Post by Maria Cancilla, SUST major
On April 14, 2016, Professor Pickren led his SUST 320 – Sprawl, Transport and Planning students through the Cabrini-Green/Near North Neighborhood on a walking tour. We did some reading about the infamous housing projects, located a stone’s throw from Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood. So we wanted to see, up close, what’s become of the 70 acres upon which this housing development once stood.
We knew that all of the high-rise buildings (Also known as “The Reds” and “The Whites”) were torn down between the mid-1990’s and 2011. Only the original Frances Cabrini row houses remain today – some still inhabited; some fenced-off with an un-known fate.
We started our tour on Hudson at Chicago Avenue, where Chicago Lights Urban Farm is located, and worked our way north to North Avenue and Clybourn.
From this student’s point of view, our visit to this storied neighborhood was a bit surreal. I have been programmed to not walk through this neighborhood. I remember a time when you wouldn’t dare to even drive through this neighborhood – In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I worked in the Gold Coast; in the late 1990s when I took dance classes in both the Gold Coast and Old Town; in 2010-11 when I worked for Groupon; in 2012 when I visited and worked on the Chicago Lights Urban Farm with RU’s SUST 350 Service Learning course (Professor Bryson, spring, 2012) – In ALL of these instances, I would skirt this neighborhood. Never. Not once. Did I walk through it. Until that warm day in April, when our class walked through it together. It was somehow even more surreal on such a bright and beautiful spring day. It seemed so calm.
One of our SUST 350 – Service Learning class activities was to take a driving tour through this neighborhood. Natasha Holbert, the farm director at Chicago Lights Urban Farm, explained some of the challenges of living in the neighborhood since the last towers came down. These are things that you can’t see when just passing through. She said that the Division Street gang divide was still very real in 2012. It was creating food deserts for people who were able to stay in the neighborhood, but still had family members with gang affiliations – even if the ties were a generation or two removed. At that time, both of the neighborhood’s large grocery stores were on the north side of Division, and some families did not feel safe crossing that street to shop for food. Holbert also mentioned that the neighborhood’s school, Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts presented similar problems of gang line crossings, which either kept kids from attending school, or kept parents from walking their young children to school. About the school specifically, Holbert noted that Jenner was touted as a performing arts school, yet it had no auditorium. Was this due to lack of funds? Lack of planning? Lack of caring? Hard to say. But it doesn’t make much sense. These are some of the issues that were on my mind as we walked through this neighborhood. I was wondering if these were still concerns four years later.
I was also hearing the harmonies of the musical group, “The Impressions” in my head as we walked by the honorary Curtis Mayfield street signs:
“People Get Ready”
“Keep on Pushing”
“Meeting Over Yonder”
Of course, Mayfield had some harsher songs like “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusher Man” later on. But I was thinking mostly of hope, inspiration and inclusivity on this bright spring day.
Finally, I keep thinking about what a neighborhood feels like, and how it didn’t feel like a neighborhood as we walked. To me, a neighborhood has special or interesting places to meet or congregate. Or just places to sit and watch the world go by. I don’t remember any front stoops, porches or benches. We saw so much development happening in the Near North, but all of the development looks to be towers. Is this by design? It seems that this is supposed to be a place to live – but only to stay inside – or just pass through. Where are the gathering places?