The Push Before the Shove?

A few months back Vicki Wilson needed a job, so she did what other Cabrini-Green residents have been doing for years: she walked over to the Care Center and asked for help. “Basically, the Care Center took care of me,” she says. “They helped me with my resume, and I got a job with a bank.”

But now the Care Center–a low-budget, city-funded employment service that operates out of a trailer parked on a vacant lot at Clybourn and Division–is closing. “The big question–which no one in the city will honestly answer–is why?” says Kalin Harding, who grew up in the area. “Why would the city close the Care Center when it’s done so much good for people around here?”

The Care Center was created in 1997 in response to demographic changes quite unlike any in Chicago history. Upscale whites were rapidly displacing low-income blacks as real estate prices skyrocketed, and Mayor Daley was advancing an ambitious plan to demolish Cabrini-Green. Daley assured black residents, many of whose families had lived there since World War II, that they would always have a place in the rapidly developing neighborhood, but few believed him. They could hear the rumblings of bulldozers as developers scrambled to build pricey condos and town houses on every available plot of land, and they’d seen long-standing community institutions such as Cooley High School and the old Oscar Mayer factory torn down to make way for the new homes. “Black people have been living around here for years,” says Harding. “But the neighborhood was being changed right before our eyes.”

Adding insult to injury, many of the workers building the homes were white, didn’t live in the neighborhood, and worked for out-of-town contractors. Residents, led by Al Carter and other local activists, began marching on City Hall, demanding that Daley set aside jobs for them on construction sites, as well as at the new Dominick’s and other businesses. With the 1999 mayoral election looming, the last thing Daley needed was black residents protesting that they’d been frozen out of good jobs now that their neighborhood was finally benefiting from development.

So it was in part to silence the protesters–and steal a campaign issue from his chief opponent, south-side congressman Bobby Rush–that Daley created the Community Area Resident Economic Center and named Ardennia Fentress, a local civic leader, as its director. To Daley’s dismay, within a few weeks protesters were outside the trailer, bellowing on bullhorns for a more meaningful sign of the city’s intention to share the goodies. “They said the city was just throwing them a bone,” says Fentress.

To the surprise of the residents, Fentress proved to be a savvy manager. She brought in Gaylon Roberson and Jamekia Riley–“sistahs from the hood,” as Fentress puts it–to help residents learn such essential job-seeking skills as how to write a resume and handle an interview. Then she put the heat on Dominick’s and the construction companies to hire the residents. Within a few months, more than 500 people had gone through the center and found new jobs, nearly 300 of them at Dominick’s. “We worked hard with the residents,” says Roberson. “It was not all about job placement. We helped them write resumes, yes, but we also helped them with their lives.”

A potential public-relations disaster had turned into a coup for Daley. In the summer of 1998, during the grand opening of the Dominick’s, he and various business leaders came to the neighborhood to thank the Care Center. The 27th Ward’s alderman, Walter Burnett, referred to Fentress as “the mother figure of the near-north area.” Dominick’s CEO Robert Mariano and Daley chimed in, calling the Care Center an ideal example of private-public partnership.

The center continued to connect dozens of locals with jobs, and Mayor Daley continued to cite it as one of his administration’s finest achievements, reminding residents during his campaign stops that it was funded and overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development. But after Daley trounced Rush in early 1999, there were signs that City Hall was changing its attitude. In August, Fentress left to take a job with the CHA, and the center seemed to lose a lot of its clout.

This past spring Roberson read in the newspaper that the city was taking requests for proposals to develop the land on which the center’s trailer sits. In early summer the city announced that the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development would no longer be overseeing the Care Center. Instead, a not-for-profit entity called Operation Able would receive a city contract to oversee it. Then in August the city dropped the news: it was closing the Care Center. By mid-September city workers were coming in to take away computers and other equipment.

City officials say the Care Center had to go because it was sitting on land that was earmarked for development. “This was always a transitional area, a transitional trailer,” says Mary Wood, first deputy commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development. “We need to get out of there.” She says that in its place will be the Service Connector, a new CHA-funded operation she insists will be bigger and better than the Care Center.

The Service Connector will provide residents with one-stop shopping for all their social-service needs–not just job-placement training but substance-abuse and domestic-violence counseling. The city will be divided into six regions, and public-housing residents will go to the Service Connector site closest to their homes. Cabrini-Green residents will go to a center at 911 N. Hudson. “The Service Connector for the Cabrini-Green area will be overseen by Employment and Employer Services,” says Wood. “They have incredible connections. This is part of a citywide initiative. We want the Service Connectors to assess, do you want a job and are you ready for a job? Are there mental-health issues? Are there drug issues? This will give residents a complete array of services.”

