By David T. Whitaker
As the country’s most recognized public housing development, Cabrini-Green has become a symbol of what went wrong. Now its weary high-rises brush against the burgeoning skyline and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, and an immense redevelopment plan promises to make things right.
Alamar Lee “Mother” Vassar, 75, who has known the neighborhood for almost 60 years, can remember a time when “everything was lovely, just beautiful,” and she wonders what progress will do to Cabrini’s face, its pulse, and its people.
In a new book I prepared, excerpted here, Cabrini-Green: In Words and Pictures (W3 Chicago), Mother Vassar and other current and former residents look back on the community’s history. They tell the story of a place classified too easily by its most troubled times. Mother Vassar was 17 in 1942, when she left rural Mississippi for Chicago, where her GI husband was stationed, and moved into an apartment building at 1230 N. Larrabee in an area then known as Little Sicily or, reflecting the quality of life there, Little Hell. But just a few blocks from this impoverished enclave, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was preparing to unveil a complex of two- and three-story row houses for the families of defense-industry workers and a controlled number of low-income families. It was touting them as a model for racially integrated public housing. The first families moved in on August 1, 1942, and in 1943 the new community was officially dedicated as the Frances Cabrini Homes.
Over the last 50 years, Mother Vassar has lived in several of the row houses, places lost in the shadows of the redbrick high-rises that rose up around them in the mid-50s and of the imposing white high-rises, or William Green Homes, built in the early 60s. But she’s far from the only surviving witness to the birth of Cabrini-Green. Lillian Davis Swope moved to the row houses when she was 17 and eventually raised five children there.
Arzula Ivy raised three, Margaret Wilson five. Inez Gamble lived in the row houses on and off for 30 years before moving to the south side. And though Zora Washington moved away 14 years ago after she and her husband had raised their five children, she works at the local Schiller School today and calls the old neighborhood home. So does jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, who often returns at Christmas to perform at the Jenner School, his alma mater.
Mother Vassar They used to have this festival and parade in the summer, and they had these lights that run from Chicago [Avenue] all the way up to North, and we used to sit out in front of 1230 [N. Larrabee] and look at the people drivin’ by and parkin’ their cars–whites and colored peoples at that time–and everything was lovely, I mean beautiful. And the kids, they’d go around the corner, over on Scott Street, to this park that had a swimming pool and places to play inside and out. All the kids from Scott, Larrabee, and Division streets, that’s where they’d go, and we’d go and sit on the benches in the park in the summer.
Lillian Davis Swope It was all nationalities here back then. In order to move into the row houses–it was like white, black, white, black, in every other apartment, and a black individual could not move into the row houses unless a black moved out, or if you were white, a white would have to move out. That’s how it worked, but there wasn’t no black and white issues at that particular time. We would visit one another, drink coffee together, we had Bible classes together. I had no problems, and the Italians and the Irish, they had no problem. In fact, when I was young their children could spend the night at my house and I could spend the night at their home.
Ramsey Lewis One thing I distinctly remember is that it was a predominantly Italian neighborhood at that time. We had two of the largest Catholic churches in the city in Saint Philip Benizi’s and Saint Dominic’s, and I certainly remember the feasts they put on once or twice a year. I remember we had a great amount of pride in our neighborhood and our homes. We were quite proud of the flowers in the front and the vegetable gardens and grass in the back.
Inez Gamble We had all kind of activities over here for the children and they used to block the streets off for dancing, and this was like the early 50s.
Arzula Ivy Down on Hudson Street there was apartment buildings and tenement houses–this was before they tore them down to build the high-rises–and they went clean down to Division. There was stores over on Larrabee, like Pioneer meat market and Big Frank’s and Del Farms, and they had restaurants and everything.
Margaret Wilson Oh, I remember Del Farms, and on down Larrabee you had Pioneer’s, and then I think it was Kroger’s. We had the A&P up on Clybourn, Greenman’s store was at Franklin and Oak, Harry’s drug store was on Oak and Larrabee, and then the cleaner’s was right next door to that, and everybody knew everybody.
Inez Gamble There was this old candy store up on Oak Street, and what was the name of that man that owned it? Yeah, Phil. Phil knew me real well. He would always cheat my kids outta their change, and I wouldn’t care if I was in the bathroom washing my hair, I’d wrap a towel around my head and march up to the store and he’d say, “You mean to tell me you gonna come in here and raise all that sand over two cents?” I’d say, “Yeah, if you wanna keep it I am. Every time my kids come in here you wanna short-change ’em [laughing], and every time you do I’m gonna come up here and see you.”
Mother Vassar We had an evangelist move in next door to us and her name was Mother Moses and, oh, she was beautiful. She lived in the upstairs, and downstairs was where she had her church. Every Sunday we’d go down to the church and I’d sing at all the funerals [laughing]. I’m still singin’ and I’m 75.
Inez Gamble They even had a $3 fine for littering back then. I remember one time the kids put the garbage out and then later someone found a letter with my name on it lying in the street, and boy I wanted to kill them boys ’cause that was a $3 fine.
