Living in Cabrini

© Iker Gil.


James Lockhart, a former resident of Cabrini Green, shares his memories with Iker Gil about growing up in the Chicago Public Housing


This summer, while taking photographs of buildings being demolished in Cabrini Green, I met James Lockhart, a former resident of the public housing. A few weeks later, along with my friend Andreas EG Larsson, we walked around the neighborhood to know more about him growing up there and the stories of the dissapearing neighborhood. One of the most notorious housing projects in the US, it is also full of stories of community, friendship, education, and respect. Here are some of his memories that accompany the pictures we took during this fascinating visit.


Red brick building on 365 West Oak Street. © Iker Gil.


The view of building 365 wrenched with poverty and absorbed by violence is where I used to call home. Those red brick buildings were a playground, sometimes forts during wars of the rival gangs, and even a fall out shelter during a natural disaster. And although it may have been stricken by these ills, it was a nurturing place as well. Nevertheless, my mother and father taught me lessons that would keep me safe from the ravaging wolves of the streets. Although I did run with the wolves, I felt a sense of hope growing up in Cabrini Green.


Entrance to a red brick building on Oak Street. © Iker Gil.


Located on the Near North side of Chicago, Cabrini Green stood out like a sore thumb. As cities have their financial district, a Gold Coast and a Diamond district, Cabrini was “the Poverty district.” Lines for drugs extend from the 4th floor down to the lobby of the building; imagine walking home from school through these conditions. It always amazed me how I could walk down four blocks east from my building 365 W. Oak St. and can stand in front of Barneys New York or the Prada store. How could we be so poor and be surrounded by so much wealth? Alas!


Row houses on North Cambridge Avenue. © Iker Gil.


The row house, the low-rise section of Cabrini Green is where I spent most of my wonder years. Sort of like a maze to police running after us, to the point they chopped down all the trees so they could see clearly down each row leaving only the trees in backyards; how is that for going green. Mainly kids riding bikes, girls jumping rope, gang bangers gang banging and drug dealers selling drugs but it was still our community. I remember how they use to tell me “lil James go in the house… We bout to be shooting.”


Back of row houses on North Cambridge Avenue. © Iker Gil.


In the row houses my address was 941 North Cambridge, I witnessed a lot of things while living there, good and bad. I remember getting sent home from summer camp because I got caught smoking weed, such a bad habit for a 12 year old right. Or the time a woman’s body was recovered from a sewer across the street from us. My nephew, age six, witnessed the entire thing, when they pulled the body out he thought it was a Ninja Turtle.


Side entrance to a row house. © Iker Gil.


We would just sit back in amazement looking at the John Hancock building. Words like “architecture” were not a part of our vocabulary yet but we understood the building was special. We could view it right from our bedroom window; as a matter of fact we could view the entire Chicago skyline right from the projects. We did not realize how valuable the real estate truly was until the gentrification started.


View of the skyline from North Cambridge Avenue. © Iker Gil.


Vivid memories of us hopping those black gates playing “it” a project version of “hide go seek,” running after each other. We would watch the older guys in the projects and try to emulate them from smoking weed to carrying guns. This was the cycle that trapped so many friends of mine who didn’t have parents or whose parents where hooked on hard drugs. It was very common for parents to be addicted to drugs and allow the streets to raise their children, but there were also very strong parents who were disciplinarians who raised their children to be independent thinkers.


Basketball court on West Oak Street. © Iker Gil.


The project’s favorite pastime seems to be basketball. I knew several friends who could’ve received full athletic scholarships to Big Ten schools and blew it because they lacked discipline. Personally, I love basketball, but my father always put emphasis on providing and maintaining my family, so instead of me waking up and running to the court to play during the summers, I had to work my Chicago Sun Times newspaper route on Adams and Dearborn, and then I could go play ball. At age 9.


St. Philip Benizi. © Iker Gil.


St. Philip Benizi was, I believe, a Quaker church originally, but we knew the church for its Summer camp “Cycle.” Cycle provided summer jobs for teens in the community and a safe haven from the ills of the projects. There were several community centers like this in Cabrini but all seemed to disappear as the gentrification increased. Cycle was one of eight community centers in the 80’s and 90’s but by 2000 that number decreased to one. As one can see from its boarded up windows, Cycle is no longer a place where the project kids can come for activities.


