Paths to Community: Hear Our Voice!
An Interview with Public Housing Activist
by Bill Burns
As a cab driver a lot of different people enter into the back of my taxi. It is my nature to be cordial and so I greet them. Sometimes I take the conversation farther if they look like they are about something. The shirts and ties, well, I see them all day and they are usually about 'nothin but bizness.' I mean I have had "celebrities" in the cab, everybody from Albert Belle (a baseball player) to Oprah Winfrey. But they are often self-absorbed. So it's a pleasure when I meet someone who is interesting.
Late last February on a Saturday I pulled up to the Jewel grocery store at Clark and Division. Waiting a short time, it wasn't long before out came a young Black womyn, with two small girls and a whole lot of groceries. We got her groceries in the trunk and I said, "where you going?" In a polite but at confident way she said, "the Cabrini Green houses off Hudson and Chicago Avenue." That wasn't no problem to me. I work that Jewel store on a Saturday afternoon because I know folks got a lot of groceries and need to get their stuff home. Leery of Cabrini? Not so much. Never had a problem and the folks are always very appreciative that a cab driver will give them a 'play.' So anyways we're ridin' and the vibes this young womyn are giving off are open, strong, dynamic, energetic. We get to talking and I say, "what do you do for a livin?" She says, "I am a community organizer." This perks my interest, because I have done some organizing myself. "Who you organize for?" I say.
"Well, I work and I am paid as a community organizer for the Resident Management Council [RMC] of Cabrini Green Row Houses, and I am also a volunteer activist and community organizer for the Coalition to Protect Public Housing."
My eyes lit up.
All around this town I see poverty. It's there if you choose to look. Chicago is not just the Magnificent Mile and the Lasalle Street financial district. It is the homeless, and men and womyn standing on street corners with no where to go. Street corners that were empty thirty years ago when the steel mills and other blue collar jobs existed. So when I meet someone that is an activist, who is organizing to protect affordable housing, I want to learn from them.
Deidre Matthews is her name. As we rap I realize that I want and need this conversation in Sandpaper. Ain't enough for just me to hear it. We all can learn from Deidre Matthews. She 's got verbal skills and a fire in her eyes that says I live in a community, and I and it will not be crushed.
So I run it down to her about the Sandpaper. That we get all over Chicago, the world (on the web), and would she consider doing an interview? She's cool.
The conversation with Ms. Matthews took place last year.
[A brief note: for a long time public housing in Chicago was run by city government (the Chicago Housing Authority, CHA) until, for a brief period, it was taken over by the federal government. Public housing is now back in the hands of the city which exercises overall control. The neglect continues. The city is tearing down public housing left and right. Deidre Matthews and her Coalition are fighting this. I let her know right off that I did not know alot about the issues. Like a lot of folks what I think about the "housing projects" comes from the mass media. Yeah I been around them to drop off groceries but I do not know the people. But we can learn.]
BILL: So Deidre what I would like to do with this conversation is talk about issues of public housing; but also with your permission to personalize this conversation to some extent, and by that I mean if people who read this are going to understand what its like to deal with the issues that you are dealing with then they have to have a sense of what it's like to walk in your shoes. So could I ask you some things about your life, for example where were you born? How did you grow up?
DEIDRE: Sure, that would be fine. I was born around 43rd and Prairie, and grew up around 63rd and Eberhart.
BILL: What about high school, where did you go?
DEIDRE: I went to high school in Aurora, Illinois.
BILL: Now when did you move up to the Cabrini Green area?
DEIDRE: I would say I moved to Cabrini in '95. I came over to Cabrini. My mother originally moved here and we came to visit my mother. And while we were on the bus getting here I noticed that we were very close to the Watertower. And I saw the surrounding area and everything and I didn't know what the word "projects" meant. At that time I truly did not know what public housing meant! But I knew when we came over here that we really liked the area. So we said how do we get an apartment over here. And we went to the management office and filled out an application and everything. We got an apartment in the area. I started working with the RMC [Resident Management Council] in 1997 and started learning so much about the stereotypes of public housing, and of the people living in public housing, and I said to myself, "I live in the projects!" [Deidre says this with such wonder in her voice.] And even then it hadn't settled in what the projects meant to other people. Because what it meant to me was that I lived in a development, and that I could walk to the Water-tower and Marshall Fields. Those negative things didn't sink in.