Arzula Ivy I had a vegetable garden in the front yard and people would come by and look at it and even take pictures of it. It was beautiful. I had a fence around it and I had cabbage and collard greens and string beans and onions and it was real pretty. The CHA would always be out there cleanin’ up. When you threw paper on the ground or garbage and stuff, they’d charge you for it, but now you can throw all the garbage out there you want and they won’t charge you nothin’.
Ramsey Lewis It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I was from what others might consider a poor family as far as money was concerned. But growing up in Cabrini I never wanted for anything. We had clothes to go to church in, we had clothes to go to school in, and clothes to play in. We had bikes and skates and sleds. I do remember my dad was strict, he was very strict, but we were God-fearing, law-abiding people and that’s how we lived.
Lillian Davis Swope The kids did have Lower North Center, and they still do. At that time it was located on Locust and Orleans. And Margaret Smith, she still is over there now, but after school she would have the children in the little storefront and we would have activities like playing checkers and things. And that was nice, but I decided I wanted to start a majorette group and a drum and bugle corps.
Margaret Wilson When we came over here from the south side in the early 60s, I found it to be a quite interesting and family-oriented community. It appeared to me that everybody over here had Mayor Daley’s telephone number. I mean they were the most politically sophisticated people I’d ever seen.
Zora Washington I do remember when I was a kid I got on the girls’–it was like a girls’ drill team with Lillian Swope. Her name wasn’t Swope then, but Lillian Davis. She talked my mother into making the little majorette skirts and outfits. My mother was a sewer so she did get involved like that. She also helped out with the block parties. In fact I was talking to my husband not too long ago about those block club parties we used to have when we was kids–dancing in the street. It was usually organized by streets, but of course kids came from all over in the area. Saint Philip’s is no longer there, but it sat at the end of Cambridge and Oak streets where the empty lot is now. They did those summer feasts. That was a good time. It was a parade thing. It went down I think it was Oak Street and around some kind of way–maybe down Oak–and somehow they got to Division and then came down Larrabee. That’s where everything was stationed–the concession stands and the rides and things. The feast was a religious thing, but I wasn’t Catholic so it had no bearing on me whatsoever. It was just a fun time.
Ramsey Lewis With the neighborhood being interracial there was always talk about different kinds of music. I was exposed to all kinds of music–jazz, pop, R & B, blues–especially in high school. My dad never said “Don’t listen to Frank Sinatra because he’s white” or anything like that. He brought Art Tatum’s music into the house and all sorts of stuff, but at the time I was so into gospel and classical music that I didn’t appreciate it until later.
Lillian Davis Swope We had a lot of things goin’ on over here. We had Ramsey Lewis and we had Curtis Mayfield. I used to let Curtis practice his music in my house when I lived down on Hudson. I knowed all of them, Jerry Butler too. I had to finally take Curtis over to Seward Park and got the park to give him a room, because my house wasn’t conducive for him to practice in.
Zora Washington Curtis lived close to me when I was young. In fact, his sister, Carolyn, was in the drum majorettes with us, so she was one of the kids that my mother made the skirt for. She used to come to my house. As far as dealing with Curtis, he was not my speed. As a kid, he just wasn’t it [laughing]. As I got older, yes, I grew to appreciate his music, but as a girl, noooo.
Arzula Ivy There was lots of jobs, but I wasn’t workin’ at the time ’cause I was on public aid and my kids was small. One day I said, “I’m gonna go to school and get my grades up and get me a job and go to work.” There was an aid place, I think at 419 Oak St., and I went up and asked them would they pay for me to go to school, and they said, “Well yes, we’ll pay for you, give you some tokens and different things,” and I started school down on Washington Street. I finished school and then I got me a job at the Playskool factory.
Zora Washington For high school I went to Washburne–it wasn’t Cooley High yet, it was Washburne. It was a mixed school. There were whites, blacks, Hispanics. In fact, children from across the city came to Washburne. It was a trade school. And that’s where you learned, at least that’s where I learned, about prejudice. It was subtle and it included the teachers. I never will forget getting mistaken for a friend I had who didn’t go to school very often. I was tall but I wasn’t fat–I was just a big kid–and my friend was short and heavy. My teacher sent me home one day with a note to my mother asking my mother to come to school. I thought I was going to die, and when my mother came up to school, she told my mother I had been out of school for five consecutive days. I had to convince this woman to go through her records and that’s when she really found out that it wasn’t me who had been absent, but my friend.
Margaret Wilson Transportation was so good around here we must have had three or four buses that could take you downtown anytime. So in the early days I didn’t feel a boundary to the community. We went to meetings in Lincoln Park, we went to meetings downtown, we went to meetings on the Gold Coast–and all these meetings had something to do with Cabrini or the north side that people were bringing attention to. So at that time I didn’t feel like Cabrini was separated from the rest of the area at all.
