Living up to a legacy of activism

Vincent Davis, left, who has always lived in the Cabrini-Green housing complex, hopes to become the next president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council. He stands with his best friend James Fitch, who also grew up in Cabrini-Green.

Sophia Nahli Allison

Vincent Davis, left, who has always lived in the Cabrini-Green housing complex, hopes to become the next president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council. He stands with his best friend James Fitch, who also grew up in Cabrini-Green.

In 2011, the Chicago Housing Authority razed the last of the high-rises at Cabrini-Green public housing development, allowing developers to build new apartments, a Target and a Starbucks. New arrivals in the neighborhood call the area “Old Town” or the “Near North Side.” But Vincent Davis, who has lived in Cabrini-Green his entire life, just calls the neighborhood “home.” He currently lives with his girlfriend in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses.

Davis, 59, comes from a line of community activists. His mother, Lillian Davis Swope, was known as the “heart of Cabrini-Green.” She served as the president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, a group that advocates on behalf of residents. She passed away in 2008. Davis’s cousin, Carol Steele, is now president of the Cabrini-Green LAC. And Davis could be next.

The Cabrini-Green LAC is currently embroiled in litigation with the CHA. Of the 584 units in the rowhouses, only 137 are occupied. Many residents left the rowhouses with the promise that they could return once renovations were completed. But in 2011, the CHA announced that the rowhouses would be converted to a mixed-income development with only a small percentage of units reserved for public housing residents. As a member of the Cabrini-Green LAC, Davis has encouraged residents to sign a petition demanding that the CHA act on its promise to reserve the rowhouses for public housing.

“We suffered enough with the high-rise,” Davis said. “Now, we’re at peace. I’m fighting to keep the peace.”

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Davis to discuss his life in Cabrini-Green as well as his dreams for the community.

What would you do as Cabrini-Green LAC president?

My goal is to reopen the site and have different nationalities in the community. [The CHA] seems like they want to tear down the rowhouses. My goal is to reopen the rowhouses, bring in more low-income people and have a mixed-income community. … There are a lot of homeless people out there. We could open the rowhouses for them in this really cold weather.

What are some of your personal goals?

My goal in life is to have a nice, big old house on a farm, where I can raise some cows and some horses and some chicks and feel comfortable. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be comfortable and enjoy my family. [Cabrini-Green] is not a bad area, but right now, I don’t have a steady job. You have subsidized housing, which is very good for low-income people. … But I don’t feel that I want to be in that category, where I have to live off the government. I want to have my own money and do it the way I want to do it. … When you die, you want to have some success in your life that you did on your own without the government.

If you became the next Cabrini-Green LAC president, could you still accomplish your personal goals?

It’s not just my dream. The people that I have lived in Cabrini with—all my sisters and brothers—they have moved out of Cabrini. … Growing up in the projects was not easy. I was a delivery boy afraid to go into the high-rises, but I had to go to buy my own gym shoes. It wasn’t a good experience because it wasn’t guaranteed that when you got your $3 or $4 that you wouldn’t be robbed by the time you got out of the building. I wouldn’t say that back in those days—the ’70s to the ’90s—it was nice.

I used to call [Cabrini-Green] the “little Vietnam.” We used to have baseball fields. To get to the rowhouses, you would have to walk across the baseball fields. You couldn’t guarantee that you were going to make it across that field because someone would try to snipe you out from one of the buildings, while not caring about who you are. … They shot out of one of the 19-story buildings at 500 W. Oak St. and shot my sister and my mom in the thigh. … I would like to move on. But my mom was the president. My cousin is the president now. My purpose for Cabrini now is to not let them tear down the rowhouses. Our goal is to keep low-income people right here so that we won’t be homeless again or something like that. Without the CHA, you would have millions homeless now, and God knows that I don’t want to be homeless.

What kept you from going through more difficult times while growing up?

My mother was a religious person. She made sure that we went to Sunday school. We had the tradition of sitting down on Sunday and eating as a family. … I try to keep our tradition. On Sunday, we sit down at the table and pray and unite with my family. I find myself doing the things that my mom brought me up doing.

How would you stay involved if you moved out of public housing?

I would still try to stay in the community as a community representative. But you never forget where your roots come from. This here is my roots.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.