BILL: I have a little bit of feeling for what you are talking about because when I came to Chicago in 1971, I lived in Lincoln Park. And Lincoln Park at that time was made up of Hippies, Blacks, and Latinos. And you know how it has changed now. It's all very upscale. I couldn't even begin to afford it now. Then, I could walk to the beach.
BILL: And I was close to everything and I loved being around here and it was hip and a lot of stuff was going on but of course with gentrification over the years it has changed. I know you got kids, how old are your daughters?
DEIDRE: I'm twenty-five. One girl is nine and the other is seven.
BILL: What are your hopes and dreams for yourself and your family?
DEIDRE: Well, I already own a business of my own, a lighting company. I also do taxes for people. And I want my daughters to go to college after they graduate from high school. And we have normal everyday hopes and dreams, and we are very prosperous people, very positive people and if God put us on this Earth it is Divine that we accomplish what we set out to accomplish no matter where we live. And the stereotype that is put on us as public housing residents is there because we choose to stay in our community. Because we can walk to our schools. And we know who our neighbors are. And just this weekend I had an awesome experience. My children went to camp and they took my door keys with them but I was still able to leave my house. Go grocery shopping and do things that I needed to do. And come home at 10 o'clock that night and no one broke into my home. That's community!
BILL: I sure can't do that at my apartment without some bullshit! Now what is the name of this housing unit that you live in?
DEIDRE: Cabrini Green Row Houses. [Deidre lives in two-level town houses as distinguished from the huge housing development high rises.]
BILL: Are your row houses considered part of the whole of Cabrini Green?
DEIDRE: Yes very much so.
BILL: What are the boundaries of Cabrini Green Row Houses?
DEIDRE: From Chicago Avenue to Division Street and Hudson to Cambridge.
BILL: Now to your knowledge were these built before the big high rises of Cabrini?
DEIDRE: The row houses were here before the large buildings were. The row houses were originally built as affordable housing for ex-soldiers as they came back from World War Two.
BILL: Was it integrated housing when it first started out?
DEIDRE: Oh yes. Carol Steele, the cofounder of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, tells me that when she was growing up in the row houses that it and the surrounding area was like the United Nations. There were white children, Puerto Rican children, Chinese children all sitting next to her in her school classroom.
BILL: When were the highrises of Cabrini built?
DEIDRE: I believe in the late 1950s and '60s. In regards to Green Row Houses, all 567 units are run by the tenants under what I talked about a little before, a Resident Management Council. It has been like this for the last four years. Even when before there were management companies running Cabrini Row Houses, they went to clear everything with the RMC. The RMC has effectively for the last few years been taking care of the property, rehabbing the apartments, and let me say rehabbing these apartments for half of the money that the Chicago Housing Authority claims that it takes to rehab a unit. Another example, when you came to talk with me there was a woman being interviewed for the CETA program. This is a federal program that gives financial assistance to people needing help with there energy bills. This program is conducted here by the RMC.
BILL: Are the RMC and the Coalition to Protect Public Housing the same thing?
DEIDRE: No, they are entirely different.
BILL: How often does the Resident Management Council meet?
DEIDRE: Once a month.
BILL: Now when the Cabrini Green Row Houses make major decisions, is there an assembly where everyone can show up and participate?
DEIDRE: Oh yes, everyone can be a part of the community meetings that take place once a month.
BILL: Yeah, you know Deidre I believe these RMCs are all over the city. When I take people in my cab to Midway airport, when you go along Cicero Avenue, as you get near the airport there are row houses just like yours that are run by the residents. They look well managed. Folks are always putting out flowers and trees. I wish folks could see how well houses here are managed by the RMC. How did you happen to get the opportunity to volunteer as a community organizer with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing?