Ramsey Lewis Now, when I got to Wells High School, which was a predominantly white school, race was a bigger problem. I guess the white kids couldn’t figure out why these black kids from Cabrini were coming all the way over to Augusta and Ashland, so that caused some tension. Sophomore year word had got around about a big rumble, and the talk was that all the black kids were gonna get their asses kicked. A lot of the kids from Cabrini walked to school, through different neighborhoods, so this put a scare into everybody. Well, for weeks there was so much talk going back and forth about this is gonna happen and that’s gonna happen that word reached down to the south side. At the time there were a lot of tough black gangs on the south side. So on the day this big rumble was supposed to take place, all these gangs drove up to Wells High School in cars, and all day long they sort of patrolled the streets. It was pretty amazing, and there was no problem that day.
Inez Gamble In fact, there wasn’t but one time that I felt something like race related in all my time here, it was on the Larrabee bus. I went to sit down by this lady and, well, it was almost unbelievable because [laughing] I had been around here all these years. This had to be about ’54 or ’55. I sit down by this old lady–I guess she must have been around the age I am now–and she told me, “Oh, go to the back of the bus.” What do I know about goin’ to the back of the bus? I was born here. I looked at her and I said, “You know what? You just better be glad that I’m me, because if I was somebody else, you would get hurt on this bus.” I came back home cryin’. I was that mad.
Margaret Wilson Like I said, we attended Saint Philip’s church and that’s where my sons went to school, ’cause it was right up the street at Cambridge and Oak. It was a great big church and it was beautiful. When the Italians left they took it with them–brick by brick. They may have took it back to Italy, I don’t know. The church was closing and it was our church and they took that church brick by brick. That last Sunday we went to church and they had their Italian garb on–I guess they were Knights of Columbus or something because they had their swords and stuff–and that was the last Mass and they said the Mass in Italian. We were just in a state of shock.
In 1949 Elizabeth Wood, director of the CHA, imagined high-rise public housing as “islands in a wilderness of slums.” She advocated rerouting streets and constructing blocks of high-rises that would redefine urban neighborhoods. In the 50s the dilapidated tenement houses north of the row houses were cleared out, and the cluster of red high-rises called the Cabrini Extension, or the reds, went up. More than $200,000 was spent on landscaping the area around these 15 high-rises with trees, shrubs, and grass. When the buildings opened, lawns covered 17 of the extension’s 35 acres.
Completed in 1958, the reds consisted of 7-, 10-, and 19-story buildings designed to house 7,000 residents. They made Cabrini the largest public housing development ever constructed in Chicago.
“C’mon now, you all know where you’re supposed to be.” The booming voice of Rochelle Satchell ricochets through the open hallway of the redbrick high-rise known as 911, startling a handful of elementary school kids wrapped in colorful puffy coats. “Let’s get moving,” she demands, but each child is already marching quietly into a side room on the building’s ground floor.
The official address here is 911-923 N. Sedgwick, but the building doesn’t actually sit on a street. There are no curbs or sidewalks, and its doors open onto a lagoon of asphalt. The opposite end of this vast parking lot meets the backside of two more redbrick high-rises. Red paint sprayed above the entrance to 911 announces, “Camp Ball,” another name for the building, this one tagged by the gangs.
In 1951 Rochelle Satchell was born in an A-frame house located about where 911 now stands. The building is her office and raising families is her life’s work. This after-school session is one facet of a program Satchell designed, through the Winfield Moody Health Center on Clybourn, to help meet the needs of the community’s adolescent mothers.
Shortly after her birth, Satchell’s parents moved the family to the row houses. She remembers the grass. She remembers the sun sparkling off the windows of the brand-new high-rises. She remembers the excitement of taking an elevator to the top floor of one building to get a better view of the others, and of the city beyond them. She remembers Jerry Butler, the neighborhood kid who grew up to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.
There are other long memories. Viola Holmes raised three children here and has lived in her current apartment, in a redbrick high-rise at 1121 N. Larrabee, for more than 20 years. “They say they’re gonna tear it down,” she says, “but I don’t want to go nowhere else.” Henry Johns raised ten kids, and these days she watches over all of the children in her high-rise. Marsha Crosby had lived in Cabrini-Green since she was seven, but her own childhood was far different from the one her son later lived, and that’s why last year she jumped at an opportunity to move. Rochelle Satchell left too; a rent increase and a son constantly approached by gangs were, she says, the last straws. But her work brings her back.
Henry Johns I was born in Arkansas and moved to Chicago in 1951. They were building the red high-rises when we arrived, and in ’57 we moved into the 1117-1119 [Sedgwick] building, which is now gone. That was the best home we had had since I had been around. I was around 30-something and my kids went to Jenner, Cooley, and Waller–all good schools. In our building, there were maybe one or two families of Puerto Ricans and a couple of white people when we first moved in. But it was a mixed neighborhood and everybody got along.
Jerry Butler When the red high-rises were being built, the initial reaction was, wow, this is gonna be great. And I think in its embryonic stages it was great. It was a mixed community with all types of blue-collar workers. We had bus drivers and plumbers and sanitation workers.
Rochelle Satchell My earliest memory is 1955–the milkman. I used to run downstairs to wait to get the milk. We used to get it delivered in the bottles. On Saturdays, we would get chocolate milk in the bottles. My mother and dad both come from here, and I grew up in the row houses and moved into the red high-rises when I got older.
