In the summer of 2003 Louis Carter decided to organize a little reunion in Seward Park of friends he'd grown up with in nearby Cabrini-Green. They joked that they had to hurry because the neighborhood was changing so fast they might not be welcome anymore. Several Cabrini high-rises between Chicago Avenue and Division Street had already been torn down, part of the massive, federally funded Plan for Transformation the city launched in the mid-90s. "You blink and something's changed," says Carter, who works for the secretary of state and still lives nearby. "It was like, 'Let's party in the old hood one last time.'"
This past summer a couple of Carter's old Cabrini buddies, Lawrence Green and Marvin Tolbert, decided to have another party in the park. "We didn't make a big deal about it," says Green. "Just come on over to Hill and Orleans after the sun goes down and join the party." They held it on a Monday, and it was so much fun they decided to have another party the following Monday. Then they decided to do it again. As June stretched into July they realized no one wanted to stop. "It hit the grapevine--folks just started telling other folks," says Green. "And soon people would be just driving up from everywhere every Monday." The party got so popular they gave it a name--Old School Monday, a reference, Green says, to the fact that most of the attendees were "getting up there a bit."
For years so many of the stories out of Cabrini have been about murder and mayhem. The Chicago Historical Society recently had an exhibit on the Chicago Housing Authority's transformation plan, and one wall caption read, "In the 1940s and 1950s the Frances Cabrini Homes, on Chicago's Near North Side, were characterized by neighborliness and a sense of community. By the 1980s, the CHA's hope for an integrated and economically diverse project had collapsed. The complex was 100 percent Black and the median family income fell from $3,975 in 1966 to $3,670 in 1983. Cabrini-Green became infamous for its abject poverty, high crime rates, and gang activity."
Yet neighborliness and a sense of community were very apparent at the August 9 Old School Monday, even though many of the people who'd called Cabrini home had lived there after it became infamous. It was like a high school reunion. All around me I heard people shrieking with joy as they saw friends they hadn't seen in years. There must have been 600 people on Hill Street, which dead-ends at Orleans across from Seward Park--people who'd grown up in the row houses, the high-rises, and the old working-class black neighborhoods just north of Division. There were people who still lived in Cabrini and former residents who'd come from as far away as Las Vegas.
It was a hot, sticky night. People were grilling hot dogs and ribs and chicken. Someone had set up a makeshift stage near Byrd elementary school, and a DJ was playing Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Smokey Robinson, and Lenny Williams. In the middle of Hill Street at least 50 couples were dancing.
On hand were 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett and state representative Ken Dunkin, both of whom had grown up in Cabrini. They weren't supervising. Burnett was shaking hands with old friends, and Dunkin was dancing. It was, Green says, strictly a community-run affair. No one paid a fee and no one got a permit. No vendors were selling brand-name foods. No corporations were acting as sponsors. And I didn't see a single uniformed cop. It was an underground party--or as underground as you can get when 600 people are dancing in the street.
This stretch of Hill is bordered by a firehouse, Byrd, and Seward Park, so no residents were calling the organizers, asking them to keep the music down. Occasionally Green interrupted to tell someone to move a car that was blocking the street, but there were no disturbances. "We police it ourselves--we haven't had no fights," he says. "A lot of these guys used to be in rival gangs, but all that gang stuff's in the past. We're old enough to know you gotta move on."
Several guys--Green, Carter, Ed Boone, and John Baggett--gathered around Billy Dee Glover's grill as he spooned out bowl after bowl of his locally famous chili, made according to an old family recipe. They talked about the contradictions they'd seen growing up in Cabrini--how hard it was sometimes yet how much fun they'd had. They talked about roller-skating at Saint Joseph's, dancing at Lower North Center, having water-balloon fights in Seward Park. They remembered Sid Bennett, the old park rec leader who'd taught them karate, and Eldorado, a beat cop who did a neat disappearing coin trick with a quarter. They ran down a list of entertainers--Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance--who came out of Cabrini. They went over scenes from Cooley High, the 1975 flick about growing up there, and pointed to Rick Stone, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing wraparound shades. "He was Stone in Cooley High," said Green. They named the locals who were now working in construction, education, and law or had joined the military. And they remembered the people who'd been killed or locked away for life.
"You had to have something special to get ahead," says Glover. "You had to be good in sports or real smart--folks left you alone if they saw you had promise."
At about 11 the crowd started to thin out. At midnight Green and his friends turned off the music, cleaned up the debris, and promised to meet again the next Monday.