DEIDRE: Well, a flyer went out into the c'mmunity for a community organizer. And the job looked so cool to me. But at the time I didn't have the qualifications or skills to be a community organizer. But Ms. Steele, with her wisdom, made me a program assistant. Oh Lord, I just had a fit. How could I be an assistant? I can't be anybody's assistant! But I took the job. And then about three or four months later Ms. Steele gave me a promotion and said I could be a community organizer.
BILL: Is the Coalition that you are a part of a city wide organization?
DEIDRE: Yes, the Coalition is made up of some 70 different organizations such as the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs, the League of Women Voters, the Community Renewal Society, and others.
BILL: When did you start becoming an organizer?
DEIDRE: In 1997. And I was very interested in the things that were going on. Because I was raised that you don't just sit back and watch things happen. You make things happen. That's the way you change things. And Ms. Steele with her spirit said "they [the powers that be] aren't going to do what they want to do. We are humans and they are going to treat us like humans and give us respect." And I like that spirit and Ms. Steele is a positive person and I was able learn from her and from other people in the coalition. As a community organizer for the Coalition to Protect Public Housing what we try to do is actually keep the residents encouraged because the residents have so much coming up on them with the neglect that the CHA has placed in their buildings, and the pressures that are put upon them because they are residents living in low income housing. At this point the way we try to keep them encouraged is by speeding up work orders for repairs on their units. By being there for them as fellow tenants. Last June 19th we had a march to protect public housing and so we went into the buildings handing out flyers encouraging the tenants to come to the march and getting the buses to transport the tenants to stand up and fight for low incomr housing. Because as the market studies show there is simply not enough housing to start. And they are going to tear down mass units of low income housing and not rebuild, and the market cannot consume all of these people.
BILL: Yeah where do people go!
DEIDRE: Right Bill, where do people go? ULITIMATELY WHAT WE ARE ASKING FOR AS A COALITION IS DO NOT TEAR DOWN HOUSING. DON 'T DISPLACE PEOPLE OR VOUCHER THEM OUT UNTIL YOU CAN BUILD THE SAME AMOUNT OF HOUSING UNITS THAT YOU PLAN TO TEAR DOWN AND MOVE PEOPLE INTO THE NEW UNITS AND KEEP THOSE UNITS LOW INCOME. [Under the voucher system folks are given monies by the government so that they can apartments in other parts of the city. The voucher waiting list is long and apartments are very difficult to find.] REHAB THE PRESENT UNITS AND DO NOT VOUCHER OUT. LET ME SAY THIS AGAIN, IF THE MARKET STUDIES SHOW THAT THERE IS NOT ENOUGH MARKET RATE HOUSING FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN AFFORD MARKET RATE WELL OF COURSE THERE IS NOT GOING TO BE ENOUGH HOUSING OUT THERE FOR THE PEOPLE COMING FROM THE DESTROYED UNITS OF PUBLIC HOUSING!
The CHA has a plan to replace the torn down buildings of Cabrini Green with low level mixed income communities. They say they have to do this because of a government decree of 1937 which says that when new housing is built on the same site with government funding that it must be integrated. The same people cannot be going back into Cabrini with the new housing. The CHA also says that they are trying to get this government decree changed in court at the same time that they are going ahead with this mixed income plan. The catch to all this is that there will be a public housing component to the mixed income community, but that these people in the public housing component will be forced to transition out over time. Now you're asking me to move into these communities and I have paid money to be in this new housing and I am going to transition out of this housing - I don 't think so! I want in my housing permanently because I have paid to be here!
BILL: Well it sounds like a whole lot of sneaky stuff.
BILL: My understanding of all this is when they replace public housing they want a mix of 50% market value, 30% public housing, and 20% affordable which is defined as two working parents. Now is there anywhere in the country you have that kind of combination, on a large scale, of different income levels living together? Where you have people with a whole lot of money and large concentrations of poor people both living right next to each other?