Graffiti on a wall. © Iker Gil.


Graffiti is something you can find in any neighborhood, but what’s special about Cabrini is that most of it is paying homage to fallen friends. Cabrini Green has witnessed a lot of blood poured into her streets, claiming its place in American history as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, but I am evidence that it’s a place that teaches you life lessons of survival and hope.


Graffiti remembering B-Love. © Iker Gil.


Honestly, I feel somewhat like a veteran of war, because, frankly, I cannot recall how many friends I have lost, and to be perfectly honest, its hurts to count. For some, like B Love Ink Dog, their names have become as beloved as Jesus. And at any given moment you will hear someone swear to their names “I put that on Ink Dog” or “on B Love” similar to how someone would “swear to God” to show they are sincere or prove that they are telling the truth. Somehow, this keeps their memory alive, and just how the young emulate the old, this is sometimes the ultimate goal of the living; to have their name mentioned in this way after they die.


Police post at one of the access to Cabrini Green. © Iker Gil.


It felt more like a maximum security prison than a gated community when the Chicago Housing Authority tried to beef up the safety of the neighborhood. Moreover, with the invasion of privacy by police cameras watching our every move. I guess it is true a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.


Security camera in the street. © Iker Gil.


But it is also true that the poor people here in Cabrini do not produce the drugs that they shoot in their veins nor do they produce the guns that spill their blood into the streets. Moreover, the poorly funded schools and lack of education has a direct correlation with delinquent behavior. That’s why my mother emphasized education and drilled this into my head “Jay, never walk by an open door; walk through and establish yourself, ask questions and learn, your education can never be taken from you. Use it to open doors for others, but first you have to walk through.”


James Lockhart is an Anesthesia Technician at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. He received his BS from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA and has completed his postbaccalaureate premedical studies at Northwestern University Chicago campus. He is currently applying for Medical School to pursue a career in Anesthesia.

Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at UIC. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club. | @MASContext

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23 Responses to “Living in Cabrini”

  1. Ryan says:

    Thanks for the tour. I don’t envy your memories.

  2. South Elgin Native says:

    It is sad to say this is all that is left of Cabrini Green. Stories, pictures, videos, and memories. I know this was a dangerous place to live, but it was so many’s only place to live. I wont forget it.

  3. Crista says:

    What an fascinating story of “survival”. My hats off to you, James. I would be interested to hear more from other people…is there a book out about Cabrini?

  4. Kelley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this piece about Cabrini Green. Since moving to Chicago in 1997, I’ve always been told to avoid driving past the area. Now, I live across from it and wonder about all the lost stories. I was happy (and sad) to read your story, James. Your parents did so much right given the circumstances. Thank you so much for sharing your memories.


  5. wmm says:

    Newish book, includes Cabrini, Robert Taylor, Rockwell Gardens, etc
    High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing (Voice of Witness)

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is a very wonderful article. Growing up in the former project Ida B. Wells, right next to Madden Park and Darrow Homes, I can say I went through a lot of good and bad, most that I wouldn’t change because it made me who I am today. Social, public, section 8, subsidized, and low income housing is needed all over the world. Tearing down the social housing that so many low income people need is an abomination. If the government wants to tear down then the government should also want to rebuild up. The main reason the projects in the U.S are coming down is because of gentrification. Gentrification is tearing apart African American and black communties nation and country wide. I compare gentrification to colonization.

    The definition of gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values, Gentrification is typically the result of investment in a community by
    local government, community activists, or business groups, and can often
    spur economic development, attract business, lower crime rates, and
    have other benefits to a community. Despite these potential benefits, it
    has been suggested that urban gentrification can lead to population migration aka negr0 removal, which may involve poorer residents being displaced by wealthier newcomers.

    Gentrification is going on in many different cities and states. Chicago, IL is currently going through gentrification. Most of the residents who have lived in the gentrifying neighborhoods have been pushed out into the suburbs. The cost of living has spiked, the food deserts which onced existed are now gone, the crime is going down a little, and there are new schools and parks the only thing is that the blacks and the poor are being pushed out and the mayor is making it hard for them to return. I remember Lawrence Fishburn character in Boy’s In The Hood was trying to let people in on gentrification, but people didn’t listen.