Asked how residents will find their way to the Hudson Avenue office given that the Service Connector isn’t in the phone book and Employment and Employer Services doesn’t list the Hudson Avenue address, Elizabeth Libby, communications director for the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, said, “They can call 311 and say, ‘I live in Cabrini-Green. Where’s my Service Connector?’ And they can get them to it.”

I called 311, and the operator said, “Service Connector? I don’t know what you’re calling for.” Then she directed me to an 800 number for the CHA. When I called that number, a mechanical voice said, “The toll-free number you have dialed has been disconnected. No further information is available about this number.”

The residents say the city’s getting rid of an operation that’s earned their trust and replacing it with an unknown. “Come on, man, don’t be naive–you know how this city works,” says Harding. “They want to give the contract to their friends, or they want to get the Care Center off the land. Or maybe someone’s jealous ’cause the Care Center’s so popular. They’re certainly not doing this ’cause it’s in the best interests of people around here.”

The residents don’t see why the Care Center has to go just because it sits on a site intended for residential development. “This is only a trailer–they can move a trailer anywhere,” says Anita Arnau, an employment counselor at the center whose husband got a construction job through the agency. “They don’t even have to keep us in a trailer. There are vacancies on Clybourn. There’s lots of places we could go.”

Harding believes the city wants to close the Care Center as part of a larger effort to gentrify the area. “Think about what’s going on around here,” he says. “You’ve got the city tearing down Cabrini. You’ve got these million-dollar homes coming in. They don’t want any piece of the old neighborhood remaining. The Care Center is about getting people jobs. Well, why do you want to get them jobs if you’re just going to move them out anyway? If you get rid of the Care Center, you get rid of another anchor in the community.”

Some residents also contend that the Service Connector concept is flawed. For one thing, it’s available only to CHA residents, whereas the Care Center was open to anyone who lived in the area. Fernanda Royal, who lives in the area and is looking for a job, says she went to 911 N. Hudson and no one was there. “Why would they close the Care Center if they don’t have the new one operating?” she says.

She did see a copy of the 18-page questionnaire the city will require job-seeking residents to complete at Service Connector centers. “It’s an invasion of privacy,” she says. “It asks you question after question that has nothing to do with employment. They ask, ‘What’s your monthly income level?’ and ‘Do you need health care?’ They ask whether you or anyone in your household has a past or present problem with drugs or alcohol. Or has anyone in your household been the victim of violence in the past year. Then there’s a portion in which the caseworker’s supposed to fill out information like, does the client express thoughts of harming self? Does the client express thoughts of harming others? Are children in the client’s household experiencing child abuse or neglect? I can understand them asking these questions if a person came to them seeking help in one of these areas. But come on, these people are looking for jobs. This is very personal information to go into a city file.”

Cabrini residents, such as Karen Jones and Royal, are circulating petitions calling on Mayor Daley to keep the Care Center. But so far the city’s moving ahead with its plan to close it by the end of the month. “They say we don’t have support, but the 800 signatures we’ve gotten say otherwise,” says Roberson. “The community knows what we have done even if the city doesn’t.”

Sulzer Watch: Mr. Terkel Gets the News

Studs Terkel was out of town last month when librarians from the central office came to clear out the shelves at the Sulzer Regional Library. But he called after reading the story in the Reader.

“You mean to tell me the library’s throwing out books?” he exclaimed. “Why? How many? Holy Christ!”

Well, it’s hard to tell how many. Commissioner Mary Dempsey, who’s overseeing the operation, either doesn’t know or won’t say. All she says is that they’re doing a routine weeding, something all libraries and bookstores do when they need to get rid of old or unpopular books. Sulzer insiders–that is, staffers who won’t speak for attribution for fear of losing their jobs–estimate that so far about 30,000 books have been removed from their library, including classics by Twain, Swift, Kipling, Faulkner, and Wright–not to mention Mike Royko and Studs Terkel. Fiction seems to have taken the hardest hit; the central-office librarians removed most of the buckram-bound books on the grounds that today’s readers won’t read a book unless it has a picture on the cover.

“But you want those hardcover books,” says Terkel. “They’re durable. They last. They can pass on from one generation to the next. Who the hell cares if they have a picture on the cover? They took one of my books, you say? I guess I should feel flattered. At least I’m in good company with Gulliver’s Travels. They threw away Gulliver’s Travels? I can’t believe it. I love libraries. They were my life when I was a kid. I was always in the neighborhood library. No hardcover Tom Sawyer, you say? That’s unthinkable. How the hell can you rely on paperbacks? They fall apart. Oh, this is crazy. I’ve got to go down there and raise a stink. They can’t do this. Someone has to stop them. What kind of librarian would throw away so many books?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.