DEIDRE: No you don't but it can be created. But it must be created with the people who are already living in public housing. See, public housing already has its own mix. Because people in public housing do vote. There are students and a lot of people who work jobs. So a mix is there that can be created right now.
BILL: See what I am getting at is my understanding of capitalism is that there really are no brakes on it. That the 50% market that they are talking about is likely to become a lot more than that. In time it will squeeze people in public housing right out.
DEIDRE: That's how they will squeeze out the 30% of public housing tenants in time.
BILL: Uh-huh, in time.
DEIDRE: IN TIME! You tell me I am going to move into this newly remodeled home or building and you tell me when I can afford to move into the market that I will move out. What about the market that's already there? Why can't I move into one of the units (where I am living,right now), that are there for people with a higher income level? Instead of putting it straight out on the table. They are 'politicking' around the issue. We understand that public housing lies on some of the most valuable land in Chicago. We understand that. And the bottom line is they want the land and they want poor people off.
BILL: Sounds racist and classist to me.
BILL: Deidre, what's your sense of things, is the city moving ahead with the tearing down of the buildings? They seem to be moving slowly?
DEIDRE: They are moving steadily ahead. What they are doing at this time is called reweatherization. We had the true spirit of reweatherization at 5266 South State of the Robert Taylor housing. The CHA came to the residents in this building with paperwork telling them the residents that they had to move because engineers said that the heating system was inadequate for the winter. The residents were then moved to another building on South State, of Robert Taylor homes. A process called consolidating. And this is so that when the weather turns warmer they can move on those vacant buildings that they have reweatherized.... And no matter what's said or how hard we fight against these building takeovers, if they can continue to demolish these buildings without building replacement housing, well the people are lost in the shuffle and these forces of power will get what they want. Not saying they are going to win. But if we continue to allow them to continue this route then that's how they figure it will play out.
BILL: Are there people in the government who you think are still in favor of public housing?
DEIDRE: Alderwoman Helen Schiller from the Uptown area. I don't think anyone can argue the issue that public housing has been neglected. No one can argue the issue. These buildings have been neglected for so long that they are unsightly to the human eye.
BILL: Why do you think the politicians are backing off from supporting public housing residents?
DEIDRE: [Sigh] All of Chicago is run in a way that Mayor Daley is able to manipulate and influence. I appreciate landscaping the city. But when you can pay as much money and put it into flowers and lights and trees then you need to be sure that your homeless - low income families - are taken care of first.
BILL: So right now the city's position is that we are going to tear down the projects and have a mixed development of various incomes. They have not really said straight out, because it's not politically correct, that there should not be any public housing. But your sense is, Deidre, that what they are trying to do is squeeze things to such an extent that there will not be any public housing in Chicago in the future?
BILL: That's my sense too. It's kind of like if we don't say we are against it, and just let things slide-
BILL: -then the whole thing just disappears. Its the usual kind of slick stuff.
DEIDRE: About public housing Mayor Daley's answer was very vague. He evaded the question. Now we have been talking with Cardinal George (head of the Roman Catholic church in Chicago). Now in talking with him he used the word community. He understood that yes these raggedy old buildings do need work. But the people who live in these buildings are human beings that create a community. We know its community!
BILL: So there might be some possibility of the coalition forming an alliance with the Catholic church?
DEIDRE: Oh yeah.
BILL: Now historically the Black church has been very much a part of the Black community in making progressive things happen. Are there alliances that the Coalition in Support of Public Housing has been able to make with the Black Churches? And other churches?
DEIDRE: Yes, we are helped by the Community Renewal Society. We have a religious leaders' meeting once a month. And on our mailing list we have a large group of ministers at that table. This past April we had a breakfast in a church near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side and people went over to support the tenants and they made a strong stand.
BILL: So much of your success as a Coalition is based it seems to me on the community you help to build among the tenants. Let's touch back on the Coalition's efforts at community building if we could?
