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AGE: 83

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We first meet on a sunny day in March 2011, at a coffeehouse situated about a mile north of Dolores’s new apartment in the Dearborn Homes. Dearborn Homes is a public housing complex situated at the crossroads between Bronzeville (to the south), the McCormick Place convention center (to the east), Chinatown (to the west), and the Chicago Loop (to the north). Dearborn Homes was one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s first public housing developments and remains one of the last standing—it now houses mostly senior residents. Dolores was relocated here last month after living in Cabrini-Green for the last fifty-three years, from 1958 until 2011. As we talk, Dolores is clearly distraught at the thought of her old building’s scheduled demolition. “So many of my treasures are still there,” she says. She goes on to catalog some of the valuables (family photos, trophies, clothing, books) that she had to leave behind during the hasty relocation process. Days after our conversation, 1230 N. Burling—Dolores’s former home, and one of the last public housing high rises left standing in Chicago—was demolished.

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I was born in Chicago in 1929. Cook County Hospital, Ward 32. I think that’s the sterile ward. They had 31 and 32. If you’re born outside the ward, your baby’s un-sterile ’cause you could catch anything in the hallway.

After I got grown and got married and started having children, my mother told me the Cook County Hospital is the best hospital to go to. She said, “They have the best doctors.” And I soon found out why, because it was like a charity hospital. You’re not turned around. They can treat this, treat that, the doctors are learning all that they didn’t get in school.

I had Chichi and Debbie at Cook County Hospital. Cheryl was born at Provident. Mike and Kenny were born at home. Those were the easiest births I had, Mike and Kenny. Chichi almost died because he was breech. Feet first. If the instrument that the doctors used to turn the baby had not been there, I would have died. But it was there when they needed it. I wrote my mother a postcard, and I said on it: “I almost died!” When I got home she said, “You don’t never write nothing like that on a postcard where the mailman and everybody can read it!”

They had this nice sudsy water or some kind of solution and a swab, and they would just clean you afterwards. Couldn’t nobody get an infection or anything in there. I loved the County. I don’t know how it was after years went by. I hate that they’re tearing it down. That whole hospital—they could have made it for the homeless. They had everything: toilets, kitchen, everything. All they had to do was just get security to make sure nobody was causing any problems. Now they gonna tear down Michael Reese Hospital too,2 for some kind of high rise. Chicago is a capitalistic town, is all I gotta say. And that’s why we’re not in Cabrini anymore.

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I lived in Cabrini-Green for fifty-three years. My husband Hubert and I raised five children there. When we moved there in ’58 the oldest was eight, the youngest were two and one, and we loved Cabrini. Where we’d been living on South Side, on Sixtieth and Prairie, they were like fire traps. The buildings were just deteriorating. The placement at the private real estate office would charge us ten dollars to find an apartment, and at that time ten dollars was a lot of money. But we paid it, and everywhere they sent us were nothing but fire traps. They were no good, and some of them said they didn’t want children ’cause they throw rocks and break windows—like every child will throw rocks and break windows.

So I kept looking, and after a while I thought, Well, Altgeld Gardens and Cabrini was offered to us by the city.2 I wanted Altgeld Gardens, ’cause the complex was made up of family homes, with little front yards and backyards, but the city buses near there ran on a slow schedule, and I didn’t want to be slowed down by anything. When I was ready to go out of the house and go somewhere, I wanted a bus that was coming in the next two minutes or something. So that’s what made me ask directions all the way to Cabrini-Green. And I loved the apartment. The apartment had three bedrooms, and it was on the fourteenth floor. When I first stepped off the elevators and looked out over the railing I thought I was going to faint! I’d never been up that high. The cars below looked like little toys. I didn’t even try to look at anything. I just looked down to see how high up I was. But after a while you get to liking everything. Just like with people, I don’t care what neighborhood you’re in. I don’t care if it’s a diverse area or what, after a while you get to love and know your neighbors and everything and get along. That’s the way it was with me and that fourteenth floor.

