|Buildings stand because a leader stood her ground
by Mary Schmich
July 9, 2004
As a little girl, Carol Steele watched the high-rises of Cabrini-Green grow out of the fields where she jumped rope, saw the metal beams erupt from the weeds and the legendary red-brick walls go up. Half a century later, the gray-haired woman who grew out of that girl is leading a remarkably successful fight to stall the demolition of those walls.
If not for Steele and her fellow rebels, Cabrini would be long gone by now. The mayor wants it gone. Developers want it gone. Well-to-do residents moving in nearby thought it would be dust a long time ago.
And yet as bulldozers have chomped through Chicago's other public housing high-rises, readying the soil for mixed-income developments, most of Cabrini has stayed rooted right there in its coveted dirt.
With Carol Steele posted out front saying: Slow down.
"Folks want to run around and say we the enemy," Steele said one morning, sitting at a table in her cramped headquarters in a Cabrini rowhouse, her gaze fixed on her fingers as she sifted mail. She finally looked up. "If we the enemy because we want to make sure people don't wind up a homeless statistic, yeah, we the enemy."
Steele is an ample woman with straight gray hair, unlined skin and a mind that stores data on Cabrini about as well as Google. She's sometimes described as shy, but wary is the word that comes to mind when her eyes land on you like ice cubes.
Are you a developer, a politician, a housing official? You want to advance the Cabrini "transformation" plan? You'll have to convince Ms. Steele, who will not be bulldozed, even by the mayor.
"Mayor Daley, he in Paris right now," she said on a May morning, "trying to make this place like Paris."
Steele pointed past a photo of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, who 17 years after he died lives on under the bold letters "Forever Our Mayor." She leaked a smile.
Why, look, she said, there was already a dash of Paris in these low-ceilinged, ground-floor Cabrini apartments: They were originally called "French basements."
Steele was born in this neighborhood in 1951, and later her family was among Cabrini's early tenants. "My first years in school looked like the United Nations," she remembers. "Fathers worked, mothers stayed home with the kids, rules were strict."
But over the years Cabrini devolved into violence, and a dark thought started dogging Steele: "One day they're going to take Cabrini."
That dark thought nipped at her as she took a job making valves for whipped-cream cans. While she worked as a school parapatroller. While she raised three kids, whose father she prefers not to discuss.
That thought drove her to Cabrini politics, where she rose among the ranks of the tired, tough, older women who for decades have patched Cabrini back together as drugs and gangs shot it full of holes.
Then in the mid-1990s, the federal government announced it would help redevelop a portion of Cabrini as mixed-income. Steele was among the tenants who answered with an announcement of their own: In the name of Cabrini's Local Advisory Council, they would sue.
"We got up," recalled Steele, who's now the council president, "and said, `We don't want no demolition.'"
They got half a wish.
Four years of blocked development later, a consent decree governing that 18-acre section of Cabrini said that until new homes started to go up, at least some buildings had to stay up. It guaranteed displaced Cabrini residents a new home in the rebuilt neighborhood.
With that wave of the legal wand, Cabrini's leaders gained power rare in Chicago public housing. The tenants were even anointed co-developers, entitled to a share of the profits to rehab or build low-income housing on their own.
When Steele and Cabrini's high-rises were born, it was barely imaginable that an African-American--an impoverished, African-American woman--could trump the will of developers and politicians. Certainly not in Chicago.
"I grew up hearing black people are stupid, black people are lazy," says Steele, who once wanted to be a clinical psychiatrist. "I want to dispel that."
That desire is the piston that drives her tenacity. Her fight is most urgently about housing--about people uprooted or left homeless--but it's also a campaign for identity, history, pride and honor. It's a rebuke to those who think that brushing up against the rich will polish the souls of the poor.
"I don't need nobody making $80,000 making me a better
person," she says.
And for all the talk of Cabrini's transformation as a matter of class and income, Steele knows it is also, profoundly, about race.
Cabrini's demise is the unraveling of generations of African-American friendships and families. However flawed, Cabrini has been more a neighborhood than most neighborhoods. What will happen to all the kids of those drug-addicted "misguided mothers," Steele wonders, when aunts and grandmas aren't at hand to help?
Steele and her allies haven't won as much as they've wanted. But what they've won has made them bold.
With new construction finally set to start on Cabrini land, they went back to court. Last week, they temporarily blocked the forced relocation of 350 families from a section of Cabrini not yet redesigned. How absurd in a town filled with overpriced houses and the homeless, Steele says, to tear down homes without first devising a replacement plan.
"They got their little spiel," she says. "`We're going to send you to a new opportunity area.'"
She intends for that opportunity to be right here, on the battleground for generations of her people.
"You know that old theory of squatters' rights?" She clasps her hands like an obedient schoolgirl. Pauses. "We done took that in Cabrini."
SUNDAY: A family decides to buy a condo in the
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