[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
The following is a heavily excerpted version of a conversation held on the evening of April 19, 2011, at the Quaker House at 5615 S. Woodlawn Ave in Hyde Park. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm possible ways of creating a platform for former CHA residents displaced by the Plan for Transformation to tell their personal stories of the experience of forced migration. In the end, the discussion focused more on what was lost with displacement—communities that encompassed family, different forms of cultural knowledge, practiced strategies for survival, the good and the bad and the sweet and the bitter—rather than just the experience of displacement itself. The project grew, partly, out of the frustrated attempts to address these issues from residents’ and former residents’ perspectives in previous issues of AREA. And this is only a start. Also present at the meeting were Helena Shaskevich, Gabrielle and Laszlo Toth, and Rebecca Zorach. The conversation started with a discussion of how even to go about locating former residents to talk to. —Rebecca Zorach
One way that I know that residents keep up connections to each other is to convene following Bud Billiken, the annual South Side parade. Most of them have general places where they meet, so residents that lived in Robert Taylor convene closer to 55th Street. And then, say, residents from the Ickes projects would convene closer to maybe 51st Street. And the week before Bud Billiken the residents of Altgeld Gardens usually meet at Altgeld Gardens. Generally it’s still operated through the grapevine. I met with a Cabrini Green group that’s coming together to reconnect.
The thing about people I know, relatives and associates that I have who live in public housing is that there’s still a real sensitivity to talking about it. In Chicago the media have demonized residents of public housing deliberately. “Look at all the crime, look at all of this and that.” There was never any attempt to engage or talk to residents.
The building that our office was in, I would pick up food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, we fed 800 families every month. And out of those 800 families, I could probably find one now. Most of them that left, over 80% were women with children, and when they left they moved in with mothers, cousins, boyfriends. Compound that with the fact that—the building that our office was in, there were 3000 leaseholders for 4000 families. A woman that would have been maybe 50 may have had a daughter who was 30 and with a child. She would not have been a leaseholder but she was in the household. Just imagine that once the buildings came down and everyone went in 9000 different directions, they didn’t have money for carfares or travel, they didn’t have cellphones, they borrowed phones, used other people’s phones. I don’t know how best to try to even appeal to former residents outside of going to something that has some gaiety. Connecting to them when they have their annual reunions every year. I’m thinking in terms of interviewing residents—the difficulty in getting someone to talk about this very sensitive thing.
Iccha Devi Ra
This is more of an emotional issue for me. I lived in the Woodlawn Gardens on 60th and Cottage Grove—pretty much up to 62nd street they’re still standing. And when I moved out of that location it was because my great-grandmother gave my mother a house. And when she transitioned my mother could no longer take care of it from Chicago, and so my mother wanted us out of the city anyway, and my mother and I moved out there.
I think the difficulty for me lies when you put that many people grouped together in that way, there’s a reason why you’re doing it. You want to control them. And then the next part is that you scatter them. You scatter them, you tear down their homes and don’t give them anyplace to go.
They wanted that real estate back. That is very prime real estate. All up and down the expressway, all up and down these streets, Division and the near North Side, they wanted that real estate back.
I hear how people are talking about former residents moving out to the suburbs: “These are these thug people from Chicago. They’re gonna mess up everything. Everything’ll be terrible, they’re not going to cut their grass. They’ll be filthy, dirty, and people will be selling drugs out here.”
Why is that? And what difference does it make? Why would you know to take care of your yard? And it’s not to say that they couldn’t learn, but it didn’t feel like there was another discussion like, “ok, they didn’t have a yard, maybe I could help them. Maybe we could talk about it.” But there had already been this demonization that had built up.
And I’ll tell you, residents didn’t have things that belonged to other people. The things that belonged to them were the things they could carry on themselves. They always have beautiful jewelry. They may not have enough food in their house, but you could tell they were always decked out. It’s very clear, when you see brothers come from out the projects and they’re going wherever it is they’re going—sharp creases. Everything. T-shirt freshly white. The places they come out of may look like garbage, and they look like—that was what was important to them because that’s what they could control.
So then they’ve moved outside of their center. Public transportation shuts down at nine pm in the suburbs. They’re saying, “How can I get out to see my friends and family, or to work? I had a night job before, I don’t have that here now, I can’t find a job.”
And not only that, it’s all about cars, so you see people actually walking along the highway.
So it’s like, this whole idea of a better life outside of Cabrini Green is just a lie. I work with kids, and what I’ve noticed is that one thing about a child is that a child can see a lie from a hundred paces away. They tell me about their own experiences and their own frustrations, and a lot of them have said, “I give up, there’s nothing I can do.” And that’s another dangerous thing because once a child loses their hope and they think. “I’m not gonna live past 20 so it doesn’t matter.” If they believe their life’s not worth anything, then that means they have no fear of death. And if they have no fear of death, then they have no fear of you. And this happened a lot in Philadelphia, so now teenagers are shooting cops, now there’s a war going on between the cops and the kids.
When you’ve displaced a family, when you break them up—there’s a history of that in this country, there’s a history of that. And you’ve got these kids and they lose their community, they lose Big Mama, they lose their best friend, they lose their neighbor, they go into a place where people think that they’re terrible.