Me and Martha Williams, who is still my very good girlfriend, we were the first two families to move into 1117 Cleveland. She was on the second floor. After they started moving more people in on the floor, you get to have neighbors and all, and in the back of my mind I’m wondering, How this heifer gonna be? And I was thinking, I don’t want to be up here fighting nobody, telling me that they smell garlic. I’m using that as an example, ’cause we did have Puerto Rican neighbors, like the Montanes, who cooked a lot of garlic. I can’t stand the smell of a lot of garlic. Makes me sick. But they were wonderful people and even though they were young, my children always wanted to go to church with the Montanes. I was so happy to know that somebody on the same floor is taking time with my children. And they had about four or five of their own. Taking them to church. And they would cry, “Mom, I want to go to church with Miss Montanes! I wanna go to church with the Montanes!” My son Michael was the main one begging to go with them. And I’d be glad. The kids went with them all the time.

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Ten years later, around 1968, we moved from 1117 because my husband’s boss wanted him to be the assistant head custodian in one of the Green buildings, and that meant maintaining a whole building. My husband’s boss was moving out, and he wanted my husband to take his place. I thought that was such an honor, but the assistant heads and the heads had to live in the building that they care for. That’s why we had to move on to 1230 N. Burling. I was so mad that we had to leave our home. That’s how attached you get to people. Ooohhh, I cried the whole time! My next door neighbor, Queenie, we were like sisters, and so she and her husband and her daughters and son helped my family move with some of the guys in the neighborhood. And when I got off from working at the Water Department that day, everything was in divine order cause I’d marked on the boxes, This goes in this room, that goes in that room. Curtains were hung and everything. I was on the sixth floor and we had four bedrooms and a bath and a half. I said, “Oooh, this is a castle.” But I still was around strangers.

The move to Burling happened right after the ’68 riots, after King3 was killed. I remember my son Kenny, who was about twelve at the time, was heading out the door when the riots first started, and he said, “Mom, I’m going over to Pioneer.” That was the grocery store nearest in the neighborhood. And I said, “Going for what?” They were rioting everywhere. And the police didn’t care. They had the National Guard, but as long as you didn’t go east across Wells, you would be safe. No harm would come to you. You could tear up everything else on that side, because the Chicago Police Department didn’t care about the stores and businesses. And you know, most of the businesses didn’t come back.

And I said, “What are you going out there for?”

He said, “I’m gonna get a shopping cart.”

He wanted to join the looters.

I said, “No you’re not.”

And he said, “Everybody else is.”

I said, “You don’t do what everybody else does. You do what I tell you to do.”

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After a while, my husband became head janitor. So we lived rent-free. I’m telling you, I could see myself with a home in the sky. But the more money you get, the more money you spend. But it was wonderful, you know. And everybody, they just loved our family. They really loved my husband. All he was supposed to do as head janitor was just work with a pen and paper. But he didn’t know nothing about doing no easy work. He wanted to help push and pull the garbage, and help with everything.

They called him “Old Man.” They said, “Old Man, we got this, we got this.” So they would help him push the dumpster. That building was spotless. People loved my husband, so they wouldn’t even throw anything down on the floor.

I would come home and he’d tell me about his day and I’d tell him about mine. I worked for the Water Department. It was a secretarial job in payroll, and it was nice. Office was in the Pumping Station over on Chicago and Michigan, on the Magnificent Mile. Across from the Water Tower. Then they moved us to the purification plant near Navy Pier.

When we were at 1117 Cleveland, my husband started a drum and bugle corps. And there were kids from 1117 and 1119 Cleveland, and kids from certain buildings in our area and across the street from the Green section. And they were in three or four Saint Patrick’s Day parades. And they weren’t even in full uniform ’cause they didn’t have the money for uniforms. They would practice outside on the black top or Father Sebastian would let them come to Saint Joseph Church and practice in their school’s gym. But then it at all changed after the ’68 riots.

More people moved in from other places that had been affected by the riots. We started seeing gang writings on the wall. Sniping at different buildings. Snipers were a problem for many years. These people would set up in a window of the towers and just shoot at anyone. Two police got killed.4 I remember one day, a cop car was sent to my building and someone was sniping at them from the building facing my lot. And one young girl I remember seeing, she had on a trench coat. She was really running across the lot. When she got to the building, the back of her coat had caught a whole lot of buckshot. It was a miracle she wasn’t hurt.

