By Neal Pollack
At nine o’clock on a Monday morning last fall, a dozen communists, a dozen activists, and about as many public-housing residents gathered in a concrete courtyard in front of 5266 S. State, a high-rise in the Robert Taylor Homes. The first of what would become a month of rallies had begun. At last the public would know of the resistance that had been churning at 5266.
Grant Newburger, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, spoke into a megaphone: “Good morning, 5266! It’s November 15th, and so far it’s a beautiful morning, because the building is still occupied.”
It was a temperate day for the season. But 5266 loomed leviathan-like, spreading frigid shadows onto the courtyard. Above, people emerged from their apartments and pressed their faces against the wire mesh enclosing the open galleries, enjoying the show below.
From the seventh floor a woman shouted, “We’re not going anywhere!”
Barbara Moore, the elected president of the building’s residents, was in a wheelchair. Her legs and her back weren’t working right that day. She took the megaphone.
“Residents!” she said. “You do not have to move today. If they come for you, tell them that you are coming down here to fight with us!”
She began to sing.
We shall not, we shall not be moved / We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree, that’s standing by the water / We shall not be moved!
Members of the RCYB floated along the fringes, waving their hands, exhorting the crowd to join Moore in her anthem.
By 10:30 everyone was inside 5266’s basement dayroom eating bagels and doughnuts provided by the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. A few members of the RCYB were patrolling the ground, watchful. They wore plastic whistles around their necks.
At 10:35 the whistles started screeching. The dayroom emptied. Everyone ran to the back entrance, followed by Moore hobbling on her cane.
A Cook County sheriff’s car had driven up.
“We thought this building was closed,” said a deputy.
“This building ain’t closed,” Moore said.
“What are all these people doing here?”
She said, “We live here.”
That same day, eight blocks north on State, Phillip Jackson, chief executive officer of the Chicago Housing Authority, led reporters on a tour of rehabilitated apartments. Periodically, the television crews bathed the projects in their lights. It didn’t take long for a reporter to find a gaping hole next to a newly installed cabinet. He confronted Jackson with his discovery.
“It’s not about rat holes!” Jackson said. “It’s about rats. The systemic problem of rats. We can take care of that rat hole.”
He motioned to a worker.
“Take care of that rat hole!” he said.
“See? That’s easy,” Jackson said. “But how do you take care of the systemic problem of poverty? That is the real question we’re trying to address at the CHA.”
November 15 was the day the CHA began implementing its “winterization” program. In the winter of 1998-’99 the heat had conked out in many of its high-rise buildings. The CHA had to relocate thousands of tenants to shelters and hotels, and it spent an estimated $47 million in emergency repairs.
That wasn’t going to happen this year, Jackson said. The CHA was going to close nine buildings, seven in the Robert Taylor Homes and two in Rockwell Gardens, for good. Residents who had to leave their homes would receive two months’ free rent, money to cover moving costs, and free utility connections. Everyone was guaranteed another apartment in their development, an apartment in another development, if available, or a Section Eight voucher to cover renting a private apartment.
“Thanks to the cooperation of residents, elected officials, and community leaders, these families will be safe and warm for winter,” Jackson said. “The savings will be reinvested in our existing properties to improve conditions for all residents.”
Down at ground level, confusion was boss. Moving vans scuttled back and forth across the complex. Rap music exploded from a building not on the winterization list. At 4500 S. State, one of the “winterized” buildings, the last residents dragged mattresses and furniture from their apartments. They stood on the pavement, bewildered.
“I didn’t have no heat or water all weekend,” said one woman. “They shut it off on Friday and didn’t give us a court order or nothing. I ain’t talked to nobody from CHA. Everybody I talked to has been from newscasts. They’re making us move out, and we don’t have no apartment to go to.”
Up in a gallery, Jackson said, “It’s all part of a process. We want to make sure that every CHA resident is safe, warm, and dry this winter.”
Over at 5266, police officers stopped by as they did nearly every day. This caused much panicky whistling on the part of the RCYB.
“What the hell is going on here?” an officer said. “Whistling don’t solve nobody’s problems.”
Moore went up to him, grinning sweetly.
“They don’t like me,” she said.
“They don’t like you?” said the cop. “Now who couldn’t like you?”
“I’m a bad girl. A bad, bad girl.”
She turned around and put her hands behind her back.
“Handcuff me, please. I’m ready for jail.”
The officer laughed, and leaned in close.
“You gonna whip the CHA?” he said.
“I’m gonna try.”
“Together you stand?”
“United we fall.”
“All right,” said the cop. “I’m with you.”
“But answer me this,” he said. “Why don’t they just rehab this building, instead of moving you all out?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Moore said, shaking her head sadly. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.”
Barbara Moore is 59 years old. She was born on the south side, went to high school in Mississippi, came back to Chicago, and has been here ever since. She moved into public housing in 1966. At the time she’d been living in a kitchenette at 68th and Wentworth with two young sons. Her building was condemned, slated to be torn down for what became Kennedy-King College. She applied for a CHA apartment, and after rejecting a couple places that were “too high up,” she moved onto the seventh floor of 5266 S. State. She had her own bedroom, and one for her boys. The bathroom was spacious and clean. “When I came over here to see this apartment,” she says, “it was almost like a dream come true.”