The next day I met Rick Stone at Seward Park. Hill Street was quiet and empty. Not a trace of the party, not even a discarded hot dog bun.
A CHA spokesperson later told me that 1,230 families had been moved out of Cabrini under the transformation plan. She wasn't sure how many individuals that meant--but then the agency could never be sure how many people lived there before the teardowns began. Stone estimated that at least 10,000 people had left. "They talk about it like it wasn't a community," he said. "I'm not gonna tell you life was sweet, but it was a community."
In the early 70s Stone ran a gang out of 1160 N. Sedgwick, a building he called the Rock. "I was a thug," he said. "I was a fucking thug. I was ghetto born. I was one of those tough guys. I liked to fight, and I was good at fighting. You ask anyone they'll tell you, 'Rick Stone called the shots.' We didn't know about nice things. It was wine, women, and song with me. I wish we had more heroes--more Jesse Jacksons, more Martin Luther Kings, more Harold Washingtons. They hardly came around here. But I don't know if we would have listened to them if they did."
In 1974, when he was 22, Stone and his best friend, Norman Gibson, were playing basketball at a court on Sedgwick when a limousine pulled up. "This black guy, Michael Schultz, got out," said Stone. "He said, 'How would you like to be in a movie?' He was in town making Cooley High, and they were looking for tough guys from out of Cabrini. They had other people from Cabrini in that movie--Jackie Taylor and Maurice Havis. Me and Norman went to the audition. We said, 'Let's go. If we don't get the part, we can stick them up.'"
Neither he nor Gibson had any acting experience, but they got parts. They played a couple of toughs and had several scenes--playing craps, stealing a car, beating up the protagonist because they think he ratted on them to the police. "We were stars in Cabrini after that," Stone said, "but I didn't follow up with acting."
Within a year, Gibson was dead. "He got shot at a crap game," said Stone. In 1978 Stone was sent to prison. "I got eight years for 'strong-armed' robbery," he said. "They wrote about it in Jet magazine. 'Star of Cooley High doing time.' I read it in the joint."
He got out in 1982, moved back to Cabrini, and worked as a bodyguard for community activist Marion Stamps. Then in 1995 Jackie Taylor called. "Jackie had her theater [the Black Ensemble Theater], and she gave me a job as a janitor," Stone said. "Jackie just molded me, man. I owe her everything. I had this threatening look. I kept my hand in my jacket, and I never smiled--I just glowered. She said, 'Ricky, you can't be looking like that. You're scaring the customers.'"
Since then Stone has starred in several Black Ensemble productions. "Jackie knew I had talent," he said. "She gave me a chance." In 2003 the African-American Arts Alliance of Chicago gave him its best-actor award for his role as the lead, Howlin' Wolf, in Howlin' at the Moon. "I love it, dog," he said. "Now it ain't 'Rick Stone, who stole my purse.' It's 'Rick Stone, the actor--can I have your autograph?'"
As Stone sees it, Cabrini's "fate was doomed when they realized white people were willing to spend hundreds of thousands moving here and they didn't give a fuck about being next to the projects. After that, man, they couldn't tear this place down fast enough. The land was just worth too damn much money."
Stone moved out of Cabrini in '97, when he was 45 years old. "But I ain't never really left. And no matter where I go, where I live, or what I do, I won't ever really leave. It's really the only place I ever lived. My old building came down not long after I moved. I watched it come down. They blocked off the area and bulldozed the Rock. It was like cutting in my heart when I saw that building fall into the ground. I was born here. I lived here. I became a man here. My friends died here. You call it the projects, but to me it was holy ground."
August 30, the last Old School Monday this year, was the biggest turnout of the summer. People were lined up along Orleans, and you had to turn sideways to make your way up Hill Street through the dancers. Kids scampered in and out of the crowd. A clown in a bright red wig blew up balloons. A man with a big belly peddled T-shirts that read: "I came. I saw. I partied. Northside 4 Life."
As usual, a crowd gathered around Glover's grill as he dished out his chili. "Look at these guys--these are survivors, man," Glover said. "You have a pride coming out of Cabrini. It's an inner pride. It's like we're a part of something that no longer exists. It was good, it was bad--and we're still here."
Glover and his friends noted that the transformation plan is going slower than expected. Several high-rises that were slated for demolition are still occupied--the CHA doesn't have the money to tear them down. They figure a good chunk of Cabrini will still be around next summer, and they're planning to have more parties.
"Hell yeah, Old School Monday's coming back," said Stone. "They always be kicking folks out of Cabrini, but we keep coming back."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.