Before the high-rises went up there was a lot of old buildings here, but they were getting real run down. A lot of Italians lived in them. So it was a time of transition. The Italian families began to move out, but the row houses were still mixed. They had Jewish families, Italian families, Spanish families. You were really mixed there, so it wasn’t about color–and we bought into their holidays. The fiesta was an Italian fiesta that they had every year and we would look forward to that. Then they had the floats that went through the community, and they would have rides at the carnival and lobsters and things. I mean we looked forward to that every year.
Viola Holmes It was mostly Italian people at the time but everybody was friendly. We had streetcars, just like the train but a streetcar, and there was nothin’ but houses over here, and family people. They did have juke houses up and down Larrabee where you could go and do your thing.
Henry Johns I was on the 15th floor and had no problem ’cause the elevator worked just like any other elevator. Nobody would stop ’em or hold ’em, and no kids could ride the elevator by theirself….If my kid was caught doing something wrong around the building in those days, the janitor would bring them up and say, “Miss Hen”–that’s what they call me–“your son was caught breaking a limb off of the trees and shrubs.” I would take my son in the house and thank the janitor. But now the janitor [laughing] better not knock on the door and tell on peoples’ kids–he’d get hollered at and cussed out and everything.
Viola Holmes They got 1150 boarded up now–they say it’s comin’ down–but everybody was excited about it. We had a big playground for the kids to play in during the day and all the grown folks would take over in the nighttime and set out there in the back. We’d have our little drinks and stuff and there wasn’t no glass or trash left around for the kids to get into.
Rochelle Satchell Very early in the morning, I used to like to get up because I would always like to see people in a rush coming out of the buildings. They were workingmen. I seen more fathers and mothers then. We had great respect for our elders. We weren’t allowed to talk back to adults. Respect was just a known thing. It was just really nice. I mean the kids were playing in the hallways everywhere. You could smell the fresh units when you walked up and down the steps in the morning. The elevator was fresh. You never smelled urine, never smelled raw garbage. I mean they were burning it at that time, early in the morning or late at night. You always knew who managed the building, because basically it was janitors who lived on the first floor in the building and he was on 24-hour call. It was like his presence was always there, so you knew you couldn’t mess it up.
Marsha Crosby Everything had such structure about it. It was like the family would get fined if their kids were caught walking on the grass.
Henry Johns There was a pool behind 939 Hudson for a long while. The hole’s still there, but they had to close the pool one year. People would mess it up at night, put glass in it or something, and it just wasn’t safe for the kids. But we still had one pool over at Stanton Park, which is behind 630 Evergreen. There were a lot of things we could do around here. We would go to Lincoln Park and, ya know, take the kids in baby buggies and walk there and come back. All the time I used to take my kids up to Riverview. It’s been gone a long time now, but when my kids would graduate from school, that’s where they’d go to celebrate.
Rochelle Satchell I went to Jenner, and I would say it’s a landmark. When we had homecoming, it was not only blacks that attended that homecoming, it was all nationalities. My turning point in life was at Jenner School, in the sixth grade. I had a behavior problem. I liked to get in trouble and it was because I couldn’t read that well, and the sixth-grade teacher, Miss Sherill, wasn’t going to tolerate me misbehaving and she used to make me write on the board. One year she told the whole class she was going to fail me. Everybody looked at me and I broke out and I ran across the street and I told my mother. She came up there and the teacher told her what happened, and my mom took me home and she whipped me too. From that day on, I had to stay after school every day and Miss Sherill worked with me until I improved my reading. That’s why I work with kids today that have behavior problems, because sometimes it’s due to not being able to comprehend.
Jerry Butler I went to Washburne School, which was at Sedgwick and Division. We’d be playing our music and white guys would come up and ask what we’re listening to. Today they call it crossover, but music really, ya know, is universal. Ramsey Lewis had already moved out and was makin’ it big with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, but I had all kinds of role models growing up. There were a lot of men in the community at that time and there was Mr. Evans. He coached the baseball team and he’d round up the kids and take us over to the lot where we’d play ball. And there was a policeman, I remember, who was a great role model for all the kids, because there weren’t a lot of black policemen at that time. Back then, there was no such thing as a black fireman.
Marsha Crosby I graduated from Cooley Vocational High School and I majored in business education. Being in college wasn’t stressed so much as it is now, but by it being a vocational high school I majored in business education and I was able to get a good job when I got out of high school. So I have good memories of going to high school–basketball games and homecoming games and everything–and I don’t remember any violence or anything bad happening in high school, like killings and muggings and stuff like that.
Jerry Butler At that time they had all kinds of organized activities for the kids, both through Stanton Park and Seward Park. I mean there was Boy Scout troops and wood carving classes and things where you could learn how to make toys. And there was baseball. We played baseball all the time. But by ’57 I had graduated high school and was beginning my music career. There were a lot of bands I played with early on, and it was the Roosters that later became the Impressions. Curtis [Mayfield] lived in the row houses but I didn’t meet him in the neighborhood. I met Curtis through the Northern Jubilee Gospel Choir. Our band used to practice over at Seward Park, and there was an old wino that hung around there by the name of Doug, and he could play the guitar like you wouldn’t believe. He had this old beat-up guitar, but man could he play it. Me and Curtis would just sit and listen to him play all day, and I think it was from him that Curtis picked up a lot of his stuff.
