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January 7, 2008

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Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich has been watching the demolition of public housing from her window. Here are her thoughts on the meaning of home.

I grew up in a family of ten people. We moved a lot.

In high school alone I lived in four different houses. The first one—this was in Phoenix—was on an acre of orange and grapefruit trees. My father went broke after that, and we moved into a little rental place across from a Motorola plant. When we couldn't pay the rent there, our church briefly loaned us a house. Then it was on to the Motel de Manana. For nine months my parents and seven siblings lived together in a single room. I went to live with a friend.

This is all to say that by the time I bought my own place in Chicago in 1992, I yearned for a home that lasted, but I'd also learned that home can be as temporary as life itself, and as portable as love.

Chicago in 1992 seemed as fixed and solid as the red brick of my 1906 three-flat. My third-floor condo sat on the fringe of Lincoln Park, on a street that the Realtor's flyer had described as “highly desirable.”

A couple of new mansions had sprung up on the block and I heard neighbors complain that one of them had squatted on a communal garden. But the street still had its share of tired wood, dingy brick and battered gray shingles. Old people still lived there. Neighbors sat on stoops.

One was a guy who spent his days glued to his steps with a little radio that always seemed to be playing “Volare.”

About a mile south of my “highly desirable” street sat Cabrini-Green, the housing project notorious for being notorious. Longtime Chicagoans told me not to go there. North Avenue had an invisible barrier that white people didn't cross. I hadn't assimilated the Chicago behavior code yet, though, so I walked through Cabrini sometimes anyway.

In the mid-1990s, it all started to change. Fast. Someone tore down the little brick house next to me and built a towering single-family home. A wall replaced my skyline view.

One summer night, an old-timer named Ray approached me on the sidewalk. He knew I worked for the Tribune.

“I almost called you the day the last Puerto Rican left the block,” he said. “That would have been a story.”

Then the three old women across the street, unmarried sisters, died. Instantly, a bulldozer ripped through the frame house where they'd been born at the turn of the 20th Century. Mexican workers laid the foundation for a four-story brick and limestone mansion.

A few months ago I woke to a rumble, familiar now, and walked to my window. Just up my “highly desirable” street, a bulldozer and wrecking ball were tearing into three houses in a row. Now I watch the new palazzo going up on three lots, a place of balustrades and colonnades that would look swell in the Italian countryside.

In these 15 years, nothing near my highly desirable street has changed more than Cabrini-Green.

A few days ago I walked south across North Avenue. Lots of people do that now. I kept on going, down Larrabee Street, past the new mixed-income condos going up, until I got to the red-brick high-rise where Lue Ella Edwards used to live.

I got to know Lue Ella shortly after her 14-year-old daughter stepped out of their home to get milk and was shot to death. For years, I wrote about her, her family, her neighbors.

I came to know people here better than I knew people on my “highly desirable” street and to understand why they were so attached to a place the rest of Chicago feared.

It was home to them. Home is where your people are, where your history lies. It's more than an address. It's a feeling. Home is what feels familiar, where you feel you belong.

But on this January day another of those wrecking balls was shredding Lue Ella's high-rise. Her friends and family have scattered or, like her, they've died too young. The new people moving in will never know them, or of them, or probably even think that someone before them called this patch of Chicago home.

By many measures Chicago is a more desirable city now than when I first made it my home. Something's lost when something gained; something's gained when something's lost.

I still marvel that I've lived in the same home for fifteen years now, almost twice as long as I'd ever lived anywhere before. But it's not the same home. Life in Chicago has taught me that even if you don't move, the city moves around you.