  7. Hi,

    My name is Chaka Simmons, and I am of bi-racial descent (african-canadian) residing in Toronto, Ontario. Thank you for sharing a true depiction and your story. We have social housing here, however nothing like the USA.

    Your story and pictures portray an amazing journey, and I admire the transparency, authenticity and the real struggle of crime, marginalization, poverty, etc.

    The second picture so reminds of my first home. Believe me – the struggle is real. Seeing this website, keeps me grounded. I cant thank you enought for that.

    Keep up the great work. YOu are definitely touching lifes.

    I wonder if this will be shown on Chicagoland?

    Kind Regards,


  8. Derrick Hicks says:

    Im so cabrini green I remember we had one building vs 24 building and we still stand

  9. marcus hines says:

    I love and miss my hood cabrini 4 life no matter where i go BIG “0” all my life all i love

  10. Carlitta Renea says:

    This was so interesting. I’m from Danville Ill. and it bothers me that I’ve never even been here. thanks so much for the history

  11. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, James. I imagine that you are an inspiration to many.

  12. James Lockhart says:

    Thanks everyone for reading and your comments. I hope I am example of what hard work and dedication can achieve. Moreover I hope I can inspire others growing up in similar circumstances to follow your dreams.
    James Lockhart

  13. Phil says:

    I grew up a white kid near Lathrop Homes row houses (Clybourn & Divercy) I had friends there and would visit time to time. That was scary for a white kid but when we would pass through Cabrini in the 70’z I would say Holy Shit This Is Insane …..

  14. joe says:

    Hangin in a chow line … Good Times …

  15. mrs. Belinda Gaskins says:

    I read some of the History of this story. As usaual people that have not grown up in poverty, crime, fear, ect. Only know the bad. Although it was hard for alot of the residence, there was Good that came out of it. Many times that’s over looked by the media. Growing up in a simula situation I understand the lows and highs. Thanks for giving me a better outlook for the cabrini Green people, may God continue to help us with this economical, racist, environment that we live in.

  16. JC says:

    Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed it.

  17. Collins says:

    The TV show Good Times made Cabrini Green look like it was so fun to live in.

  18. Jess says:

    Thank you for this piece. Very touching.

  19. ray brendlinger says:

    to me just the lack of windows would have driven me crazy. Elevators that seldom work. Not enough maintance people doing their job. Why so many high rises so close together??? Where could kids play??? Cabrini was built on the cheap, you can’t expect people to want to move up if they are treated fairly, its not a crime to be poor!!!

  20. J. Littlejohn says:

    I had family members that lived in the Robert Taylor project and had a lot of fun in them. However, I didn’t like the disrespect of life some of the people had living in the projects. The smell of human waste, shooting at each other over property we didn’t own, raping our women and dropping out of school just to name a few. We have to do better.

  21. Hallo says:

    These comments are absolutely clueless and devoid of reality.

    The facts are the black community was better off before these projects. The statistics prove that. These projects are the biggest Democratic failure in history and proof these policies are racist, divisive and destructive. In less than 10 years, these projects went from stunning high rises to disgusting ghettos. Soon they had install mesh, prison like barriers because people, especially young children were being tossed to their death from the balconies. Police, fire fighters, ambulances etc… ceased to respond to 911 calls because many that did were killed. The North Avenue exit was unusable because you risked your life.

    The subsidized housing that were the row houses did fine. The people that remained in the row houses faired much better than those that moved to the shiny high rises. The ones that moved out of the urban centers and away from the Democratic urban blue areas fared far better than both.

    Blacks are not victims except by their own culture and excuses. Truth matters. And defining the problem correctly is key to the correct solution.

  22. Naomi says:

    Hi I am a documentary producer presently making a series on the murder of Dana Feitler and the conviction of Lee Harris in 1989. I am looking to speak to anyone who lived in the area at the time, who heard anything about the case and possibly even knew Lee or Ronald Grant?

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