Years later she had a daughter. Moore never really considered leaving public housing, or even her building. “Most of my life I’ve worked,” she says, “but there were times when the jobs faded out and the welfare was there for me. It gave me a sense of independence where I could raise my children and didn’t have to go to my family for help. I didn’t have to ask them to buy my kids a pair of shoes or some food. I paid my rent and my light bill. Because I was living in public housing, I was able to do all of that by myself.”
What happened to the Chicago Housing Authority while Moore was living in Taylor has been chronicled exhaustively. The projects were plagued by gang wars, drug dealing, managerial neglect, and every manner of urban decay. Chicago’s public housing, even while it kept many working people sheltered, became a national symbol of inner-city poverty and blight.
By the time the CHA entered federal receivership in 1995 it was clear that something had to change. Troubled public housing had started to come down across the country under a federal redevelopment program known as HOPE VI. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was making approximately $500 million available a year for public-housing authorities across the country to bid on, with the PHAs allowed wide latitude as to how they’d spend the money. In 1998 an act of Congress relieved PHAs of the mandate to build “one-for-one” replacements for every unit of public housing demolished with HOPE VI money.
Public housing was being reimagined. Some would argue that it was being done away with altogether, with no concessions for its poorest residents. In grand public spectacles, the city of Chicago imploded high-rises at Cabrini-Green and on the south side, and few wept. The CHA promised that demolitions would continue.
Barbara Moore didn’t know anyone in the building when she moved into 5266. “But the people on the seventh floor were very friendly,” she says, “so it was like a family. After I was there about a month they would visit me and I would visit them.” Moore’s apartment became a social center, and everyone started calling her Mom. Twenty-two years ago, Mom was elected president of 5266 S. State. “Ever since then,” she says, “there’s never been anybody to oppose me.”
As building president she served on the CHA’s local advisory council and was even on the agency’s payroll for a time. She experienced the usual resident-leadership frustration. The CHA bureaucracy was unresponsive, requests for repairs went ignored, and her building was allowed to crumble around her. Many of her friends left the building, opting for Section Eight certificates or new scattered-site housing. But Moore tried to keep her building together. In the process, she helped develop one of the most unusual programs Taylor had ever seen.
In the mid-1970s St. Mary AME Church, across the street from 5266, started inviting kids from the Taylor Homes for Sunday breakfast. The kids began attending church regularly and singing in a choir. They called themselves God’s Gang, in response to the violent street gang activity in the Taylor Homes. Carolyn Thomas, a postal worker and a St. Mary parishioner, became the volunteer leader of God’s Gang, and a number of people from the neighborhood helped her out, including Barbara Moore.
For many years the choir was the group’s only activity. It operated on a shoestring budget, with no permanent staff or funding. It traveled around the city, singing, dancing, and performing a play called The Life of Christ: Then and Now, which featured a Jesus born in the projects and a Joseph who’d fought in the gulf war. Thomas also got God’s Gang involved in a program called Sports Affinity, which trained kids to coach various sports.
In April 1997, Thomas attended a presentation by a representative of Heifer Project International, a poverty relief organization based in Little Rock, Arkansas, that works in the rural areas of 110 countries–according to its materials, “helping people become self-reliant through the gift of livestock and training in its care.” Heifer was now targeting low-income urban neighborhoods “where participants can benefit from the nutritional value, economic benefits and healing presence of animals.”
To Thomas, this sounded like a job for God’s Gang. With a grant from Heifer, by the end of the year, God’s Gang had its livestock: a substantial worm farm had been established in the basement of 5266. The group had also begun breeding tilapia, using water drawn from the Washington Park lagoon. The kids from the projects who were raising fish and worms soon became a favorite story of feature writers and television producers around the city, and the program was widely touted. The kids sold the worms’ excrement as fertilizer to neighborhood schools. The small profit was put back into the program. Last year the worm farm earned $800.
Thomas and Moore also used some of the Heifer Project money, which has totaled about $14,000 since 1997, to open a food pantry called Mother’s Cupboard on the second floor of 5266, as well as a community library. A Tribune Company charity provided God’s Gang with $25,000 more, and three other pantries opened up in Cabrini-Green and on the south side.
“Those places,” Moore says, “were my pride.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which still controlled the CHA, was making plans to demolish dozens of buildings and reduce the number of habitable apartments by 20,000. A substantial portion of the demolition was to take place along the infamous State Street corridor, the country’s largest concentration of public housing, including the Taylor Homes.
The Coalition to Protect Public Housing, which advocated for CHA residents, objected strongly to HUD’s plans. A study by the Woods Fund of Chicago had found that nearly 260,000 Chicago families were competing for 142,000 units of affordable housing, that 48,000 people were on the waiting list for affordable-housing vouchers, and that the average wait for public housing was five and a half years. Reducing the number of available CHA apartments would only make the situation worse.