Rochelle Satchell Every high-rise building had a laundromat in the basement and a big space for activities. So everything went on down there. You could go dance in one building and skate in another. You could go practice if you wanted to be in a singing group, and we used to watch Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler down there before they got started. They used to practice in 1121 Larrabee basement, and we would go down there and peek at them practicing not knowing they would ever be famous, but it sounded good.
Viola Holmes I used to walk all the way downtown all the time, or just take the Larrabee bus when it used to come up here. Ain’t been no bus on this street for ten years [laughing], but you can still get downtown and go to Marshall Field’s if you want.
Jerry Butler I shrink away from saying music was part of the black community because it makes it sound like it wasn’t part of any other community, but music was always there for us. We grew up singing. My mom was always singing around the house, and the first place kids went was church. What do they do in church? Sing songs. In fact, I met my wife through a singing group at my church.
One of the reasons Curtis and I became leaders of the group was because we were crazy enough to go out looking–we’d go downtown and just start knockin’ on doors at studios and record companies [laughing]. We’d say, “Hey, we can sing, you wanna hear us?” The music business wasn’t like it is today. Every company had a man that was out lookin’ for new talent. We knew this race problem existed, but this was business, and oftentimes when it’s about making money [laughing], people tend to put their racial feelings aside. When we recorded “Your Precious Love” we knew it was good because all the kids loved it. Not long after that, my mother had to move. The CHA told her, your son’s a famous musician so you aren’t poor enough to live here anymore. Now I hadn’t made a dime yet, but we had to go because our financial status was about to change dramatically.
Marsha Crosby Over at Seward Park they had some activities for kids, but we just mostly hung out in the neighborhood, ya know, until we got older. Then we would start going to 911 Hudson and 862 Sedgwick to the basement parties [laughing]. They would open up the basement and somebody would spin records and teenagers would go down there and dance and stuff. Our basement parties were the biggest highlight for me as a kid. I remember walking from 1157, walking toward the field, we was just hoping we’d see the red lights on because if we see the red lights that means [the basement party] was open. We used to be so disappointed [laughing] if we didn’t see those red lights on. A man by the name of Mr. Elax Taylor used to open that up for the kids, for the teenagers and stuff. They took up a lot of time trying to help stuff and create things for the kids.
Rochelle Satchell I didn’t know what violence was until I would say the late 60s. There was a shooting and that like shocked the whole area over here. The guy got caught, because we felt like he had messed it up for everybody. Nobody hesitated about telling on him. But the even worse thing was the Vietnam war. There was a lot of guys died over there and it was like every other day it seems like we were all going to funerals of somebody that we knew was dead. That was like a black flag over the community, because there was a lot of grief-stricken families here and it was everybody supporting everybody.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely knows where he was the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. He was watching television in his family’s home on the south side. But shortly after hearing the news he went back to his old neighborhood and, as he says, “rioted with everyone else.”
Sitting behind his desk at the Winfield Moody Health Center, yards from the Cabrini-Green high-rise where he once lived, Mosely admits that at 47 he’s much wiser than he was at 15. “I regret the damage that was done to the community,” he says, “but not the rebelliousness. I mean, we were angry and confused and thought, what can we do? They killed this man who taught us to love your enemy. I guess we were thinking, maybe they’ll listen to this.”
As a counselor, Mosely serves clients from all parts of Cabrini-Green, not just the white high-rises where he spent much of his youth. He acknowledges that the white high-rises have, at times, seemed cut off from the red buildings and row houses of Cabrini. He realizes gang turf has had a lot to do with this feeling of separation; it’s possible a more subtle rift reaches back to the origins of the whites.
Shortly after construction was completed on the Cabrini Extension, ground was broken on the William Green Homes. Named after a past president of the American Federation of Labor, the Green Homes went up on the north side of Division, with most of the buildings standing west of Larrabee and east of Halsted. These white high-rises consisted of 1,096 units in eight buildings 15 and 16 stories tall. Though families began moving in in 1959, the buildings weren’t dedicated until 1962.
Today, boarded up or frameless windows mark the abandoned apartments. Resident mailboxes hang open and damaged. Graffiti dominate the elevators. The exception to this dilapidation is the high-rise at 1230 N. Burling, which is run by tenant management. Mosely’s most distinct recollection of the day in 1959 when his family moved into apartment 107 in the white high-rise at 1340 N. Larrabee is how everything sparkled. “It was a brand-new building,” he beams. “It had trees, nice grass, and a playground in back, which was something we didn’t see on the west side.
It was beautiful.”
As a little girl living in the row houses, Thelma Randolph watched the whites go up and begged her mother to move there. When she was in the fifth grade they did, and Randolph has lived in various white high-rises ever since, raising three children there. Wanda Hopkins no longer lives in the neighborhood, but her work with PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) keeps her connected with the area’s parents and schools. She remembers that hers was the second family to move into the white building at 534 W. Division. “I would not be the person I am,” she says, “if I hadn’t lived in this community.”