The Eighteenth Police District, they sent Commander Brash and Mr. Fred Rice, who passed recently, and they worked with us and they had officers patrolling in that area, so the kids in the drum and bugle corps were protected when they were coming to practice. They’d have patrols watching them coming and going. That’s how they got safe passage from Saint Joseph’s Church to our building.

My husband worked with kids for many years. He had a basketball team and a baseball team. Those teams won trophies. The drum and bugle corps got twenty-three trophies without even being in full dress. The kids played music by ear, and when they played that “Watermelon Man,” boy, people would be looking. “Oh, where’s that music coming from?” Especially in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. People be amazed. Where’s that music?

They were called the Corsairs, my husband’s group. My son Mike, he played that timbale, that’s the three drums. Dolores, stop bragging! Okay. Can’t help bragging. And all the gals liked him. There were the flag girls and the rifle girls. You know, the ones that twirl the rifles and the girls that twirl the flag. You know, all they say is: practice makes perfect. Beautiful! They were beautiful together. So when my husband passed away in 1981, one of the guys in the corps said, “Momma Wilson, what we gotta do is have a concert every May 11.” That’s the day my husband passed. He said we were gonna have a day to celebrate—a day for my husband. But it never came through because this one’s living here, that one’s living there.

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I was the president of our Building Council for ten years after my husband passed away, from about ’83 to ’93. That’s how I got into the Local Advisory Council and residents’ management program. Every building had a Building Council, but in the late eighties, the residents in 1230 N. Burling started taking resident management courses. We pulled together and handled everything except the electricity and plumbing. The residents had jobs—work order clerk, janitors, maintenance men, secretary, treasurer, everything. We even collected the rent. Eventually our building was rehabbed after we went into resident management. All of the blinds, all of the kitchen, the refrigeration, double-pane windows, everything was brand new. I believe 1230 N. Burling was the first building in Cabrini-Green that went into resident management. The first President Bush, Daddy Bush, named us “a model for the nation.” We met with Jack Kemp and then Henry Cisneros in Washington, D.C. And our building was incorporated in 1992.5

Back when I first got started, at my first meeting as president of the Building Council, there was a room of people—old, young, middle-aged—waiting to hear from me. I was so happy when I came in and saw all these people in there, but then I got so flustered I didn’t even know what to say. “A dah-dah-dah-dah-dap. Uh-uh-uh dip-dip-dip-dip… we’ll have a striptease next week!” I didn’t know what to say, you know, all the different ages, waiting to hear from me. People with little babies and guys in there that belonged to gangs. Everyone was giving me suggestions. We can do this with the building, we can do that with the building.

But what really took off was working with the little kids. The grown folks, the older ones, they would make their appearances at meetings for maybe a few months, but the little kids, they’re the ones that kept working with me, improving the building, picking up trash. “You better pick! Ooh, I’m going to tell Miss Wilson you threw that paper on the floor.” They’d pick up that litter and throw it in the garbage. I’d put homemade paper badges on the kids saying they’re elevator monitors, so that folks don’t get on and leave trash. I’d have two on at a time and they worked those elevator buttons. They didn’t even want to get off.

The older kids—the boys—they didn’t join gangs because they wanted to, but in the eighties, with other gangs moving into the neighborhood, this made them form gangs in response, for self-protection. Gangs that didn’t even have names. Even I wanted to carry a gun. There was so much slicing and shooting and carrying on. I said, “I’m gonna start shooting back,” but I didn’t have no gun. One lady was shot at who had a baby in the stroller. They were just sniping from that one building, I’m telling you. And 1150 and 1160 Sedgwick. One group just took over those two buildings, and guys that used to live in the building had to go along.

My very good girlfriend, she moved over there on Sedgwick, I guess ’cause she wanted a larger place, I don’t know. But that made her son, you know, when in Rome do as the Romans do. So a lot of ’em had to be a part of that gang. Now, I’m so glad to know that this guy, he’s into the Word. He sang at a funeral for a friend of ours and to hear him speak, you wouldn’t ever think he had to pick up a gun. A lot of them, they have to join—either you shoot me or I shoot you.

The way our building was, if you come out one side you had to shoot, and if you came out the other side there was another gang waiting for you. Oooh, it was terrible. August 5, 1991, my son Michael was standing in front of our church at the corner of Hobbie and Larrabee, which is Holy Family Lutheran, the same church I’ve been going to now for forty-three years. And he got shot right there, standing there. The shot came somewhere from way up high. The bullet came straight through him. He died. He must have been forty years old.

