Rootless

Annie Ricks made history as the final tenant to move out of the last public housing high-rise in Chicago. The demolition was supposed to clear the way to better housing, but the former Cabrini-Green resident hasn’t found it yet.

Photo by Lucio Villa

Annie Ricks made history as the final tenant to move out of the last public housing high-rise in Chicago. The demolition was supposed to clear the way to better housing, but the former Cabrini-Green resident hasn’t found it yet.

She’d said farewell to the neighbors, and her boxes were packed. Moving day had finally arrived, and reporters were on hand to witness the historic event. Annie Ricks was met by applause as she wheeled her belongings out of her apartment building one last time.

The then-54-year-old’s move was heralded as marking the “end of an era” because, on Dec. 9, 2010, she became the final tenant to move out of the last standing public housing high-rise in Chicago. A year later, 1230 N. Burling St. was torn down as part of a larger, decadelong strategy by the Chicago Housing Authority to eliminate tens of thousands of substandard and poorly managed units.

By sheer chance, Ricks, and her children, became the public faces of the families who would see their lives improve because of the redevelopment plan. “We see one door closing and another door opening,” Lewis A. Jordan, the former CHA chief executive told a reporter at the time.

It’s been nearly two years since Ricks and her family relocated to a new apartment on the city’s South Side. For her, tearing down her former building has done little to wipe away the deep poverty that she’s been trying to escape since she moved into the Cabrini-Green neighborhood nearly a quarter of a century ago.

It began one snowy afternoon in 1989, when Ricks dragged her eldest son, an eighth-grader at the time, on a five-mile hike from Central Park Avenue and Jackson Boulevard on Chicago’s West Side to the main office of the Cabrini-Green public housing complex.

Ricks was feeling especially desperate. She and her five children had spent the night before sleeping in the lobby of the old Cook County Hospital’s walk-in clinic. For two weeks, they’d slipped into the pharmacy area at night. As Ricks watched the children sleep, all she could think of was how she was failing them.

At one point, she asked the hospital’s child welfare workers to take the children. “They say, ‘Miss Ricks, you’re crazy. These kids is well-dressed and they well-fed. And you want to give them to us?’” she recalled.

As Ricks approached the brick building, she saw a glimmer of hope where most outsiders only saw despair. Her name had been added to the public housing waitlist months earlier when her apartment building burned to the ground, and the wait was getting more agonizing by the day.

“I say, ‘I’m not leaving outta here until ya’ll give me something,’” said Ricks chuckling about storming into the management office that December day. Ricks knew that there were empty apartments at Cabrini. Her hope was to pressure the CHA into filling them. “I say, ‘If I have to, I’ll call [channels] 2, 5, 7, and 9.’ I say, ‘Walter Jacobson love news.’”

A CHA staffer relented and walked her over to an unfinished fifth-floor apartment at 660 W. Division St. “The windows still had boards on it,” Ricks said. “And it wasn’t nothing fixed up.”

She accepted anyway: “I wasn’t used to no high-rise building but … I had to take what I [could] get for my children.”

Ricks went on to raise 13 children in that brick high-rise. Odds are that she’d still be there today, if the building were still standing.

Now Ricks lives at Wentworth Gardens, a well-manicured subdivision of squat brick buildings that sit just west of the Dan Ryan expressway along 38th Street. She was skittish about moving to the public housing complex with its own history of drugs, gangs and violence, but she didn’t have many apartments to choose from. The process of rebuilding public housing has been slow going. On the old Cabrini site, for example, just one unit stands for every 10 that have been torn down. And nearly 35,000 families are on a waitlist hoping for something to open up.

Four of Ricks’ children live with her at Wentworth Gardens. The apartment is jammed with boxes; some haven’t been unpacked since the move from Cabrini.

Aside from pictures Scotch taped to the white drywall and a collection of trophies that her 13 children brought home over the years, decorations are sparse in the living room. A picture of President Barack Obama clipped from a newspaper hangs in the middle of the wall. The others are of family. On the window sill rests dozens of trophies for baseball, basketball, soccer, math, reading and perfect attendance.

Her family is still faced with the ugly truths that come along with living in an impoverished neighborhood; the community is gang-infested, and most people around them are barely scraping by.

But there is one major difference, Ricks said. “At least when we was at Cabrini, we had people who was looking out for each other.”

When her family arrived at Wentworth Gardens, the neighbors didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat. One of her sons and a grandson have been jumped three times now. And her apartment was recently ransacked. She has decided that the neighborhood is no longer safe. In June, she filed for an emergency relocation. She’s waiting for the CHA’s response.

Ricks has since sent her sons to stay at her daughter’s South Side apartment until another unit opens up.

In her eyes, the trouble has a lot to do with the fact that they’re transplants from Cabrini.

“They’re not only on my family,” she said. Others who have moved to Wentworth from now-demolished public housing buildings along the State Street corridor—like Harold Ickes and Stateway Gardens—have been harassed or jumped as well. It’s a complaint made by families across the city that have been consolidated in communities where neighborhood allegiances run deep.

“People said, ‘Go back where you came from,’” Ricks said.

Since leaving Cabrini, even Ricks doesn’t see the “new” neighborhood that replaced her old one as a place where she belongs.

Most of the public housing buildings are long gone. She can’t see herself in one of the replacement condos because she imagines that she’d end up feeling like a guest in her own home, like many public housing residents do at the new mixed-income sites. She was offered one of the few remaining public housing units, a rowhouse, at Cabrini. But security is an issue there as well.

“There’s a lot of shooting going on,” Ricks said. Two recent shooting victims were students whom Ricks watched grow up at Schiller and Sojourner Truth elementary schools, where she worked as an aide until they were shuttered alongside the public housing around them. “Why should I go from harm and danger back to harm and danger?”

And she fears that if she moved into a rowhouse—where three of every four units are currently vacant—she’ll be sent packing soon. “Why should I go back over to Cabrini-Green if they’re going to tear it down in a year?”

Ricks is a slender woman with shiny skin that’s dotted with freckles. She wears her hair pulled back tightly in braids. Born in Alabama, she was the baby of the family. Her mom was a broke, single parent who grew up picking cotton and then became a house keeper. “When she was in Alabama, she took care of—well I’m just gonna say it—white children. ’Cause that’s what she did,” Ricks said. That family paid her mother $2 a day to be their maid and nanny.

Rick’s older brother was the first of her siblings to move to Chicago. He rented an apartment at 13th Street and California Avenue. Then at age 10, Ricks and her mother arrived in Chicago from Riverview, Ala. They lived in the same apartment building as her brother. She went on to graduate from Harrison High School in the ’70s and stayed on the West Side for about 20 years.

It’s been five decades since Ricks left Alabama, but she’s still got a Southern touch about her—especially when it comes to manners. Every time her voice booms with frustration, she follows up with, “But I ain’t mad.” It’s always in a far more reserved tone.

For now, she’s got her heart set on an apartment in a “better neighborhood.” Her first pick was Archer Courts, a public housing development just around the corner from Chinatown.

“I want to be there ’cause there’s no hanging on the corner, there’s not too many liquor stores in the area and there’s no broken glass out on the sidewalk—none of that type of stuff,” she said. After three people were gunned down in Rick’s backyard in late August, Ricks said the move can’t come fast enough. “They’re not going to put my family in danger anymore.”

Contributing: Safiya Merchant. 

acaputo@chicagoreporter.com

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