Gloria Crite grew up in the shadow of the high-rises, which she considered “a big step up” from her family’s place. Now she’s assistant principal of Sojourner Truth School on Ogden Avenue, which has educated thousands of children from the white buildings. Jesse White didn’t live in the project either, but growing up on Division Street he watched the red and the white high-rises spring up around him. Today Illinois’ secretary of state, he remains a fixture in the community.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely There were seven of us, one sister and six brothers. My mother was on welfare and my biological father was not there. He left when I was 12. It was an interesting time because the neighborhood was new to all of us. I remember we slept on what they call a roll-away bed. Now they call them futons. I had a brother who slept on the couch. In the white buildings we had an upstairs and a downstairs, and there was a closet big enough to make a bedroom, so we would just take the shelves out of it and make it a bedroom.
Thelma Randolph We begged our mom to move. There was an adjustment because in the row houses it was like a little community, you know, and everybody was like a big family. When we moved over here it was like, it was still a family but it took us a little longer to feel that way. It was all different races–we was the second black family to move into 714. There was Hispanic, whites, and all kinds of races. We all got along and it was nice.
Gloria Crite We lived in the poor, really terrible housing nearby. There were five of us and my mom, and we lived in three rooms, a kitchen and two bedrooms really–a dining room we used as a bedroom and then another bedroom. We had to share bathroom facilities with four other families on the floor. So when the high-rises were built it was a big step up for some people to move in the projects.
Where we lived, it was an “integrated community” because right across the street was where the whites lived. But we were not allowed to intermingle, like we would not go on their side of the street. We would meet in the middle of the street to play, and then we’d go back to our homes on our side and they’d go to their side.
Wanda Hopkins We used to live right next door to a white family. I’ll never forget, we’d spend the night at each other’s house, stuff that you’d never think of would happen back then. I remember Alice and Sally. I lived in 402, they lived in 403. It’s almost unheard of now. But I keep tellin’ people the way it is now was not the original plan, and I just wanted them to know that. I guess that’s why I kept it all in my memory.
Gloria Crite There were gangs as far back as I can remember. As a kid in the late 50s I remember them and they began to get more assertive. They would beat you but they would not necessarily kill you. In those days they would fight with chains and brass knuckles and those sorts of things. I remember the murders, deaths, fighting, and violence, but we were a close-knit family and we spent most of our time inside, and when we were outside my mother was always out there to supervise or watch us.
I had two other sisters and two brothers. The brothers had more leeway because they worked at a very early age to help supplement the family. We were raised on welfare and didn’t have a father in the household, so they went out and did shoe shining. They worked down in the LaSalle Street area, it was the affluent area, the Gold Coast, and just coming home from there to the house they would run into problems because they had their shoe shine boxes with them so people knew they worked, and so they became prey.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely Coca Cola would come around in their delivery trucks and they would give you free tickets to Riverview. We’d take some bus all the way up there and we’d make sure to avoid the whites, who weren’t too comfortable with blacks. If we spent the little money we had up there at Riverview, for our way home we’d jump on the back of the trolley cars and hang on to the sign. The trolleys used to come right down Clybourn. The conductors, they sat up front, and never really paid attention to little black kids hanging off the back.
My mother was on welfare, and my stepfather couldn’t come around because welfare at that time didn’t allow the man to be around. The welfare workers would come and check and see if there was a man in the house. They’d check and see if we had a TV, if we had an iron, and if we had the utensils that any normal household would have had. They’d cut some of the money if they saw something like that. I remember we had to hide the toaster one time.
Gloria Crite We went to Saint Luke’s but we also went to every church in the community–Union Baptist, Saint Matthew’s, Wayman–and then I went to after-school-like religious instruction at Saint Joseph’s and even the Moody Bible Institute. My mother believed in exposing us to all different religions. That was also one way of my mom keeping us occupied and off the streets. Those were difficult times. I think she was getting $75 per month from welfare and that had to go to rent and lights and food, and I can remember her putting the money on the bed and counting it out, and then taking it over to the hardware store. The landlord owned the hardware store.
The landlord was not a good one. He didn’t keep the building in good condition. He just collected rent. The lady right next door to us ran a whorehouse, and her patrons would come in and out, ya know, it was all visible, even as a child you knew what was going on. So we grew up fast.
Jesse White What was happening then was there was a shortage of adult role models within the family, and the parents would come to me and say, “Mr. White, we know that you have love in your heart for our children, and you live in the community.” I lived two blocks away from the school where I taught, and that was unheard of back then. I had also graduated from the same school and knew most of the people, so I was looked upon as a father figure, big brother, or surrogate father to a lot of kids. And then I was with the young people after school. We had a track and field program and wrestling, volleyball, basketball. I had the drum corps, the largest Boy Scout troop in the nation. So I was doing a lot of things with the kids outside of school.
