our places full of childhood memories were covered with the rubble of the demolition and greed, only to be rebuilt without the people who gave the community its heart.
Maybe Cabrini-Green is one of the best places to live in 2016. I would say Cabrini was the best place for me to live growing up as well. Would I want to spend my childhood there again? I mean, no one wants to live in poverty; if I could choose, I would stay in a nice four-level Victorian in Forest Park. But could I have become the person I am today without the experience gained growing up in Cabrini-Green? No.