Fear and loathing in Cabrini-Green

On the near north edge of downtown Chicago sits what has long been considered one of the most notorious public housing developments in the country. Decades ago the neighborhood of Cabrini-Green was home to more than 15,000 people. It was overrun with drug and gang violence, and coupled with years of neglect the area is now in shambles. Just a few thousand people still live there. All but a few buildings are gone as the city has slowly razed most of them, forcing residents to move to other Section Eight neighborhoods.

A portion of the area is nothing but dirt and grass, still a popular place to buy and sell drugs. Members of gangs constantly drive through looking for members of rival groups. If you stay long enough you notice the same cars passing by, fixed eyes peering out at you.

I spent a couple hours there Monday. I was not welcome by any stretch of the imagination but I learned a long time ago there isn’t much I can do about that. One of the newspapers I work for, Chicago Journal, is working on a series of articles about the final years of Cabrini-Green and I’m asked to go there occasionally. I don’t mind going, but it can be discouraging. Despite working on stories intended to shed light on the plight of people living at Cabrini, I am absolutely powerless when I’m there and I don’t understand most of the street slang. Even youngsters attempt to intimidate and some of them carry guns. It’s always best to talk with someone before shooting a photograph because it can easily be interpreted as an intrusive act.

Most residents there do not like me with my short haircut, white skin and the cameras I carry attracting a lot of attention. I’ve tried to blend in by carrying only one small camera but that can actually make matters worse. Many people there think I’m a police officer, which is not a good thing in this case.

Yesterday I spoke at length with Clifford Smiley who has lived in Cabrini-Green all 43 years of his life. He readily admits to being a convicted felon and most who pass by while we’re talking seem to know him well. He even introduced me to a man who recently returned to Cabrini after serving a 40-year sentence for murder and is widely known as one of the folks “in charge” there.

I shot several photos of Smiley as he made his way around the neighborhood wearing a tattered Michael Vick t-shirt, but I was more taken with the moment above. I came across a man pushing his belongings, including a full-size mattress, in a shopping cart as he walked right down the middle of a road bordering Cabrini. Cars had to swerve around him and when I shot this photograph he yelled at me and demanded I give him money. I gave him the two quarters I had in my pocket which he promptly threw right back at me, apparently insulted by my perceived lack of generosity. He walked off into the shadows of million dollar high-rise condominiums just a few blocks away.

It may sound overly poetic, but this is reality. While Cabrini-Green is steadily vanishing from the Chicago landscape, reminders of its long and rough existence are still predominately on display.

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