The coalition had established footholds on the north and west sides, in Cabrini-Green, Rockwell Gardens, and the ABLA Homes, but the south side had eluded them. The Taylor Homes are a notorious political swamp of building presidents with minor patronage fiefdoms. Loudmouthed renegade activists with questionable agendas also roam the grounds, making it difficult to find a legitimate spokesperson for the plight of ordinary public-housing tenants.
Barbara Moore had heard about HUD’s plans at various meetings and was concerned about what they meant for her people. She got in touch with Joel Simon, a young organizer for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, which is a part of the coalition. Simon, who has since taken a city position working on job training and employment for CHA residents, met Moore in the fall of 1998. She told him she’d heard rumblings that her building would be closed in ten years, maybe in five. She wanted reliable information.
For the coalition, Moore was perfect. She had no slippery political ties, and her not-for-profit projects with God’s Gang were a potent symbol of community. She was a model public-housing citizen. Early on, when activists visited her at 5266, Moore would simply ask, “Where do we go from here?”
Moore remembers meeting in 1998 with Ed Moses, the deputy assistant director to Joseph Shuldiner, who was running the CHA for HUD. In a 1997 HUD survey to identify housing stock worth saving, 19,000 CHA apartments had failed the test, including the ones in 5266 S. State.
Moore says, “I went to him and I told him that I was gonna fight to keep my building. And he said, ‘Good luck, Ms. Moore.’ But he said none of them in his eyesight was worth saving.”
In April 1999, the CHA informed Moore that her building would close by October 15. No one in the coalition really believed that HUD would follow through on its threat. But in May 1999 the city regained control of the CHA. Moore’s worry was no longer abstract. She was in for an unhappy ride.
Every couple weeks, Phillip Jackson boards a maroon school bus with CHA middle management, visiting dignitaries, reporters, and whoever else is interested, for a tour of his properties. The trips are supposed to last from 8 AM to noon but sometimes go much later, depending on Jackson’s whims. It’s impossible to know beforehand where he’s going or what he’s going to do there.
On a Thursday morning in January, Jackson came down to the lobby of the CHA headquarters on West Jackson, wearing a Save the Children tie and a suit half a size too small. He announced that he’d gotten to work at 5:30 that morning and felt “excellent.” The lobby was full of boxes of books, the results of a book drive that Jackson said would fulfill his promise of giving every child in the CHA three books by the end of January. He examined the boxes. The romance novels, he said, wouldn’t go to the kids.
“Oh, look at this one!” he exclaimed. “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Isn’t that excellent!”
Everyone shuffled nervously as the boss read from Dr. Seuss.
On June 1, 1999, Mayor Daley named Jackson the new chief executive officer of the CHA. Jackson had previously been Paul Vallas’s chief of staff at the Board of Education, and from the start it was clear that the days of CHA being run by desk-bound bureaucrats were about to end.
Jackson was born in Altgeld Gardens, a project on the far south side, and grew up in the infamous cluster of Taylor Homes buildings, now demolished, known as the “hole.” He attended Roosevelt University, worked as vice president and director of operations for Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and in 1996 founded the Black Star Project, a mentoring program for black children. When he took over public housing, the city was immediately treated to Jackson’s restless demeanor and motivational-speaking style, which seemed to better suit an elementary-school principal than the head of a public-housing authority. The CHA had never had a chief executive officer who also taught kung fu. Vallas said Jackson had so much energy and was so active, “I thought he was a quadruplet.”
“Some may look at me and say, ‘You did pretty good. CHA must be OK,'” Jackson said at his coming-out press conference. “But I didn’t succeed because of CHA. I succeeded in spite of CHA. The social services were not there. There was no systematic effort to ensure that all families succeeded. Well, success is no longer going to be accidental. It will be by design.”
Jackson had more to do than just motivate CHA residents to succeed. Mayor Daley was seeking extensive waivers from HUD policies that he said prevented the CHA from improving. Jackson’s job was to sell Daley’s program to the public and implement it without question. He was a dizzying whirlwind in his early days on the job, ignoring no one. People were overwhelmed by his enthusiasm and energy, and puzzled by the baseball caps he passed out with “Team CHA” written on them. Who was this guy?
The bus trip began a little after 8:30. Jackson was in full presentation mode.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming on this bus this morning. I have a personal philosophy–unless you go out into the developments constantly, you’ll never know what happened in the developments. You’ll never know. And to pretend that you can manage CHA sitting on the seventh floor of 626 W. Jackson is a dream. I know you guys represent a lot of different departments, and I appreciate you coming out. Because if we’re going to be successful–when we’re successful at CHA–it’s not gonna be because of guys like me, who have ruined this agency, but because of people like you who are willing to do whatever is necessary.”
We drove first to the Henry Horner Homes. Jackson entered a mid-rise building that had been rehabbed before he took over the agency.
“Hey,” he said to a cleaning woman. “Is the manager in?”
“No, she’s not here right now.”
“Did she ever fix that wall on the sixth floor?”
“Yeah, we took care of that last time you were here.”
Jackson looked pleased. He produced a billfold, peeled off a $2 bill, and handed it to the woman.
“Good job,” he said.
