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The Trials of Life Inside Chicago's Public Housing

"I used to go through the buildings with my cart and collect bottles and take them to the supermarket to redeem them for money. I was a bottle hustler."

Excerpted from Eddie Leman's narrative in  High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing  with permission from the nonprofit publisher Voice of Witness.



Eddie Leman[1]
AGE: 43
OCCUPATION: Hospital employee, entrepreneur
FORMER RESIDENT OF: Robert Taylor Homes

We Called It Our Penthouse

I had a cart. And back then you’d get a refund on bottles. A nickel or a dime, you know. As a little kid—six, seven years old—I used to go through the buildings with my cart and collect bottles and take them to the supermarket to redeem them for money. I was a bottle hustler. I supported myself and my mother. I remember going to the stores, paying for things. My mother was on stamps. I can still remember I had to count the stamps out, because my mother really couldn’t count.

My paternal grandmother, her name is Zola Washington. She lived in 4525 South Federal—the building that was right next door. This is my father’s mother. She had seventeen kids. So to start off with I had about sixteen uncles and aunts. Throughout the years, a lot of them passed and everything. But we had several people in 4425 in our family. We got several people in 4429 that was in our family. Several people in 4444. So our family of Jacksons, Lemans, Eberharts, and Perrys was scattered throughout that one block of buildings.[2]

The apartment me and my mother lived in was 4429 South Federal. A one-bedroom apartment on the fifteenth floor. It had a kitchen. It had a pantry. It had a let-out couch that I slept on in the living room. It had a floor heated from the tiles. If we go on the porch, we’ll see the front. The State Street side. If we look from the back, we’ll see the Federal side. The Federal side is all the parking lots. And right after Federal, the Dan Ryan Expressway. And we could see across the expressway to some of the other homes and houses. You know, we called it our penthouse.

Growing Up, I Never Saw Ambulances

I heard stories when I was a child, from my uncles and people that lived there, that the Robert Taylors were built as a housing project very strategically. If there ever was an uprising or something: easy access for tanks to come down the Dan Ryan and target the buildings. Or motorized military vehicles. And I thought about that even as an adult. Mostly all the projects are next to expressways in Chicago. Easy access for military vehicles.

They built the police station over on Forty-Third Street, but this was years after the Robert Taylors were built. They built the station in the late ’90s or something.[3] Before that, I think the closest station was so far away—Fifty-First Street, over on Halsted. Well, there were so many buildings at Robert Taylors and sometimes the numbers were torn off the building, so if you called the police and told them, “I’m in 4429,” they probably wouldn’t even know which building that was, and so that might have contributed to the police not coming when residents called in emergencies. And another thing: if you tell them what floor you’re on, it’s sixteen floors in the building, you know? If the elevators ain’t working, then nothing’s moving, including the police. They’re not about to walk up all those stairs.

Even when the elevators were working, the lights were out half the time. They used to call them death traps. People got their arms or their body caught up in there. The elevator closed tight, like a clamp. You’d have to hold it with both hands and try to open the door if it was shutting. There was no safety sensor. People were routinely stuck, hurt, trapped in there. They had one red button bell in there to ring, but that didn’t do anything. The only way to open the elevator safely was to use this long six-inch key. It was like a stick and you’d open the elevator with that, but those keys weren’t never around, so you’d have to pry yourself out. And when you climb out, you’ve got to jump down or climb up. You’d be stuck between floors. You get on the elevator, you risk getting stuck, you risk getting hurt, you risk getting robbed. That was every day, all the time. And I lived on the fifteenth floor, so you know I had my exercise on.