Did you hear the big news? I just graduated from North Park University with a double major in something and something else. And as fancy-schamncy as my bachelor-of-arts-s are, they are hardly as fancy-schmancy as the $42 million science building that the school is about to break ground on. That thing looks cool.
Of course, I pride myself, a non-science student except for that one time freshman year I accidentally took Physics, in that by getting my degrees in the study of human behavior through North Park, I had a laboratory much greater than any one building could offer – the complicated yet spirited city of Chicago.
The laboratory that revealed to me the most important lesson of my college career was the Cabrini-Green public housing project. Built during World War II by the city of provide affordable housing to those with limited means, by the 1960s Cabrini-Green became predominately African-American and exceedingly segregated from the civic support services provided to the surrounding areas. On the national level, it was a neighborhood known to some as the setting of the 1970’s sitcom Good Times, but infamously known to others as a cesspool of gang violence. As two separate women with childhood memories of Cabrini-Green I met both said, the projects smelled of urine and soul-food.
I had friends who volunteered on a weekly basis to tutor youth from the Cabrini-Green projects. To be clear, I am not one of these unspoken heroes. Instead, my encounter with the neighborhood came through a rather unique final project – for a “performance ethnography project” – fancy words for finding a group of people suffering a particular conflict, interviewing people from that group, and then writing and performing a play based off that research.
(I will be quite happy if I never again have to ask someone “May I ask you a few questions so I can write a play about your experiences for my class project?”)
(That, of course, hardly compared to the awkwardness suffered after one of our group members, the sole African-American who we had pegged to play the role of a Cabrini resident, dropped the class to pursue the Hollywood-round of American Idol, which meant I was left to play the role of the Cabrini resident. After some early rehearsals, it was kindly suggested that I should drop trying to speak the harsh and profanity-ridden Ebonics of Cabrini. I sounded a bit like a native Hawaiian transplanted to Georgia in the process of learning his first cuss words.)
When my group took on this project in 2010, the Chicago Housing Authority was about to remove the last resident from the Cabrini-Green project, completing their 15-year-long “Plan for Transformation” – “aimed at breaking the poverty cycle in which tens of thousands of the city’s poor have lived, by moving them out of the projects and into better, safer living environments.”
But this initiative by the city had created some backlash from residents and advocacy groups. To be sure, the fact that gentrification masqueraded as social progress was an actual problem. The “Plan for Transformation” – instead of improving a pre-existing neighborhood for the sake of the disadvantaged residents who were living there – essentially redid the space for a new class of people to move into. As one woman I interviewed stated, Cabrini-Green did not change, it vanished.
But for me, the moral calculus did not compute over one variable: even if the “Plan for Transformation” was a sham, what was the harm in moving the project residents to new locations? The rich got a nice place to live, the poor got to finally escape a cesspool of violence. The “Plan for Transformation” was arguably a sham, but at least it was a win-win.
Or at least it seemed to me.
It was in the midst of struggling with trying to figure out where I “stood” on the issue, and writing a timed essay on black liberation theologian James Cone for another class, that I had an epiphany moment. It dawned on me that Cabrini-Green was, for the residents, their strongest sense of identity. It was a place-specific identity, and as long as they were in that place, regardless of how hostile and degraded it seemed to the outside, inside they were loved and accepted. As a former resident had told me, “I understood that what the media had portrayed is not what we had had in that community. We had community. It just was this very good sense of community that nobody ever talked about in the media.”
Violence may have sporadically broken out in the projects, but everyone would attend the funeral.
I had been carefully and painstakingly writing the script for the play. In addition to a resident of the Cabrini-Green public housing, the script included an upper-middle-class college-educated “gentry” or person benefiting from gentrification. Despite being female, originally from Seattle and frequenting Starbucks, the character was most definitely a reflection of my own frustrations of trying to wrap my mind around what exactly the Cabrini-Green problem was and what it meant for me.
But due to my James Cone-induced epiphany, the slow labor of carefully and sensitively crafting words gave way to that all-too-elusive mode of rapid writing hijacked by the subconscious wellspring of uncensored thoughts. It was a moment where Cabrini-Green was talking to me, to my prejudices and positionalities. That chunk of the script follows, and I apologize for both the profanities and poor mimicry of the Cabrini dialect.
Where the hell am I supposed to go?
I don’t know. They’re supposed to bring you back when the new buildings are completed though. Mix you in with the rest of us.
How the fuck are they supposed to build buildings big enough for both you and me? …and Starbucks!? (stands up, holds head)
That’s what I saw on the news. I’m sure they’ll find you a nice place to live for a while.
What about my friends?
You’ll make new ones. That’s what I did when I moved here.
You’re from fucking Seattle! You can just move on in here with your new people, they’ll be like hey girl, where ya from? And you can be like: I’m from fucking Seattle. And they’ll be like, hey girl, that’s cool, you can come hang with us. You got a college degree? Even better. They’ll find something for you to do. What about me? Take me from here, my community, and who am I? I am nobody. They don’t know me. They’ll ask me who I am and I’ll say I’m from Cabrini-Green. And they’ll be like woah! You got guns and shit? They don’t respect me out there. They think I’m shit…
Right there, that underlined portion, has been echoing through my head in the weeks after graduation. In three weeks, I have spent the night in six different homes across five cities and three states. I have met and impressed a number of strangers, with the simple line, “and, oh yeah, I just graduated from college” – never mind a private Christian liberal arts college known for churning out decent, service-oriented human beings. The implications are not just economic, but also social: my little certificate of personal legitimacy does not just appear on the top of my employment resume, it appears on the top of my Facebook timeline.
That is not to say that those who grew up in the Cabrini-Green project, with subpar educational opportunities, were completely barred from the ivory tower. One of the (exceptional?) women I interviewed, after she had left Cabrini-Green, went on to receive a PhD. And certainly I have neglected to mention how structural forms of racism (the term “white privilege” comes to mind) are at play here. But these are conversations for another time.
Rather, what Cabrini-Green taught me about my college degree, is that my college degree, in addition to being a well-fought accomplishment, is a piece of disproportional liberty, a cultural passport that allows me the freedom to travel to a wide range of places and somehow be instantly accepted. I know how to commit, I know how to play by the rules, I have been accepted by and accept the system – therefore, you can most certainly trust me. Be my friend, fellow stranger.
What I have inherited is an identity that transcends the particularities of place; it is, in fact, a place-less identity. In some ways it is a thrill, an adventure. I am most certainly excited for this, and what it means for the next season of my life. But it also remains awkwardly unreal, my nose plugged to the clashing scents of soul-food and urine, the rugged commitment of eeking out life despite life.