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Young Residents of Cabrini Green

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This piece from 1983 describes the lives of young residents of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing complex, and their hopes for the future.


Barely a mile from Chicago's chic lakefront looms Cabrini-Green.

The 81 buildings of the housing project cover blocks of otherwise empty and trash-strewn lots. The high-rises are the most imposing, cutting huge profiles out of the gray sky. The children who stroll under the structures seem lost in a cavernous vacuum.

Despite appearances, however, these youths are the sparks of Cabrini-Green. Making up about 70 percent of the project's population, they face the problems faced by disadvantaged black youths everywhere. Sometimes, the rough streets, the recession, and a 46 percent jobless rate for black teen-agers have a way of snuffing them out.

Guy, Kelly, and Michael weren't about to be snuffed out, so they turned to a life of crime. But all sparks don't fly in the same direction. If sometimes they ignite the smoldering environment, other times they light a bright candle.

In a very real sense, these three 21-year-olds sit in a no man's land. They want to join society's mainstream, but they haven't burned their bridges to the past. They are enrolled in a basic skills training program at the Safer Foundation, the Midwest's largest nonprofit, private agency that trains and places ex-offenders. Safer has made more than 16,000 job placements in its 11 years of operation.

Michael talks of getting a job and going straight. But, like the average Safer client, he has little training and, of course, a criminal record. Recession, meanwhile, is eroding his opportunities. It used to take Safer job developers 10 calls to find a job opening. Now, on average, it takes 20. And that is no guarantee the ex-offender will be hired.

"It's very tough," Michael concedes. But not impossible. Last year alone, the agency made 2,350 job placements.

Kelly doesn't say what he wants to do, though he is quite certain he wants to put an end to his periodic visits to jail. "Man, you've got to be crazy to go back there," he says.

But if ex-offenders don't find jobs, Guy says, "you're going to do what you're doing best."

And that means survival. "They're just not going to starve," says Richard Weis, Safer's director of fiscal development for the private sector. "They're going to do whatever they have to do to survive."

While youth crime experts laud Safer's efforts to find jobs for ex-offenders, many call it a stopgap measure that doesn't deal with the root causes of delinquency...

..."These kids grow up a lot faster than others, and that's not always good," says their [basketball] coach, Jesse White, who is also an Illinois state representative. "They're exposed to a lot of things that youngsters never should be exposed to." He estimates he has attended 50 children's funerals in the past five years...

...Of the 13,626 official residents (White estimates another 7,000 live here unofficially), 70 percent are children. Almost all of them are brought up by one parent, almost always their mother.

Discipline in the project's high-rises is difficult, White says, because a mother cleaning house on the 16th floor has a hard time knowing what her child is up to outside. And outside, of course, are the gangs and drug dealers...

...The plight of Cabrini-Green has not gone unnoticed. Last year, Chicago's Mayor Jane Byrne lived for two weeks in the troubled project, pledging to stay "as long as it takes." Police protection was increased and children report that gunshots don't wake them up in the night anymore.

Nevertheless, police surveillance has declined since she left, and gangs are trying to move back into the project, White says...

...Although many youths are on the fringes of the gang, the street offers powerful incentives for joining: protection from other gangs, peer acceptance, identity, and respect.

"If [you] hook up in this gang, then you're somebody," says Edward Saddler, a former gang member. "You wear your cap a certain way" and look up to the gang leader "maybe like Superman." A typical age for joining is 11 or 12, says Walter B. Miller, a Harvard criminologist and gang expert...

...Helping youths to stay on the right side of the law depends a lot on the community, according to Joseph McCarthy, deputy superintendent for the city police bureau of field tactical services. "A community should expect really good police, and (citizens) should demand it..."

...Three out of 4 children here will turn out all right, White says. "Some of the greatest talent is right here in Cabrini," he adds, noting that his local Scout troop consistently wins several sports and art awards. And White -- as well as many others -- tries to develop the talent despite the surroundings.

Often he can be seen leading a troop of children in other neighborhoods - sometimes on bicycles or cross-country skis. "I want to show them that Cabrini-Green is not the end of the world," he says.

Source: Belsie, Laurent. "Children of the projects: Will Cabrini-Green's youth start a fire or light a candle?" Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), April 29, 1982.

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