Wanda Hopkins I always went everywhere in the world with Jesse White. He used to call me his Sweet Wanda, he still calls me Sweet Wanda. He used to have to take me everywhere because he never knew when my mother was going to be home. He knew that my mother was trying hard, she had divorced my father and she was struggling, and he just, I guess, latched on to me. I was a terrible track runner and he always had me up there with the winners, you know, it was unbelievable. They would get red and blue ribbons and I would probably get a white or something, and my ribbon was up there just like theirs.
Thelma Randolph It was like three different neighborhoods–the reds, the whites, and row houses. Matter of fact, it’s the same way now. It’s really like one community with three neighborhoods because it’s all considered Cabrini-Green. But people in the whites would holler [laughing], “I don’t live in the reds.” People in the reds say, “I don’t live in the rows.”
Jesse White Later on, when I was teaching school, kids had some reluctance about going across Division Street. Division Street was the demarcation line. You can’t go across Division Street or you can’t go over to Stanton Park to swim in the tank, the swimming pool, because you’d get beaten up. Those lines were drawn because of the gangs.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely Wells Street was like the dividing line going east and the Ogden street bridge was up then, and that would run into the white community. There were dividing lines and yes, you felt it, you felt it.
Gloria Crite I attended Waller High School and graduated in 1968. It was a very integrated school at the time, but they would only allow so many blacks from the Cabrini-Green area to even attend Waller. Since my address was not a Cabrini address it was easier for me to get in. A lot of my friends were directed to go to Cooley or Wells high school. The students who did go to Waller from Cabrini, I didn’t really associate with them much because I was in more of honors classes and they weren’t in them. Some girls I had known had babies before that and didn’t even make it to high school. They dropped out. But if you could get into Waller instead of Cooley, then you were in the mix, as they say.
Jesse White When I went back to teach in the neighborhood, it was a viable housing project. There were around about 22,000 people there, a mix of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. You see, 25 years ago the Chicago Housing Authority used to inspect the apartments. They knew who was in each apartment and they made sure that the conditions were habitable. They wanted to make sure that the people who lived there, their name was on the lease, and they made sure that you kept your apartments clean, your stairway and hallway clean. The janitors were on their mark.
And then all of the sudden things kind of fell apart. The gangbangers came in, and they changed the makeup and the program of public housing like we perceived it to be. They decided that they wanted to run it. They turned the lights off in the hallway, and they used to force people to pay them to get on the elevator. They would practice pharmacy without a license, if you understand what I’m talking about. There was a lot of street pharmacists, hallway pharmacists, but, you see, the thing is that you have so many wonderful people who live in those housing projects, but the few have the tendency to give a bad name for the ones who you would not mind having as your neighbor.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely We always felt that one brother could beat up ten white guys, ’cause we thought we were tough. On the weekends we’d head down Division Street and over to the lake. When we crossed Clark Street we’d always encounter racism. It was never really in an intense way till you got to Clark Street. All the shows were down there, and people would let you know you were in the wrong place, calling you “nigger” real loud. One time I got accosted, some kid said, “What are you doing over here?” and I said “Remove your hand from my shirt.” This was a young white guy, older than me at the time, and I was 14 or 15. He was taller and more muscular than me and he grabbed me because he couldn’t grab the other guy I was with. When he grabbed me I just broke loose from his grip and punched, and of course when he hit the ground we all jumped on him. After that we went on to the park, where we got stopped by the police and was asked did any of us know the guys who jumped this guy. There he was sitting in the backseat of the cop car lookin’ right at me, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t say it was me. So I felt like I was saved from the wrath of the police that time. I never got arrested for any battles with white people, but I did for stealing bikes up in Lincoln Park.
Zora Washington It was a Friday and I was at home cleaning. That was my Friday ritual–cleaning while listening to Ray Charles and Nancy Wilson. Then my oldest son, Jerome, came home and I sent him to the store to get some milk. The store was over there on Oak–it was like a drugstore–on Oak Street close to Larrabee. Anyway he came back crying, “Ma, they’re tearing up the store.” And I’m saying, “Boy, you’re lying. You just don’t want to go to the store. Now get out of here.” I didn’t have on the TV, I didn’t have on the radio, so I really didn’t know what was going on. And here I was trying to throw my son out the door to go to a store that was getting torn down, ripped off, and all that kind of stuff.”
Yusufu Lonell Mosely I didn’t really know what to do when I heard about Reverend King. I just went outside and looked around at what people were doing. Then I thought of my old neighborhood and I got on the train and headed up here to Cabrini. I remember walking up from the train and there was a group of people standing in front of a store at Clybourn and Division. There were two cops, detectives, standing in front of the group and they were saying the first person who tries to go into the store is going to jail. Well, a brick flew through the front window and everybody just pushed past the detectives and went on in. I hooked up with a friend of mine and we did our own thing from there.