A place has an identity of its own. So when you remove a person, despite all the other things going on, the poverty, the despair, not having jobs, not having access to health care, all those things, it still was important to have this identity—“this is mine, this is my place, this is where I live.” And many of those that I knew who lived in public housing had lived there two, maybe three generations, but they were considered stakeholders. So possibly that was the person who knew how to make jelly or jam, or quilt or make soap or hoghead cheese. They were an asset. No one has ever really looked at beyond housing being torn down, what other assets were lost when you dispersed all these people. And that was the part that hurt me because the people were disenfranchised. They may not have been able to vote but they were good at being able to rally three kids together to make sure that the youngest kid on that floor got safely back and forth to school. There were values and assets that had not been measured or considered when the buildings came down. It was for the safety or it was because it was being mismanaged or it was not fixed up. But whatever the rationalization, no one ever looked at the fact that this was still my sense of place. This was still where I live. This was where I was connected.
That’s something to indigenous people too because I’ve been doing research back to when they called this Turtle Island, what we call the United States, when the native people who actually were born here and lived here before they were colonized. Part of what they could not understand, a concept that was brought to them, was “now we’re going to own this land.” The absurdity that you could just own something that’s free to everybody. You’re born somewhere, that’s where you live, that’s where your people live.
I feel sadness sometimes and a sense of resentment when I hear European people talk about how they could trace their family back to wherever and “my family still lives on the land that they always lived on.” Here, maybe you finally got some of that indigenous feeling. They got Big Mama and she’s making jelly, they got the candy store over there and the children are able to get safely home. OK, the elevator don’t work but the mailman makes sure that everybody gets up and down the stairs. So and so will help you carry your groceries home.
Maybe that’s something that we can do. Because if the stories that are collected are talking about what the people mean to each other, these little things about the community, like the sweetness that goes along with the bitter, these are topics that people can relate to. So someone might say:
“Yeah, I lived in this structure, but I’m gonna tell you about something that happened in this structure, that you don’t know about, okay. I’m going to tell you the beauty and the pride, and then that’s what you tore down, not just the violence.”
If you really want to know a person or a situation, you’ve got to actually talk to the people and listen to their story.
We can do that easily. I have people, I have a lot of people that’ll respond to that. I could see it happening as a “drive-by,” because people look at that term and see it in a negative way—I say I “drive-by” every place I’ve ever lived in Chicago.
That’s what me and my friends call it when we go somewhere, we’re doing a drive-by, lets go on a drive-by by this place or that place.
And many of them, of course for public housing residents, really almost looks as though they’re looking at a graveyard, because they’re vacant and they haven’t been redeveloped or they have remnants left. And mostly the churches still are smack dab in the middle of what public housing is around. So if you went to, say, St. Mary’s on 51st and State, all you see is this AME church in the middle of two blocks of vacant land from Dearborn to State. The churches are still there, but the buildings and the residents are gone. So even if you looked at where Emmett Till’s funeral was, 40th and State, directly across the street they began to build those new high-rises, but prior to that it was tall public housing buildings there as well. And the churches, I think probably would be a good place to venture to as well, ‘cause many of them did still have members who continue to come back, and have worship, although they have been moved. But, yeah, looking at it in a catchy term, like a drive-by, just when you were speaking, I couldn’t help but think that that’s what I do. I still drive down State Street and still cry every time I go down State Street.
And that’s an interesting thing to call it, call it a drive-by, and then people are thinking you’re talking about something else completely. When you’re actually talking about going past your old places and the memories of them, remembering your life and letting people know about it. That’s the thing, people have these preconceptions about, “oh, this group of people are like this, that group of people are like that” because the public listens to all these negative statements that the mass culture machine is generating about this particular community. So let’s flip the mass-culture machine on its side. This is a “drive by.” Most people understand the “drive by” statement like it’s some kind of a gangster thing, but instead the public are listening to stories about community, and family, and friends.
It’s making a permanent record too, online, where you can see the video and hear the audio.
It has to be something that matters. Be-cause I know one of our board members, his father was the candy man in Robert Taylor, and I know that he would love to just speak about selling candy from his car in front of the building, how he used that money to send a lot of kids to college. And how businessmen, whether they were in a storefront or whether they were on the walkway, had respect and were regarded as the fabric of the community. There are layers of things that are just as valuable as telling the story of the tragedy of the community being fractured. It’s equivalent to seeing, like you may see in a movie, watching a slaveholder separate a mother and child. It’s just that heavy, and to look at it as any less than that would be ridiculous. And it’s difficult for me even today to talk about it, and it was eleven years ago when I watched the buildings come down, when we moved from 5247 to 5266 South State, you know, one building torn down and moved to the next one.
What’s coming to my mind now is that the truth is always the truth and it doesn’t need to be validated by anyone. One thing that can come out of this conversation is that people will be allowed to tell their truth. When I think about this drive-by process, and these people, saying their stories and everything like that, one of the things is, what is it that you know that you know? That’s what comes to mind when I’m thinking about stories that matter, and you know saying what is it that’s so, “What is it that you know that you know?” whether it’s a story of triumph about how your great-gran used to make jelly for everybody or your uncle was the candy man, or a friend of yours was this or this, or that you could see the levels of corruption, and whatever it is, “What is it that you know that you know?” And then it’s just, lay it there, it’s not for anything other than the sake of saying what is so. Because sometimes I think its just important to say what’s so.