Over the next four hours we visited high-rises, mid-rises, and scattered-site buildings. We saw public housing at the far end of distress and at the far end of comfort. Jackson schmoozed and cajoled school principals, building managers, and drug dealers hanging on the corner. He peered into garbage cans, examined light fixtures. The bus drove by CHA buildings with soot stains on the outside. Jackson jumped up and down in his seat.
“Burnout! Burnout!” he shouted.
He turned to his assistant and said, “Pam, take care of that!”
“People say my approach is holistic,” he chattered. “When I came to CHA, they told me my job was to collect rent and pick up the garbage. I said that if that’s what you want me to do, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
The tour took us to a seniors building at 43rd Street and Cottage Grove. Jackson caught workers wrapping exposed pipes with cheap insulation and found electrical wires bobbing in several inches of standing water. The building manager was busted.
“What if it gets really cold out?” Jackson lectured her. “Are we supposed to pray? This isn’t right.”
Later he said, “Boy, they’re scared of me. They don’t know when I’m gonna pop up. This is unacceptable. I know what you’re thinking, right? Somebody should be fired. Well, that’s what I’m thinking too.”
Back on the bus, Jackson jumped up and down in his seat.
“Graffiti!” he shouted. “Graffiti! Take care of that!”
We drove to 4120 S. Prairie. Jackson led us up a sour, fetid stairwell. On the third floor we discovered garbage pouring out of an open closet and dead rats lying in the garbage. One floor up, we saw garbage plummeting down an open chute.
“Human beings should not live this way!” Jackson exclaimed.
As we got back on the bus, a volunteer from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization came aboard as well. She asked Jackson to come back to 4120 on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, because the building was doing a mural. Then she pleaded with him for replacement housing, since this was a good neighborhood where people took care of one another.
“We don’t really care about this building, but if they could build us something nice, we’d like to stay here,” she said. “We love our community.”
Jackson peeled off a $2 bill and handed it to her.
“I’m gonna frame this,” she said.
“So you’re gonna help us out, right?” she said.
“Keep on fighting, sister woman,” said Jackson.
As the bus drove away, Jackson said, “I ain’t never seen anything like that building. Who’s in charge of this agency?”
Within the first two weeks of his tenure, Jackson met with Barbara Moore. Also at the meeting, held at 5266, were Joel Simon, another CHA official, and two other residents of the building. Moore told Jackson that she wanted the building to stay open. Jackson stressed that he was brand-new at the job and didn’t know what anyone’s status would be. But he also said that anything the prior CHA administrations had done, said, promised, or planned was in flux. Sit tight, he told Moore, we’ll figure it out. He said he appreciated that she was trying to do good.
Jackson didn’t necessarily provide the answer that Moore wanted, but at least he seemed to recognize her point of view. They met several times over the next few months, in groups large and small. She said that she wanted to keep her building and its businesses open, but that she didn’t need any financial help from the CHA. Jackson said he was proud of her. “If you all were asking for more money,” Moore recalls him saying to her at one meeting, “that would be different.” Another time, at a tenants meeting at the CHA Central Advisory Council office on 32nd Street, Jackson pulled Moore aside, gave her a hug, and whispered in her ear, “You keep on fighting, Ms. Moore.”
“He would always tell me to fight as hard as I could,” Moore says.
In July, Jackson said that he was considering HUD’s winterization plan. “We’re determining whether this building can survive another winter and whether putting more dollars in it is a good investment,” he said.
But he was sounding the right notes. “He said he would work with us,” Moore says. “We stopped having meetings in the building because we honored what he said.”
By the time the CHA released a draft of its “plan for transformation” on September 28, Moore knew that her building was to close. Its residents would have to move to two adjacent buildings that would serve as “temporary relocation facilities.” The plan contained no specific proposals for building new housing at Taylor–or anywhere else, for that matter–and few specifics about when or how residents would be relocated. Jackson had personally come out to 5266 and told approximately 60 residents that he was sorry but they would have to move.
As for the building’s enterprises, in a letter to Alison Meares Cohen of the Heifer Project, dated October 6, 1999, Jackson wrote, “I am well aware that God’s Gang has played an important role in the enrichment of the lives of CHA residents. Our intent is not to dissolve that organization. CHA has an obligation to relocate residents in a manner that, to the extent practical, keeps the fabric of the community intact. Clearly, God’s Gang plays a significant role in the lives of the residents. CHA is committed to work with Ms. Moore to relocate the operations of God’s Gang and find a private community-based sponsor to assist us with the relocation and reestablishment of this important community asset.”
But Moore no longer trusted Jackson, and she was no longer willing to keep quiet. She marched on City Hall on October 28 with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, and began to speak out publicly against the plan at every meeting and to every reporter she could. As HUD called for two large-scale public hearings about the plan, Jackson’s kindly attitude began to sour.
“I refuse to let a building stand where the worms are living better than the people,” he said on November 5. “We do not make decisions about people based on worms.”
Moore had this to say: “They told us we had 10 to 15 years in this building, and I accepted that. Then they came and told us five years. I even accepted that. But when they came and said, well, no years, I found that very hard to accept. In fact, I don’t accept it right now. I think that we’re sitting on prime land. And this is what they’re after. The developers, along with Daley, are after this land. Where are these poor people, most of whom are on some sort of fixed income, going to go? To the streets? To the shelters, which are already full? Where are they going? To me, this is the biggest part of the fight. It has nothing to do with the worms.”