Thelma Randolph I was in the house watching the news when it came on. I said, “Mom, mom, Martin Luther King got killed.” People was runnin’ around bustin’ in stores and stuff. My mom wouldn’t let us out the door. We couldn’t go out. I was hurt that this community just went wacko. That’s when all the stores disappeared. They didn’t ever rebuild all those stores on Larrabee and the cleaner’s that was on Division. Everything that was on North Avenue they broke in. They didn’t go over the border line, which was Orleans Street. You don’t pass that line, you know. That’s the way people used to think, you don’t pass that line at Orleans. That’s like going up into State and Rush and all that. They didn’t go past there. They just tore up their own community.
Yusufu Lonell Mosely People talk about how when the riots took place we burned up our own community. Well, we couldn’t get into anybody else’s community. They had cordoned off the Ogden street bridge over here, and Halsted had a line of police, and there were a lot of stores up on North Avenue so they sealed that off to a great extent.
Wanda Hopkins The National Guard, I remember them driving up in tanks. You could see them, like they were going to blow our buildings up. We were thinking that they were going to blow us up. Oh God, it lingered on for days. People were very angry, you know, they wanted to kill all white people. I mean it was really something, my mother had to keep stressing to us, “That’s not what it’s about, that’s not what it’s about.”
Yusufu Lonell Mosely I remember going into Del Farms on Larrabee and filling up a bag with stuff, mainly cigarettes, then I heard someone say the cops were comin’ and heard a loudspeaker say, “Whoever comes out without a receipt will be arrested.” When they got to me I said the receipt must be in the bag somewhere. The cop said, “There’s no receipt so you’re going to jail,” and then some lady who must have seen me in the back said, “Oh, no, he was here. I saw him in here before.” So I got out of that one. But I’m walking down Larrabee and who do I run into but my mother. She asks me what I’m doing with all those groceries and I say, “Oh, I went shopping for James’s mom.” James was my friend. My mom looked in the bag and said, “She don’t smoke.” She said, “Get your ass inside.”
Lillian Davis Swope A truck came through here–right down Oak Street–and it was loaded with pineapples. The young men actually pulled those drivers out of those trucks, and emptied the truck and just took all the man’s stuff out and they was beating him so bad that they almost killed him. I was right out front watching this and I was thinking that the cleaner’s was owned by Italians, and the drugstore, it was owned by a Jew. And I went down to them and told them that I thought they should close up, because there was rioting going on.
And I happened to go into a store about six months ago, on Lake Street and Wells, and the fella that had owned that drugstore [on Oak and Larrabee] was behind the counter. I hadn’t seen him since and I didn’t know that I was going into his store, you know. He stopped everybody in his store to tell them that I had saved his life once.
Thelma Randolph Everybody had to be off the streets, and tanks was going through the streets, guys in army gear, and at night big bright lights. When they hit your window it would like light up your whole house. So it was kind of frightening, definitely. The whole thing was sad to me. It was sad to me.
Henry Johns We weren’t even allowed to look out our window. If we look out our window we had a spotlight on us and a gun. We were really afraid for our kids, that’s when it really started, ’cause then the young gangs would get guns and we would have to walk the smaller kids to school, ya know, make sure they get to school. But before all that, this was the best place we could live.”
Zora Washington Del Farms grocery store was wrecked and at that time we didn’t have a car, so that meant we had to get the bus–we had five children–and we had to get the bus, go up on North Avenue to the grocery store, and come back with food on the bus. And the neighborhood looked, it just, it really made you want to cry. It did because you knew the neighborhood that you lived in, and that black people had torn it up, and the powers that be were not going to fix it up.
Lillian Davis Swope It just seemed like everybody who had those businesses lost interest. I guess they say, “If you all don’t want nothing, we gonna make sure you all don’t have nothing.”
Arzula Ivy Everything was torn down, and now if you have to go to a drugstore you have to go so far. Yeah, it was better a long time ago when there was Jews and Germans and Italians and all that. It was just beautiful in here and I can’t believe it because Dr. King was trying to get everything straightened out and then all this happened.
Inez Gamble I think the Italians were ready to move out of here anyway because it was becoming predominantly black and they were ready to move. But a lot of those businesses up and down Larrabee didn’t go till then.
Henry Johns The police never did get any better around here. Even today, it’s like, we can be back there asleep and if we don’t come and open that door when they knockin’, they got that hammer and they’ll knock your door down. For nothin’, they just lookin’ for someone. Then they go all over your house without any search warrant or anything, and if you any kind of young person they be kickin’ them around and throwin’ them around. They say they lookin’ for gangbangers. Well, don’t no gang members live here, but they just do it anyway.
It’s the same way with the ambulance. They say, “If you not dyin’ we not comin’, you better call the privates.” Well, I don’t know if I’m dying or not. Now, I don’t know who answers that 911, but that’s the word they give you–“If you not dyin’ we not comin’.”
Wanda Hopkins Things weren’t kept up as well after 1968, but I had heard from my mother that the old Mayor Daley had had a plan. It was supposed to only be a transition–you’re not supposed to stay in Cabrini housing developments all your life, ya know–once you make it you’re supposed to be able to get out. That was the point of those buildings–people were not supposed to have generation after generation in the building. The mayor wanted to do something different, and that was written in the plan 20 years ago, that these buildings would come down and the area would be regentrified. Now it’s really coming to pass.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Blair Jensen.