S A B RINA NIX O N AGE: 43 OCCUPATION: Freelance writer, college student FORMER RESIDENT OF: Cabrini-Green We meet at a diner a few blocks away from the Wicker Park apartment Sabrina Nixon shares with her two sons, aged seventeen and twelve. Currently pursuing a degree in medical transcription, Sabrina has written several novels, a memoir, and a play. She recently penned an essay about the demolition of the Cabrini-Green high rises for the Chicago Tribuneâ€™s Red Eye daily supplement. Sabrina lived in Cabrini for twenty years from 1974 through 1993. She regularly ventured outside of her neighborhood in her youth, attending grammar school in the mixed-income Old Town (where her grandparents lived) and high school in the more affluent Lincoln Park. In her narrative, she describes how this shuttling required her to learn how to safely navigate gang territories. She also recounts her experience of witnessing her older sister being shot in their apartment, and the neglect of ambulance workers during this harrowing event.
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FROM REAL LIFE
Langston Hughes is one of my favorite authors. Back in grammar school, I had to recite his poem “Mother to Son” for a school play. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair . . .” I went to George Manierre School back then, up on Hudson, in Old Town, not far at all from Cabrini. We actually lived in Old Town until I was five, and then we moved to Cabrini. One thing I loved about Manierre was that our teachers made such a big deal out of Black History Month. You had to be a part of the Black History Month play. I don’t care if you were a tree, a plant, or something; you were going to be involved in the play. And I remember having to recite that Hughes poem, and I didn’t like it, because I didn’t really know the meaning of it. At Manierre, they focused a lot on reading. The teachers made sure we had good penmanship. They made sure we pronounced words properly and they really encouraged a love for books. Do you know the nonprofit called RIF? Reading Is Fundamental. They used to come around once every six months, and I looked forward to following the Encyclopedia Brown series through their book club. All the fast girls, they were into the Judy Blume books. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; and Blubber. I didn’t have to rush to go get Encyclopedia Brown, because I knew he was going to be there. All the other girls was beating each other up trying to get the next Judy Blume! I just strolled on over there, glanced on the table, “Oh, Encyclopedia Brown Goes to the Farm.” I hated it when I missed school the day RIF came, because that meant that someone else would pick out a book for me, and then I would get something like Spot Goes to the Farm, and I’d be so angry. That’s really when my love for reading started. As an adult, soon after I had my sons, I started writing. I kept a journal about everyday stuff. Later, I just fictionalized it. I’ve written a play, three novels, and my
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fourth book is like Christian nonfiction. It’s called Grace and Hope, and it’s about how God blesses me on a day-to-day basis, with me dealing with my lupus and my boys’ autism. I became interested in Langston Hughes again as an adult, once I started writing. I read his biography, and more about how he used the urban experience for the backdrop of his works. The “Mother to Son” poem, I understand it now. I tell my son, “Life ain’t that easy,” which is what that poem meant. One of my favorite Hughes poems is “The Ballad of the Landlord.” The speaker is basically threatening the landlord, like “come and see about what I want.” Langston Hughes wrote so many good, funny poems, and they come from real life. I T ’ S E Q U A L , B U T S E PA R AT E
Some of the most vivid memories I have of Cabrini-Green are from when I was a teenager in the 80s. That was when the neighborhood became more crime-ridden. There was a lot of gang activity. A lot of shootings. Wasn’t too much drug activity back then. Crime was related to territory, turf, like the movie The Warriors. You couldn’t wear certain colors. Stupid things like that. Remember the phrase “separate but equal”? In Cabrini-Green, it’s kind of reversed. Equal, but separate. Cabrini-Green is one big community, but it’s sectioned off into different neighborhoods. Everyone there is equal as far as having low incomes. But the separate part is the location of where each building is. We had the Reds and the Whites. Within those communities, you had buildings going against each other. I vividly remember heading to school every day, walking into my old neighborhood. There’s different gangs over there. The Vice Lords were over in the Old Town area versus the Gangster Disciples inside of Cabrini-Green. We pretty much took a chance with our lives just going to school. We had a boundary. Larrabee Street. Once you crossed that 117
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street, you were in a whole new ground of gang activity. I remember getting phone calls from my mom, if we were at school, or at my grandmother’s saying, “Okay, don’t come home right now, because they’re shooting.” Sometimes it could be days before the shooting subsided. We’d stay over at my grandmother’s, at 1426 Mohawk, about a mile away. That was the most frustrating and critical time, just trying to go out, just doing every day things, and my mom, you know, she was so worried. A PERSON SHOT THROUGH OUR DOOR
It happened when I was thirteen years old. It happened at nighttime. It must have been summer, because in Cabrini, most of us would leave our front doors open when it was warm out. My oldest sister was eighteen and she was dating someone who was at the house that night. Me, my parents, my older sister, my middle sisters, and one of my brothers—we all were there. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister at the time. The guy my older sister was dating, he wasn’t a gang member. He was just on the wrong turf. My sister’s boyfriend was “from the other end,” as they called it, from over near Old Town. That night I was braiding my older sister’s hair, with my back turned toward the door. We had the front door open, and I got up to close it. A minute after I closed it and was heading back through the apartment, a loud bang went off. I probably thought somebody threw a firecracker at our house. We heard firecrackers all the time. But a person had shot through our door, and my older sister was wounded. We think that someone used a sawed-off shotgun. Cabrini was brick inside and out. The door wasn’t steel, but it was really thick, good quality wood. The thickness of the door must have 118
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slowed the force of the bullet. My sister was shot in the back of the head. So much of what happened afterwards is just a blur. We lived on the thirteenth floor and I think my father had to walk down the stairs with my older sister. The elevator wasn’t working and no ambulance came. My father wouldn’t have been able to catch a taxicab. You rarely saw cabs in the neighborhood because of the gang activity, so my father must have drove. My mother went with them. They went to the local hospital, Henrotin, over on Oak. My sister was treated there for maybe a couple of weeks. I remember when she came home, her face was really, really swollen. She didn’t suffer brain damage. The shooting didn’t paralyze her. She survived, but to this day, she still has buckshot in her. When it rains, she feels sore and stiff. She still has pain. The thing about ambulance and police at Cabrini is that when there were reports of shooting, they’d come eventually, but they didn’t come right away. It wasn’t a hurry. Police knew that shootings happened in the neighborhood on a constant basis. Nine times out of ten, they weren’t going to risk their lives when they knew it was plain-out gang activity going on. It was the norm, so to speak. I’m sure that’s how a lot of them looked at it. They’ll just kill each other off. They didn’t care. For months after the shooting happened, me and my younger siblings were afraid to walk past the door. The way our house was set up, the bedrooms were in the back and to get to the living room or the kitchen, you had to walk past the door. I was fearful to go the kitchen or the front room. I didn’t want to pass the entrance because I was scared someone was going to shoot through the door again. I didn’t have nightmares or anything like that, but I had a fear of walking past that door. My younger sister would just run past it when she was going to the kitchen. It was pretty much the same thing with me. When the door was open, it was fine, but once it was closed, that’s when the fear came.