In October, at a meeting attended by hundreds of people at St. Mary AME Church, Alderman Dorothy Tillman, Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler, other elected officials, and ministers all declared their opposition to the CHA’s plan and their support for Moore and her fight. It appeared to Moore that she was finally getting the support she needed.
She was wrong.
Many months before, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing had kicked out the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, telling them they were no longer welcome at coalition meetings. But from its headquarters in Paris, the RCYB had determined that protecting public housing in America was the issue on which the revolution would rise or fall. Members of the RCYB kept coming to meetings, and finally the coalition relented. Like most opposition movements in Chicago these days, it doesn’t suffer from an excess of members, and the RCYB was at least enthusiastic and willing to work.
Hence the strange sight, on November 15, of a majority white crowd advocating that 75 or so black families be allowed to remain in an antiquated public-housing high-rise. Moore held the center and was surrounded by residents who supported her, but the predominant images on TV news that night were of RCYB members standing by their handmade banners that read “Kosovo on State Street” and “The Fighting Worms of 5266.”
No one moved out of 5266 on November 15, but the CHA continued to tell residents they had to. Family by family they began to trickle away, and Moore grew worried. At an earlier meeting that fall, she’d asked Jackson to “just leave everybody alone and let everybody have a nice Thanksgiving.” Jackson didn’t answer her then, but at the HUD hearing on November 19 he said that he was letting 5266 have its Thanksgiving. He said that the CHA had set a “new deadline” of December 1.
At 11 PM on November 30, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 20 Chicago police officers entered the building. They broke down the doors of several apartments, none of which were being occupied legally, and told the squatters to clear out. They also knocked on leaseholders’ doors, telling them that if they didn’t get out of the building immediately they risked being charged with criminal trespass to state-supported property. In an affidavit later prepared with the 5266 tenants’ attorney, one tenant said:
“When the officers made it to my floor, some of my neighbors were standing on the porch. The officers asked us who lived in the units and if they were occupied. When the officers got to one unit, I opened my window and told them that the lady who had lived in that unit had moved out about two days before. The officers told me that they had to check the apartment anyway. One officer went to a patrol car and got a sledgehammer. He came back to the unit, and they broke the door down.”
The next morning, tenants at 5266 woke to find a piece of paper slipped under their doors. It was from the CHA, the first official written communication they’d received since the saga began. According to the tenants’ attorney, Charles Petrof of the Legal Assistance Foundation, “most of the tenants got a letter saying, we’ve identified a lease for you. One tenant went over and looked at her new unit, and she saw that it was occupied by a tenant who already had a lease. Most of the rest of the apartments didn’t have refrigerators or stoves. Also, this notice that they got with the apartment number didn’t tell them when they should move.”
They found out soon enough. On Tuesday, December 7, Jackson called a press conference at CHA headquarters to announce that if the remaining families in 5266 didn’t schedule their moves within 24 hours, the CHA would begin eviction proceedings. At this point the CHA claimed only 10 families were left in the building: the Coalition to Protect Public Housing counted 26. In reality, nobody knew exactly who was living in 5266, and how many people were there legally.
“Every day they delay, they are costing CHA money,” Jackson said, “money this agency desperately needs to keep moving forward. We have moving vans waiting and apartments waiting. Once this matter is in court, we will see it through to the end. We have done everything possible to avoid this step.”
By 10 AM the next day, a circus of television trucks and moving vans had descended on 5266. The RCYB ran about, whistling frantically. Loudspeakers played, in a continual loop, a song about the need to preserve public housing. Moore returned from a tenants advisory council meeting, her eyes fiery. She’d used lipstick to draw two parallel lines on her forehead, her cheeks, and her chin.
“Y’all go put your war paint on!” she shouted. “Put your war paint on! This is war!”
The RCYB began to put on war paint.
“What’s war paint?” a kid asked.
“They’re kicking us outta our home,” said another. “It’s a war. They’re gonna tear down all these buildings and make this a rich white neighborhood. That man wants all this land. What’s his name?”
The moving trucks kept pulling up. Men in light blue moving jackets were carrying boxes through the galleries. Meanwhile, on the second floor, 30 people lined up to get food from Mother’s Cupboard. The TV reporters were all waiting for Phillip Jackson to appear like Snidely Whiplash, eviction notice in hand.
By noon, when it was obvious no such drama would take place, only one camera remained. It filmed Moore. By now, she was wearing a pigeon feather in her hair to match her war paint. She said, weakly, “We don’t want to lose our home.”
Later, inside the basement dayroom, Moore was surrounded by her allies from the RCYB and the coalition, but most of the residents had gone. She was so tired. What had begun as innocent, genuine concern over replacement housing had mutated into a lurid melodrama about worms. She felt like ten different interests were pulling at her and she didn’t know who to believe; she said these were the hardest days she’d ever spent in public housing.