A lot of folks knew who did it, and when the detectives came, I’m trying to tell one of the detectives who did it. He’d say, “Well, it’s just hearsay, we don’t know, we don’t know.” But I know. I heard who did it. I told him, “I want you to go up there.” They wouldn’t even go, ’cause a lot of times they don’t even care. That’s what bothers me.

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Not too long after my son got killed, must have been in the fall of ’91, I was at a benefit dinner, something to do with my community work, and this reporter came up to me and said, “Aren’t you Ms. Wilson?” When I said that I was, he said, “Aren’t you afraid of living in Cabrini with all this shooting and stuff?” I said, “No. I even leave out at night and go to the store,” which I did. I said, “Only time I’m afraid is when I’m outside of the community. In Cabrini, I’m just not afraid.” It’s like I told my boss, “If I’m going to live somewhere all these years and be scared, I’m crazy.”

In ’93 I retired after nearly thirty years of service with the city. I got some congratulatory letters and tapes that people made for me. Janitors and clerks and everybody. Over the years on the job, so many people there wanted to ask me how I survived Cabrini. They had extreme ideas about what was happening there. I’d get to work in the morning and somebody would come up to me: “Ooh, Dolores. Did you get hurt? I read in the newspaper about this and that shooting.” I’d say, “I don’t know nothing about it.” What got to me was the reporters didn’t put down no address in their stories. Cabrini is a big neighborhood, from Halsted down to Sedgwick. But the news would just say, “It happened at Cabrini,” and a lot of times, things would happen outside of Cabrini or nearby and they still pinned it on Cabrini. So folks wouldn’t want to come up in there. Even my own brother. He would flat out refuse.

One day, I’m waiting on the bus in the dead of winter, to get to work. Waited so long I finally tried to flag a cab down. One guy stopped and said, “My boss told me not to pick up anybody in Cabrini, said if anything happen to me or this cab, my family don’t get no compensation or anything.” And then he said, “But I’m picking you up. You look like a nice lady.” I said, “I am a nice lady.” I could hardly lift my hands to shut the cab door, they were so frozen cold.

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My building, 1230 N. Burling, is still standing. Supposed to knock it down in just a few days. When the last family was moving out, I felt so sorry for the lady who had just moved out of one building that they tore down. Everybody in that building had to move. You know, it’s sad when you get a little age on you, you got your place the way you want it to be, and then they’re talking about how you got to move.

When they told us that we had to leave, I’m thinking, fifty-three years in Cabrini. They gave us letters letting us know how many days. I think it was maybe 120 days, and I thought, Oh, well I got time to move. But I was still surprised. I thought that they were only going to tear down the buildings that were degraded and not working. It was such a rush to do this and do that. And it was hard for me. I was eighty-two years old when I moved. I didn’t want to give up my apartment, and it was only two bedrooms. By then, I was on the eighth floor. Me and my youngest son, Kenny, we were the only ones still there, till he passed four years ago. But it was still my home and it held everything I owned since we were in 1117 Cleveland, including memories.

I had so many mementos and they made me move too fast to hold on to them. Now I cannot find my wedding pictures. I don’t have one picture of me and my husband and my parents and his parents and our wedding cake that my aunt made. She had a bakery and I cannot find that one picture. I can’t find a picture from one of our meetings with Bertha Gilkey. She was a public housing activist from St. Louis. Bush came. Daddy Bush. And he met with all the board, not all the residents. We met with Bush and he had his picture made with each one of us. I can’t find that picture either. My husband and I went to Jamaica so many times. I don’t have one picture from Jamaica. My sisters and I went to the Bahamas two or three times. I don’t have a picture of that. It was in the house. I’d boxed it, and I’m trying to think ’cause things was happening so fast, and they were telling you you gotta get out by this that and other, you know. My husband’s trophies are gone now. I didn’t have the help to get those out of the closet, you know, and no boxes! I just had to leave them.

And I said, “Oh well.” Now my stuff is probably off in some dump.

