Collaborating with the Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune has helped to cover a major blind spot in this series — the fact that I was not even born, or able to understand anything, as the story of the infamous Cabrini-Green Homes unfolded. The average college undergraduate student almost certainly has zero first-hand experiences or memories with the neighborhood. They’ve had no chance to. I still wouldn't be born for another four years when Cabrini-Green was first slated for redevelopment, in daycare when Mary Schmich established herself as the journalistic authority on the neighborhood in 2004, and was hardly capable of any critical sociological thought at 11 years old when the last residents of Cabrini’s high-rises finally left. I can memorize Wikipedia entries and economic figures and real estate law litigations all I want, but that doesn’t amount to having genuine, lived exposure to a topic as complex as this. Thankfully, Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune agreed to sit down and talk about her experiences, to help pass down this piece of the city’s history from the old generation to the new.
Despite being a Georgia native, Mary Schmich has established herself as one of the big-hitters in Chicago journalism. Employed by the Chicago Tribune since 1985, she lived and worked in the city until 1987, moved back to Georgia to work as a Tribune correspondent for five years, then returned to the Windy City in 1992 and hasn’t so much as looked back since. In 2004, Schmich ran an extensive series of columns on the state of Cabrini-Green, interviewing people from every walk of life in the rapidly changing neighborhood. 2004 was already nine years after the first proposed redevelopment plan but still six years before its last high-rises would be demolished. She met with both former residents and current tenants, the alderman representing the neighborhood, and the developers so often blamed for abandoning it. But how does a Georgia native, in the city for only 12 years, manage to get so rooted and invested in such an environment?
In 1992, Mary Schmich moved into a neighborhood just north of North Avenue on Larrabee Street — the same Larrabee Street that cuts through Cabrini-Green just one mile south. The murder of the 7-year-old Dantrell Davis in that same neighborhood one mile south rocked the entire city just months later. Schmich, shocked and curious, but more of the latter than the former, decided to walk south and see that peculiar enclave for herself. Heading south, she did the taboo and crossed North Avenue.
The residents of that particular part of the north side, overwhelmingly white and affluent, would never dare cross south into Cabrini territory. Just the same, Cabrini residents hardly dared to cross North Avenue either, with this entire dynamic reflecting the city’s obsessions with imaginary street boundaries, “no-go” intersections, and lines in the sand — or as heard around Illinois Tech, “don’t go south of 35th.”
Despite this, she just walked straight south down Larrabee right into Cabrini-Green. At the end, her resounding takeaway was “I should write about it.” And that she did.
When she made an effort to tell the story of a neighborhood in the middle of great changes some eight years later in 2004, she opted not for a social manifesto or a sprawling multi-page comprehensive account, but rather a series of successive, short columns. She figured that, with a topic as overwhelming as this, “people will read 900 words a day, not 10,000 at once.” Further, in a meta sense, this repeated column format hits true to the spirit and story of the neighborhood. A single, monolithic article is simply incapable of reflecting the individuality and distinctness of all of the neighborhood’s viewpoints and perspectives — the very things that make a neighborhood — without blending them together.
On the topic of present-day Chicago, Schmich remarked that the city has come a long way in terms of social issues since 1985. If for nothing else, the city had nowhere to go but up. The election of the city’s first black mayor in 1983 aggravated the tension and overt racism that Schmich would bear witness to some two years later. She called vitriol worse than anything she had ever seen in the south, describing the embarrassing blight as “backwards.” The almost explicit racial segregation around North Avenue and in the city’s school districts has calmed down marginally, but only to trade off with the city’s income inequality and violence becoming more acute and focused than ever.
The city’s politics may still be just as dirty — with one alderman recently being found wearing a wire and collaborating with the Feds to implicate another unnamed city politician — but Schmich remarked that people shouldn’t let their cynicism cloud their judgments of the city, even if there is a kernel of truth to the pessimism. It’s definitely there, the blatant corruption that is, but don’t let it ruin Chicago for you.
In looking back at her predictions of Cabrini-Green almost 20 years later, Schmich’s call of “gridlock” captures the situation well. On my walk through the neighborhood, I was able to photograph vacant lots standing next to luxury condos, with no developer or community advocate being able to agree on what to fill that blank space with. Those old brick row houses are still standing though, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood’s real estate developers. “You’re bringing down our property values,” they shout. “We still live here,” residents shout back.
“The name has been erased,” Schmich remarks. Not once in my time there did I see the name “Cabrini-Green” advertised on any store or billboard.
Along with the name, any soul or neighborhood spirit has been scrubbed clean. Gone.
It’s a ghost town down by the streets of the vacant lots, underneath the fusion restaurants and luxury high-rises — a neighborhood that, in its current state, has no history or proper reason to be there. It’s the responsibility of the next generation, gaping up from the bleached-clean streets, to piece together our narrative of what happened along Larrabee Street all those years ago and to figure out where to go from here.