She said, “One day over a year ago I was in my bed and this spirit said to me, ‘We need a leader, and I want you to be the leader.’ And I kept saying, ‘Leader? Leader? Why me?’ So I went to my pastor and I was telling him about it. I said, ‘You know, even as we’re speaking now, people are selling us out.’ And he said, ‘OK, sister, I want you to think about this. If CHA came to you and offered you another place and $30,000, and said take a week and think about it, what would you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t even have to think a week about it. I happen to like people. And $30,000, they got cars costing more than $30,000, and I would not sell my people out.’
“So then the spirit just kept saying, ‘I want you to step up and step out.’ Seeing that I was brought up in church, and I was brought up to obey the spirit, I said, ‘Well, yes, spirit. I’ll go. I’ll be your runner. Give me the strength and I’ll be there.'”
Moore began to cry.
“And every time it seems like I get weak or break down, the spirit comes back and talks. I was upset one day because the people were moving out. I was sitting on the porch, it was night, and the spirit say, ‘Everybody didn’t follow Jesus, and do you seriously think everybody’s gonna follow you?’ I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I needed that moment. No, I know they’re not all gonna follow me. But some will. Take those and work with those.’ And that’s what I think on it. But it’s been getting bigger and bigger, and I don’t know anymore.”
That night, Phillip Jackson held a press conference. The CHA wasn’t going to have to evict people after all, he said. They were moving out under their own free will.
On December 9, Jackson appeared on Cliff Kelley’s WVON morning radio program, as he’d done frequently since taking over the CHA. On this particular day he wanted to promote his book drive, but the conversation was dominated, as it often was on the show, by 5266. Here’s how it went, minus the irrelevant tangents.
“This is not about eviction,” Jackson said. “A victory over low-income black public-housing residents is not a victory. Who wants to do that? Who wants to evict someone out of public housing? I don’t. I want to work with the whole community so that we can all prosper.”
Kelley said, “I don’t think the average taxpayer is going to want you to heat a building where you’ve told the people to leave. Get this straight. You’re taking them to a better place next door, with two months’ free rent, paying for the movers and the utility hookups. Is that correct?”
Jackson: “That is correct.”
Kelley: “Now, if they don’t want to do that, fine. But I don’t think most people would want you to spend money heating 150 apartments because five or ten families don’t want to move because they don’t like the deal.”
Jackson: “Cliff, I don’t want to do evictions, but it’s irresponsible for me to spend the taxpayers’–”
Kelley: “You’ve got some very selfish people who don’t care about everybody else. That money could be spent on the general welfare for all the residents rather than putting up heat in a bunch of vacant apartments in a building where a few people don’t want to move some worms.”
Jackson said that the money saved by closing the building would be put back into the Taylor Homes. He promised new lighting, new landscaping, flower gardens, and playgrounds. In the spring, he said, he was going to invite the “whole city of Chicago to come into the new Robert Taylor. There are five or seven families with those guys standing in front of them in the Defender telling me I’m not going to do all this. They’re wrong, Cliff. They’re wrong. Cliff, it’s for the children.”
Kelley: “Yeah, I know.”
Jackson: “This is not about no grown folks thinkin’ they can stop the program.”
Kelley: “I know what your commitment is.”
After a long series of commercials and a break for the news, Kelley said that he and Jackson had just tried to call Barbara Moore but she’d hung up on them. When they tried to call her back, they reached her voice mail, which was full. Kelley said, over the radio, “Ms. Moore, the reason we called you is because we don’t want to talk about how ridiculous, in my opinion, your stance is, without allowing you to respond to it.”
He believed that Moore was out for personal gain, since her son and daughter had separate apartments in 5266. He was also under the impression that the worm farm was her personal, for-profit business, and that she’d asked for two additional apartments for the farm.
Then Moore called in, audibly upset.
Moore: “I wanna get something straight with you.”
Kelley: “Please do.”
Moore: “You don’t know me and I don’t know you.”
Kelley: “Did I say–”
Moore: “You have browbeaten me more than once over the radio.”
Kelley: “Let me ask you this, Ms. Moore–”
Moore: “I don’t know you. Why would you do that to me?”
Kelley: “Have I said anything that’s untrue?”
Moore: “Yes, you have!”
Kelley: “Were you offered five apartments?”
Moore: “Hell, no, I wasn’t offered no damn five apartments!”
Kelley: “Mr. Jackson, was she offered?”
Jackson: “We offered everyone in the building–”
Moore: “I have a son and daughter entitled to this! You keep talking about taxpayers. You went to jail and I ain’t never said nothing about that! How could you do that to me?”
Kelley: “You can say anything you want, Ms. Moore. I’m just asking you this–”
Moore: “No! You don’t know me!”
Kelley: “Wait, listen–I don’t have to know you. It’s irrelevant whether I know you or not. We’re talking about a situation.”
Moore: “You haven’t come over here once to see shit! You’re a black brother! Why you jumping on and beating people when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?”
Kelley: “Just answer me this, Ms. Moore. What was wrong with the offer that was made?”
Moore: “I asked this building to be saved. Over eight months ago I wrote to all the congressmen. This building has history to it.”
Kelley: “The building’s not going to be saved.”