I got a brick from Cabrini, from our first building at 1117 Cleveland. And I got a brick from when I traveled over to St. Louis with Bertha and a group of public housing resident leaders; got a brick from where Pruitt–Igoe6 once was. I saw the remains. Said it was gonna be a huge parking lot.

The last day I was allowed to be in 1230 N. Burling, I was so happy that the manager let me go back in there. Mostly I went in looking for my wedding picture. And three times she let me in. I thought that was so nice of her, ’cause I didn’t think she had to. But I was still rushing and I just couldn’t find that wedding picture. You see, I didn’t have a pickup truck or anything to help me put stuff in storage—I couldn’t afford it, and they didn’t provide. They didn’t give me nearly enough boxes! And I didn’t find out there was storage for people who were forced out. Didn’t learn that until the day the movers showed up. But, oh well.

A lot of people had to move. Everybody, you know, you look out the window, you see long trucks. This one moving, that one moving. Different ones were using different vehicles, pickup trucks or whatever. I just didn’t have it together. They gave me and my daughter one long truck. We were each supposed to have one truck because she was moving to a new place, too, so I was rushing and I didn’t pack what I needed. And if I didn’t get out on time, I’d have to pay rent for both places.

Everybody was moving in all directions. The housing office kind of steered you to where they wanted you to go. I’d been interested in Hilliard Homes7 and Parkside,8 but they said those places weren’t taking applications. Quite a few of us headed to the Dearborn Homes, where I live now. My daughter’s right nearby. But we’re not all in the same building. The people I’ve known from Cabrini are all in different buildings. And when we see each other, it’s “Ohhh ahh!” Like we haven’t seen each other for a thousand years. And a lot of them, their sons come to visit, “How you doing, Ms. Wilson?” ’Cause I’m there by myself. “Are you all right? You being taken care of okay?” And they come back and keep checking. “You want anything from the store?” All times of day and night they stopping in, I can hardly rest, but I get up anyway and say, “Thank you for coming.” Young guys, their mommas probably send ’em to ask me. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s family. That’s what it is.

I’m still getting used to things at Dearborn Homes. It’s like that song says, “a house is not a house, a home is not a home” until you live there. My new place is okay, but I’d really like to be in a larger space. I always joke that I can sit on my sectional couch and cook on my stove! It’s okay. It’s not Cabrini. It’s funny—now I like to be up high! I like to see the sun set, but from where I am now, I can’t see anything set. From my window, I see the building in front of me and the parking lot and a little bit of the street, and I can also see the playground. God is good all the time. You know, for a while I was so stuck on seeing the sun set, one night I saw the moon, and I got all excited and said, “Ooh, thank you, Father. Thank you, Father.” He said, “Where have you been staring all these years?” I was stuck on the sun setting, and he said, “Look at the moon.”

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1 Michael Reese Hospital was founded on the Near South Side of Chicago in 1880. Its founding mission was to serve all Chicagoans without regard to race, creed, or nationality.

2 In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working class and two parent. Rents in CHA housing units were determined by building maintenance costs, not family income. Not until the 1970s, with the passage of the Brooke Amendment at the federal level, was rent indexed to 25 percent of family income, then later 30 percent.

3 Martin Luther King, Jr.

4 In 1970, Sergeant James Severin and Officer Tony Rizzato were crossing a field when they were shot and killed by a sniper positioned in an upper-story of a Cabrini-Green high rise.

5 Jack Kemp was Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President George H. W. Bush, from 1989–1993 and Henry Cisneros was Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Bill Clinton, from 1993–1997. 1230 N. Burling was the first of Chicago’s high rises to be granted resident management status, a designation applied nationally under the first Bush administration to provide Federal dollars directly to public housing residents to develop and manage their buildings. By 1997, seven Cabrini-Green buildings were under resident control, as well as parts of Dearborn Homes and LeClaire Courts.

6 Built in 1954, the Pruitt–Igoe housing development of St. Louis was one of the first high rise housing developments in the U.S., and also one of the first to be demolished.

7 A forty-nine-year-old public housing structure on the Near South Side, consists of two sixteen-story buildings reserved for elder housing and two eighteen-story buildings reserved for low-income family housing.

8 A mixed-use development of townhouses on the Near North Side, blocks away from where the Cabrini-Green high rises once stood.

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