Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting

Poetry and memories: From the West Side, a former Cabrini-Green resident remembers what was

Doreen Ambrose’s first memories of Cabrini-Green are as wholesome as any young child. Going to preschool, visiting her grandmother, playing with the neighbor kids — these are the fond, sunny memories she recalls from her early days.


It wasn’t until she was 14, in 1983, that she realized her neighborhood had changed.


“My mother and I were sitting in the living room, just talking and stuff, and we heard shooting. We looked out the window, and we saw people running and screaming,” she said.


A boy she knew — Derrick Savage — had been shot, murdered in cold blood blocks away.


“I just froze,” Ambrose recalled. “I just remember not feeling like a kid anymore.”

Although it was the only home Ambrose had ever known, the day Derrick Savage was killed was the first day she realized she wanted to leave Cabrini-Green. When gang members started threatening and chasing her older brother home from school, she and her family packed up and moved from the building at 365 W. Oak on the West Side of Chicago, where she still lives today.

Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing said Cabrini experienced a major shift in the kinds of families that lived there while Doreen was a child.


“In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working-class and two-parent. By 1974, over 80 percent of family residents were dependent upon state aid in one form or another,” he said.


The Cabrini-Green that Doreen knew as a child — the good times and the scary ones — is almost gone now, razed by Chicago’s Plan for Transformation. Only four of the more than 30 high-rises that once towered over Chicago’s Near North Side remain today. It is likely the rest won’t be around much longer.


The Chicago Housing Authority has planned to close the last four buildings — 364 and 365 W. Oak, 1230 N. Burling and 1230 N. Larrabee — for the past several years, listing them in its annual plans. In the last year, CHA has closed two buildings, at 660 W. Division and 420 W. Chicago, moving residents out and slowly demolishing each site.

How long the remaining buildings will last isn’t just up to CHA.

A group of residents sued the housing authority in 2001 alleging that the rapid destruction of their home was a discriminatory act against the primarily African-American women and children who lived there. They won their case, and since then, every decision at Cabrini is carefully negotiated between the residents, their lawyers and the housing authority.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar says they haven’t yet determined when the final buildings will be closed.

“Discussions are currently underway with the Cabrini LAC and its counsel regarding the timing of the closure of the four buildings,” Aguilar said. “As of this date, no specific timeline has been determined.”

Lawyer Richard Wheelock, who represents the residents, says they have recommended consolidating the remaining buildings, either by grouping residents together on lower floors or cutting down to two buildings instead of four.

“They’re all largely vacant, so our best argument is to consolidate them,” says Wheelock.

Wheelock says he and Cabrini president Carole Steele have been concerned about the process of relocating residents. The housing authority has been holding voluntary relocation fairs, giving residents the option of using a Section 8 voucher to move out of Cabrini.

“It seems like CHA is hoping that at the end of the day, there will be a handful of families left to relocate,” Wheelock said.Aguilar said the relocation fairs at Cabrini are not unique.

“CHA is offering voluntary relocation to Cabrini residents just as it has offered voluntary relocation to residents at other properties,” he said.

Ambrose will be sad to see her old building, at 365 W. Oak, be torn down, even though she knows it’s inevitable.

“As a mature adult, I know it has to go. I know I don’t want to see anybody else die here,” she said. “But I will be sad. I will cry, for sure. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

Ambrose still has family that lives in the remaining buildings, and her memories of her first home are very much alive.

Doreen remembers Cabrini as the place she discovered poetry, sitting in her third grade classroom at nearby Byrd Elementary School. She was captivated as her teacher read Dudley Randall’s “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and says she knew then that she wanted to write poetry. “I just loved the way poetry made me feel. You could just say exactly what you were feeling, and that was beautiful to me,” said Ambrose.

She went on to write two books of poetry. The Diary of a Midwestern Ghetto Girl and Raised in Da Sun are published, and a third is coming out soon. But no matter how much she writes, anytime she picks up the pen, she’s carried back in time to her home in Cabrini-Green.

“When I write, I feel like I’m 9 years old again,” says Doreen. “I feel like my mother’s cooking some pot roast. I can hear her talking to my grandmother. I can see my father watching TV, my sister toddling around. When I write, I write from here.”

Will it be harder to write once her old building is no more? “A little,” Ambrose said wistfully. “A little.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on March 31, 2010.

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