Moore: “You don’t understand.”
Kelley: “No, I don’t. Tell me the history. Educate me, Ms. Moore! What is there about 5266 that is so great that you won’t move? What is the history of the building? Is it the only CHA building in the country that has worms? Is that the history?”
Moore: “I’m not going to let you talk to me like you talk to me. I have not done anything to you or Phil. I don’t have to take this. You know, you can have your show and all of it.”
And she hung up.
After another series of breaks, Kelley said, “I don’t want Ms. Moore to think I’m attacking her personally. That’s not true at all. I’m sure she’s a very nice lady.” He also said he supports the Coalition to Protect Public Housing and had favored one-for-one replacement housing until Congress got rid of that provision in 1998. But, he said, “I think high-rises are bad news.”
“If there is something about 5266 that’s special, I want to know it,” he said.
“Do you have any idea?”
Jackson said, “I don’t know of anything special about it. Look. Ms. Moore is really under a lot of pressure. She’s the president of the building, and her world is changing, like it hasn’t changed ever. We’re trying to change a culture that has been this way for about 40 years, and it’s going to be very difficult. But what we’re also trying to do is not to hurt anyone.”
At noon on Saturday, December 18, a march consisting of the RCYB, a few kids, and a couple students from the University of Michigan who were making a documentary left from 5266. It was moving day.
Charles Petrof, the tenants’ attorney, had made a deal with Jack O’Connell, the CHA’s director of operations. The remaining families in 5266 would move, without any more fighting, to 5247 S. Federal, the building next door. Any homeless families who were squatting in 5266 would be dealt with by the Department of Human Services. In exchange, the CHA would provide for the safe transfer of the worms and fish, as well as the library and food pantry.
A resident activist named Beauty Turner used a megaphone to project into the galleries of 5247.
“Now the power of the people is consolidated in your building!” she shouted. “Today Ms. Moore is stepping over to 5247 to combine strength. To fight for housing for yourselves and others. All power to the people!”
“All power to the people!” the thin crowd responded.
“All power to Ms. Moore!”
But Moore had other concerns that day. She had to move, and quickly. Winter had finally come and she was cold and achy. She limped on her cane along the concrete, which was covered with ice. Police cars and moving vans were pulling up in front of her building.
“So I guess the police are here,” she said. “If we don’t go, they’re gonna take us to jail. I wanna know why they’re sitting here. We ain’t doing nothing to nobody.”
Grant Newburger from the RCYB came up to her. They were the only ones who’d believed in her all along, she told him. From the night the police started breaking down doors, the RCYB had always had at least two people in the building. They’d let Moore know they were permanently at her service. They fixed stopped-up sinks. They put plastic up in windows. They took out the garbage, which the CHA was no longer doing. “They were like godsends to me,” Moore would later say.
“This breaks my heart,” Newburger said. “We all got real close. It was a hell of a fight. We were a real strong community.”
“Well,” said Moore, “they sure don’t want that.”
She leaned against a wall. Her building was covered with soot, stench, and flyers calling for emergency meetings in the dayroom. The elevator wasn’t coming. She lit a cigarette. She coughed. Next to her on the wall, scrawled in pen, was written, “Long Live 5266.”
A guy in a blue jacket approached.
“You the elevator man?” she asked.
“Then how about you see where the elevator is at?”
A friend from the building pulled up a chair for Moore and said, “This lady from the Department of Human Services came by my place a few days ago and said, ‘What you keeping it so clean for?’ I said, ‘Because I’m planning to stay here.'”
“I ain’t giving up,” Moore said. “They got the building, but the fight ain’t over.”
Finally, the elevator arrived.
“You know,” said Moore to the elevator man, “I got a couch that you have to put on top of the elevator.”
“I can’t do that no more,” said the man.
“Well, I ain’t leaving my furniture here.”
“I’ll have to call control.”
“I don’t have no money to buy no new furniture.”
Upstairs, Moore’s sons were packing up her apartment. It was a mess of dishes, boxes, and stuff spread everywhere. Food was on the floor–a bag of onions, a bag of rice, a bag of cornmeal. Moore pondered a roll of holiday gift wrap and a wreath. She wondered what she would do with them. This would be her first Christmas out of the apartment in 33 years.
“It ain’t ever going to be over, is it, Ms. Moore?” said her friend.
“No,” said Moore. “It ain’t ever gonna be over.”
Moore says the CHA shut off the heat and water on December 18. But she and another woman, Gloria Williams, were still living in 5266. Moore didn’t get out the next day, and couldn’t finish her move until late afternoon on Monday, December 20. Her new apartment in 5247 didn’t have heat, water, or a phone jack. The windows were boarded up. It took the CHA about a week to correct all the problems, during which time, Moore says, she became “deathly ill.”
“Clearly, the new apartment was not ready for her to move into,” says Petrof, the tenants’ attorney. “That is very typical of people I talk to. They move into apartments that are not ready to occupy. And they have to hang around until somebody comes by to fix it.”
Phillip Jackson says the power remained on in 5266 until that Monday. He had CHA workers put space heaters in the basement to keep the worms and fish alive. Electrical circuits blew, the heaters went cold, and the fish soon froze to death. Some but not all of the worms died as well.