DEIDRE: Within the housing developments, if you show ambition Ms. Steele will grab you up. Right now before my eyes Ms. Steele has done so much with a young man by the name of Daniel. A very ambitious young man who is working to become an engineer, and she has nourished and nurtured him. Made him a part of the Coalition, and he has helped so much with paperwork.
BILL: You and I both know that power comes from people. Because none of us has any money and the more people we get involved the better things are. Could you relate more on how you build empowerment?
DEIDRE: Well we treat them like human beings. They are human beings! I had a serious issue over the time that I have been dealing with the public housing issue. I have heard people use the term residents in a tone that reminds me of the phrase "illegal aliens." Now I prefer the term tenant in most instances for those who live in public housing. They are not residents or aliens but tenants of public housing. They do pay. Let's say "housing," not "projects." If you keep so when you talk to them you talk to them like a human being - they will act like a human being.
BILL: That's good. Language really does structure consciousness.
BILL: I will remember because that's the way I want to talk also. Again so much what the Coalition is about is building and preserving community.
DEIDRE: Yes, and therefore it is important that the people of Chicago hear us. That they understand what is happening. All over Chicago the tenants of housing developments are being forced to leave their homes. Those who stay because they have no where else are called squatters and arrested. These so-called squatters were tenants on CHA's waiting list. They became homeless while waiting for a new space. And the City is forcing these people out. And my question is, where do American values lie. The homeless are not being taken care of. There are not enough shelters. for people. Lower Wacker Drive [an area downtown in Chicago which runs under other streets and that has areas where the homeless can partly escape the effects of the weather] has been closed off for a while because they could't stand to see the homeless under there. Where are people going to go, if there is not enough places for the homeless to go? And the market is only for those who can afford market rate, then again where are the people being forced out of housing developments going to go? This is not only going to affect low income people but also middle class people. Because remember if the rates for low income housing goes up it will spiral up to affect the housing of middle class people.
BILL: And what you are going to have is like shanty towns with people living in scraps and cardboard boxes because they have nothing else.
DEIDRE: I don't think Mayor Daley would even allow shacks to be built here because of his thing about beautification of the city....But we aren't going to allow this to happen. We will stand up for the homeless and fight. At this point I will continue to organize to make people strong enough to understand that people are human beings, and their voices must be heard. I will continue to be an activist for the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. I will continue to learn. And I think as Chicago or American chooses to be unjust I will choose to fight.
BILL: The community as a foundation. It is the spirit of the community that you live in Deidre, that spurs the Coalition to Protect Public Housing on to greater and greater efforts. Please tell me more about the community you live in.
DEIDRE: Well we have young people. We have people who have lived here over forty years. We have an old church on the corner that houses many activities, one of which is an afterschool program which is run by the RMC. We call it the village center. Now for me this is the way it works. I can work here in the community. I can walk from my house to work. My children can attend the afterschool program that is run by people in my community. People that I know that my children will be safe with. I can walk to the grocery store from my house. I have a perfect example, I work two jobs by choice. A lighting business and doing taxes. And one night I ran a little over time. And looked up at the clock and it was like eight o'clock. My children had gotten out of school and gone to the afterschool program but it was over. And I came home all panic-prone. And that's when I realized that this was community. My children were at my neighbor's house sitting down having dinner safe. That's community. She had let my children in and fed them. But if I was to be moved somewhere out in the suburbs where no one knew me or my children and had an issue with their skin tone then my children would not be as safe.
BILL: You know the interesting thing that you are talking about in terms of community is the kind of thing that older people in this city remember. And what you have here in the Cabrini Green Row Houses in terms of community is not something that most people in this city have anymore. I don't care how much money they have or whether they live in an expensive Gold Coast highrise. Often times there are no relationships. Where you know who your neighbors are and can trust them. So what I am saying is that what you are building Deidre is very precious and has been lost in lots of other places. The Coalition to Protect Public Housing is not just fighting for public housing but really for the idea that community needs to exist and be supported in all areas of our city! Talk some more, Deidre, about the kind of opportunities that happen for you and your children in your neighborhood?
