At Seward Park, near Division Street on Chicago’s Near North Side, a little league baseball game is underway. A mother helps her toddler ride a bike. Dogs lead their owners. Men gather on benches.
In the distance, skyscrapers loom, casting a literal and figurative shadow on the former Cabrini-Green footprint. The high-rise, red and white public housing buildings are long gone, replaced with luxury condos and townhomes in a planned, mixed-income neighborhood. The row houses are all that remain of the public housing development. This park is where people of various racial and economic backgrounds convene.
The Cabrini-Green community of current and former residents is grieving. A boy was shot and killed in front of the row houses. A beloved long-time tenant leader is accused of misspending money designated for public housing residents. And the Chicago Housing Authority is asking the federal court to make some changes.
“We do so much to try to stay out of the news, to try to keep just a little bit left of Cabrini we have, so for something like this to happen is devastating,” said Peter Keller, a former resident and author of the new book Cabrini Green: The Pete Keller Chronicles.
Two weeks ago, Janari Ricks, a 9-year-old resident of the row houses, was shot and killed on the property. His death is especially haunting because it’s reminiscent of another little boy’s death in Cabrini back in 1992. He, too, was an unintended target. His name was Dantrell Davis.
“This is just basically a repeat. The only difference is that the high rises aren’t up and … it wasn’t a sniping. It was still a shooting,” Keller said. “It was only two years difference between them — Dantrell, being 7, and Janari, being 9. And the communities came together.”
The community identified Janari’s shooter. And two days after the killing, police arrested Darrell Johnson, 39, who has been charged with murder. “We’re not in this position without the help of a community who came forward and gave us information which allowed us to actually identify and arrest the suspect,” said Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan, when announcing the arrest.
Dantrell was killed by a bullet from a sniper, who was aiming for a member from a rival gang. After Dantrell’s death, there was a citywide gang truce. And his death is considered the spark that began the dismantling of Cabrini that started in the late 1990s to break up poverty and isolation.
The Chicago Housing Authority tore down high-rises on this prime, moneyed land. The redeveloped Cabrini is now a mix of expensive townhomes, affordable rentals and public housing units. But not many residents of the demolished Cabrini high-rises returned, fostering distrust with CHA. Janari’s grandmother is the late Annie Ricks. She was the last resident to move out of the last-remaining high-rise in 2010.
The 70 acres of original Cabrini land is contested space. Cabrini’s redevelopment is guided by a court settlement. A federal consent decree from 2000 is in place to provide checks and balances. One of the official orders requires that a Cabrini tenants group receive up to 50% of developer fees from new development projects. In all, the residents’ group has received $1.8 million.
CHA now wants one change to the consent decree to add more oversight. A recent report from the agency’s office of the inspector general says tenant leader Carol Steele misspent $180,000 over a four-year period on a relative’s funeral, groceries and restaurant trips.
Steele is a beloved figure who has endeared herself to former and current Cabrini residents by advocating for them and the recognition of public housing. In a church parking lot last week, some of those folks met up to defend Steele and strategize on ways to keep the consent decree. They say she supported softball leagues, turned young men away from gangs and taught leadership.
In the 1980s, as a teenager, Raymond Richard got his very first summer job from Steele. Today, he lives in a mixed-income Cabrini unit and has his own company, BST Construction. The company remodels other public housing units all over the city.
“I’m contracted now through the help of Ms. Steele with the Chicago Housing Authority, and it was Ms. Steele who helped me put together my paperwork to get in the program. They ain’t gonna talk about that,” Richard said.
CHA wouldn’t comment further about wanting to change the consent decree. Separately, in a statement about Janari’s death, officials said that CHA is offering grief and crisis counseling to families.
Even though Cabrini doesn’t exist as it once did, the identity remains strong for former and current residents.
A day after that parking lot meet up, hundreds of Cabrinians — as Keller calls them — met up for an anti-violence march in Janari’s name. It had the feel of a block party, with music blaring, hot dogs twirling and burgers being flipped on grills. Children held Black Lives Matters balloons. They wore T-shirts in tribute to Janari.
Mothers, including Saleshea McCray Peterson, organized the intergenerational crowd. In the aftermath of Janari’s death, it’s a way for the community to stand up for itself.
“This has to stop, and it has to start with us and end with us. If we don’t start today it will never stop,” Peterson said. “We need resources, mentorship, tutoring, chuches, outings, social workers, mental health workers.”
The Cabrini meet up spot — Jenner Elementary School — was symbolic. Dantrell Davis attended Jenner back in the early ‘90s when the “reds” and the “whites” were still standing. The 7-year-old was on his morning walk to Jenner when he was killed. And when white families started moving into the new mixed-income community, after the high-rises came down, they didn’t send their children to this local public school. It remained Black and low-income. Recently, Jenner merged with Ogden, a public school on the gold coast with affluent parents.
That wasn’t the focus of this march, but it’s another symbol of past and present Cabrini.
As the march began, the group weaved through the Near North Side, chanting “love up, guns down” while stopping traffic.
One of the women marching was Tara Stamps, the daughter of the late Marion Stamps, a legendary Cabrini activist.
Another symbol, another generation continuing the cycle for justice.