Home.

It was a place where everyone knew your name. Your kids all grew up together and played in one another’s homes. Doors were unlocked and neighbors walked in without knocking. If you needed a cup of sugar, a place to talk or even a midnight snack, your neighbor was happy to share. The adults knew the business of all the neighborhood children, and the children learned to respect their elders. The men played chess and dominoes in the neighborhood while each and everyone greeted one another as they passed by on the sidewalk.

This sounds like the perfect suburban neighborhood or small town, right?

Wrong.

Actually, this is a description of the Cabrini-Green projects in the 60s or 70s as told to us by one of its long-time residents last week.

Even today, walking the row houses of Cabrini-Green, you will find evidence of this. Guys are on their front porches, relaxing and talking about the Bulls and other every day events. Everyone says hello to one another, and if you are looking for someone, a first name or even nickname is enough to find them. In the warmer months, you will see residents help one another fix their cars, get their hair cut, or have a barbecue. Without calling ahead, you can knock on anyone’s door and be welcomed into their home. Some families still do not lock their doors. You cannot find better hospitality.

Shocked by the ideal description? Don’t be. Suburban neighborhoods are becoming increasingly known for their isolation. It has become a trend that the more money you possess, the higher that your gate rises in front of your home and the less you are able to recall your neighbor’s names, much less their occupations, interests, and hobbies. If you ever had an emergency, how many of you would feel comfortable approaching your neighbor?

Meanwhile, poverty creates community because people are forced to realize both that they need and belong to one another, and that it is easier to survive in community than alone. The destruction of the high-rise buildings in Cabrini-Green has caused widespread grief among the poor that is unspoken in political and social circles. Did Cabrini-Green have its crime and problems? Absolutely. But it also had a sense of community that would rival the most prestigious country club. In the words of our friends, “They don’t realize, it was home to me.” The sentimental value of “home” is ignored as residents continue to get displaced and forced out of their living arrangements.

For example, an older woman who is a friend of BSL and who we have mentioned in our previous blogs on housing continues to remain in a home with toxic mold, despite the Chicago Housing Authority being given the specific problem, address, and telephone number to look into the problem. For months, she has battled with various agencies and most recently, was forced into making a rushed decision to move, being told that her Section 8 voucher would expire on February 1st. Phone calls were left unreturned, workers deflected her to other workers, apartment searches were promised that never materialized, and other mismanagement forced her out of her community and into less desirable housing, especially for her grandsons who will be vulnerable at the new location.

This woman represents countless stories of displaced residents of Cabrini-Green. Without concern for the emotional impact of being displaced, agencies are dispersing poor residents throughout the city, making these communities a dream of the past. While the poverty and crime persists, the sense of community is being lost. The poverty is now spread throughout the city, straining the ability for diminishing services to reach those who need it.

Tearing down the housing projects to create mixed-income housing and reduce crime and other problems in the area is not an evil pursuit. In fact, the end goal is necessary. However, the people displaced by this decision are neglected. These once-tight communities have been separated, sometimes in traumatic ways. Chicago Housing Authority places pressure on uneducated individuals to move quickly and to move into areas where they are not part of the community environment. Pressure and fear push them into isolating living conditions. They lose the ability to rely on friendly neighbors and need to rebuild relationships over again. This community building is not happening as it once did in the past. Something of value is being lost.

Chicago lies at a crossroads. We all have something to learn from the poor when it comes to community. Can we become vibrant communities once again and understand that we belong to one another? Or is community something Americans want to forget? Mixed income neighborhoods provide an opportunity to enhance community living that has not been actualized. Instead, communities have been eliminated and replaced with an increasing sense of isolation.

We dream of the old-fashioned communities mentioned above, but act to create isolation. During this time of change, will we embrace our neighbor or shut the door?

–Megan Sherrier, BSL

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About Brothers and Sisters of Love

The Mission of Brothers and Sisters of Love is to be a visible sign of Jesus’ Love, Peace, and Presence to the poor in gang-infested neighborhoods in Chicago and to be a bridge between gangs & the poor with the Church. This is done by: 1. Loving everyone 2. Trusting in God 3. Forgiving everyone everything 4. Never being afraid.
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