DEIDRE: Well we have a Local School Council that's pretty strong. And I have a personal relationship with my daughters' teachers. I can actually talk with my daughters' teachers at night. And you don't get that everywhere.
BILL: Wow! You don't get that anywhere.
DEIDRE: And because of this relationship that I have formed with my daughters teachers it has meant that my oldest daughter is two grades above her age group, and my youngest daughter one grade.
BILL: I'l1 bet you are proud.
DEIDRE: I am proud of that but it takes effort and a whole community for that to happen. The school and the nearby medical center, they give that effort. My doctor knows my children. My doctor knows my Grandmother. Its a community that we have here. That's it. And so it hurts when I see what is happening in this area. There is a new school being built now that $300,000 homes are being built up and down Division Street. We are asking ourselves, as African-Americans, as they have built a new library, a new shopping plaza with a Dominick's, etc. Š and we know they want us to leave our community. They are saying to us you do not deserve to be treated like people. It's in our face everywhere we turn. And personally I understand it. I am not a racist but I understand my her-history and at a point Europeans decided that they were superior and that they could push people around, Indians or whoever else they chose to push around. But sometimes you just got to drawn a line in the sand. And we decided to draw a line and stand here. And that's it!
BILL: Building a community and relationships.
DEIDRE: Yes. How to build community and keeping the community that people have already built from being destroyed.
BILL: Yes. Because you and I could write a book on the CHA and public housing. All the ins and outs on the issues. It's like a big cesspool that would leave the reader confused.
DEIDRE: Yes! Yes!
BILL: Of tentacles reaching this way and that and one guy who you think might be the best guy in the world and later you find out he's got little deals going this way and that. So it's hard to find the good guys because there is so much deal making going on and the ones who lose out are the people of the housing developments always! You are part of a community, Deidre. A vital community that can and must be strengthened. This is what must be said.
DEIDRE: Lets be clear we do want change in our neighborhoods. But people are concerned that the CHA doesn't know how to help a community without turning it into something that will no longer be a community.
BILL: I would hope that this article would be heard by people. I know there are people out there, particularly older people that are very angry about the fact that communities that they once lived in have been destroyed. I am over fifty and I remember what it was like to grow up in a neighborhood.
DEIDRE: When you say that about older people I hear that. I wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood where people didn't watch out for each other. I really have been blessed.
BILL: You know, Deidre, when they built the Dan Ryan Expressway and when they built the University of Illinois Circle Campus, those were neighborhoods that they destroyed. That was an old-time Italian neighborhood where the University is now. This was done by old man Daley and now his son is doing the same kind of thing all over town. Making money for developers and their kind. Such communities as Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Lakeview, Ukranian Village, have either been gentrified or are undergoing that process. The people who come in those gentrified areas are so-called 'Yuppies' with lots of money, often single and transient, who often will not be invested in making an area become a community. They often will not have the time to tackle the problems that will allow a community to flourish and grow. And coupled with all this is that the gentrification of an area destroys all of the good paying blue collar jobs. Rich folks and service jobs. Where does that leave working class folks?
DEIDRE: Trying to travel long distances in a car you cannot afford to a job that may not pay enough.
BILL: So itÕs in the best interest of everybody and this city to build communities with affordable housing and decent jobs, and keep those areas that already have a sense of community and see that they are not destroyed. A strong fabric of communities makes a strong city. Well I canÕt think of any thing else Deidre can you?
DEIDRE: No I think that's about it.
BILL: Well I think that you are terrific Deidre.
DEIDRE: You are also Bill. My concern is that I not be portrayed as hopeless or any of the other stereotypes about public housing. I live where I do by choice. Because I am part of a affordable community.
BILL: Thank you so much for your time Deidre.
If you would like to learn more about the Coalition and its work, they can be reached at: Coalition to Protect Public Housing Att. Carol Steele or Deidre Matthews 984 North Hudson Chicago, Illinois 60610; telephone #312.280.2298
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