Moore, with the help of the coalition, created a minor outcry. Meanwhile, Jackson mocked her in the media. He promised to pay $500 out of his own pocket to relocate the worm farm to 5247. “I was contacted by the worms’ attorney to make sure they are being treated fairly, and they will be,” he said. “How worms got to be such celebrities is beyond me, but that’s where we are.”
Petrof says that he’d been in touch with Jack O’Connell before the move, but never with Jackson. “He’s never bothered to contact us. Not just me, but anyone related to this. The quote is just pure fancy. He’s not responded to faxes, he’s not responded to telephone calls, but all of a sudden when he’s faced with the media he’s been in contact with us.”
Over the next week, vandals raided the Mother’s Cupboard food pantry and stole everything but the fax machine and a few boxes of dehydrated soup. They broke into the refrigerator and freezer and damaged both beyond repair. The library got hit as well. They took computers and typewriters, which had been donated, and many boxes of old books. Petrof, who was on the scene, says, “The people ransacking the building were walking out with stuff right in front of the management. The Tuesday prior to Christmas, scavengers had backed a pickup truck to the gate, and they were just leaving with stuff.”
The CHA moved the surviving worms the day before Christmas. They put them in an apartment where two inches of standing water were on the floor and a man was living without a lease. Half the containers were broken in the process.
At a press conference a few weeks later, Jackson said, “I think the winterization program shows all the residents of the CHA we keep our word. Every promise we made, we kept. It also shows them that we can implement. What would the media have said if I’d done nothing and all our residents had frozen to death? Everyone said, ‘You guys can’t do this. It’s impossible. Don’t even try.’ Well, we showed those residents that if we say we’re going to do it, we’ve got the will and the wherewithal and the technical expertise to get the job done.”
The situation left everyone involved with 5266 bitter and depressed.
“It wasn’t really the building they were fighting for,” says the Heifer Project’s Alison Meares Cohen. “They just wanted to keep their community together and to help maintain the programs that they’ve established. I don’t know why the CHA chose to use them as a scapegoat, but they really targeted the wrong group. They couldn’t have targeted a group that’s done more for their community.”
“I don’t think there’s much else to be destroyed,” Petrof says. “We’ve lost everything we could lose. What else is left? I would say we have a spectacular defeat for Barbara Moore. We’ve lost it all.”
The CHA board approved a revised “plan for transformation” of the agency on January 6 and submitted it to HUD the next day. The plan included privatizing all property management, demolishing all 51 open-gallery high-rise buildings, and spending $350 million for improvements to senior housing. It also promised to “place 3,000 residents in jobs by 2005.” But its centerpiece was a $1.5 billion capital improvement plan, to be spread out over five years, that among other things would “provide approximately 5,000 new or rehabbed public-housing units on existing sites, enough for every current, lease-compliant resident.”
When HUD signed off on the CHA’s plan a month later, it stipulated that the CHA had to provide residents with “legally enforceable” contracts to ensure that they would be able to return to a CHA apartment if they were displaced by redevelopment. The CHA also agreed to conduct an annual affordable-housing survey, and not to demolish apartments if the housing market was found lacking.
In his statement to the CHA board on January 6, Phillip Jackson had this to say:
“Seven months ago, we came here on a mission–to change the CHA from an agency with a record of neglect and indifference to one that is responsive and efficient. Our larger role was to transform unsafe public housing into attractive, healthy mixed-income units….I love public housing. I’ve lived in public housing. I am proud of public housing. But good public housing, what our children and what our families deserve, is not what we have. The 33,500 children who live in public housing are all my children. They are not only the hope of the CHA, they are the hope of the city of Chicago. I have learned much from the resident leadership. The thing that they have taught me most is this–keep all promises.”
When the board opened the floor for public comment, Barbara Moore was first in line.
“This relocation plan needs to be looked at again,” she said. “I want the world to know that there are broken promises that the CHA has made all the time. They make promises and they keep none of them. It was me then. But who will it be the next time? Who will be stuck in one of these high-rise buildings with no heat and no hot water? These are things that you all should know before you start making plans for our lives. We know nothing about these plans. I ask you to please check into it, and I wish that Cliff Kelley and Phil Jackson would keep my name out of their mouths on the radio. Thank you.”
Later, 21st Ward alderman Leonard DeVille got up to speak. Moore leaned on her cane, looking mopey.
“There’s always pain in whatever we try to do,” DeVille said. “Let me commend Phil Jackson, because he is a product of CHA and he means well. One of the things we have to understand is that there is always inconvenience with whatever progress that you make.”
Moore suddenly perked up.
“You didn’t have to live in the cold!” she shouted.
“In the long run, we will become stronger.”
“I got left in the cold! You wasn’t left in the cold all weekend!”
“Mrs. Moore,” said Sharon Gist Gilliam, chairman of the CHA board of commissioners, “we do not have, in our meeting, outbursts.”
“I’m sorry, but you don’t know–”
“We do not have outbursts!”
“They shouldn’t have left me in the cold,” said Barbara Moore, and then she wasn’t heard from again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.