The Trials of Life Inside Chicago's Public Housing

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.

When I was growing up, I never saw ambulances. There was so much crime around there, maybe they didn’t come because of their safety. In Robert Taylor, they had little chain-link fences along the parking lot held by metal beams. And these metal beams had sharp edges. When I was a little child, eight or nine, I was sitting on one of the metal beams and I got up to play. The metal beam ripped my leg open. We waited for the ambulance, but it never came. So my mother got a ride and we rode to Provident Hospital.

Provident was just a tragedy. I remember seeing roaches, bloody tissues, everything. Ten stitches I needed for this cut. It was about two inches deep, two inches wide. Because it was unsanitary in the hospital, the cut got infected and it didn’t heal right. And when they stitched it, they didn’t stitch it closed. They had it wide open. Ten stitches. The scar is about three inches long. Big as a finger. The stitches are about half-an-inch apart. Looks like a centipede. It’s disfigurement. And I got to carry this all my life.

You Got to Really Navigate Where You Go

I was always a young man who was into the streets, you know. Not gang-banging, but hustling. My mother was on drugs, she was out there bad, so I kept our house in order. I’d cook, clean, everything. Zenos Colman was my first school. We ate breakfast there, lunch there. The teachers at Colman had several different types of punishments for us, you know, without laying hands, but we had to do duck walks and hold books up straight in front of us and hold our arms up until our shoulders were about to fall off. It was a learning experience. And we had to navigate our way to school real carefully. Going down the fire lane—it was about a two-block walk from our building to school—we had to really listen to what was going around us. In case there were any cars zooming around through the fire lane, or shooting, or things getting thrown, because back when I was there, they didn’t have fencing on the balconies. When I was there, there was half a fence, so people would tend to throw things over the sides. So we had to constantly look up. I didn’t see anybody get really hurt. I never seen anyone get their head busted because people pretty much respected the fire lane. I seen plenty of water. Plenty of furniture and trash.

Sixth grade was when I really started concentrating on schoolwork. I started excelling in school. It was ’81 or ’82 when they pulled different children who were gifted out of the projects, from Fifty-Fifth all the way to Forty-Third, and put them in Beasley Academic Center. And I was in the first graduating class of Beasley. I had to go further from my block when I started going to Beasley. The only thing we was fearing back then was getting jumped. With the Robert Taylors, there were two separate kinds of buildings: the white buildings and the red buildings. And each section has different gangs, so you have to know who’s governing your hood. In my case it was the GDs and Gangsters.[4] You get transported to someplace that’s another hood where there’s Vice Lords and Disciples, like Fifty-First, then you got to really navigate where you go. If you on school ground, you’d better stay on school ground. So that was the only part that concerned a lot of the male students.

They Gave Me A Choice

In eighth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Adamak. A white guy with a blond Afro. He enrolled me in this program called “Unto Perfect Manhood.” And I won an award while I was in the program: a scholarship to Hales Franciscan High School.[5] At that time I was going through a lot of changes. My mother, she was pretty strung out. I was getting older and my cousins wanted me to run with them. They were all in gangs. My maternal grandmother who lived out in Chicago Heights was always concerned with me and my living situation with my mother. My mother and my grandmother gave me a choice. It was a hard choice because I’m in eighth grade, you know? I’m thinking, If I stay here and go to Hales Franciscan, I’m still gonna be living in 4429 with my momma and I’ll still be susceptible to gang violence and then there won’t be no girls. I’m thinking about girls, too. Hales Franciscan is all boys. So I’m thinking, If I go to the suburbs with my grandmomma, I’ll be living a lot better and I won’t have to worry about my safety, and there’ll be girls. My momma, she wasn’t one to make decisions for me back then, so it was left up to me and I decided to go with my grandmother.

I had some ideas about what it would be like. I used to go out to Chicago Heights and my aunt’s family had motorcycles and toys everywhere, a big backyard and a refrigerator full of food. So that’s what I’m thinking. I go there, I’ll be living part of the good life. When I’d been out that way, I never socialized with people in the same ways I did in the hood, but I fit in because I knew how to talk to anyone. When I actually moved out there, I was pretty much on my own, ’cause all I known is gangs. I was a freshman in school doing prayers, you know. I was regulating things, hosting prayers[6] in the bathroom on the GD side. The kids are like, “He’s from the city. Straight G, man. What’s happening?” I brought it there. It was some people who knew about GDs already, but I brought it there. When you’re a freshman and you first go to a high school, you kind of want to get a group of people around who you can feel safe with. And the only thing I knew about was gang-banging, so the people around me, they were into gang-banging too. Or they wanted to get into it. And we weren’t into robbing-type stuff. It was more of a little brotherhood thing going on. I wasn’t no Board member[7] or nothing, but I’ve got a lot of family who taught me a lot of loves and prayers, you know.

It was like I was in-between when I first went out there. I was coming back to Chicago nearly every weekend. But the thing was, when I came around the old neighborhood, I felt like a visitor. I still knew a lot of people—a lot of my family, they still lived in Robert Taylor, but it’s like I cut it off. My uncles and aunties, some of them was pretty much out there on drugs or they were alcoholics. Once I left the projects, my extended family still treated me with love. I know in their hearts, they didn’t feel no jealousy. They wanted an opportunity like mine, but they didn’t have it. Still they were gonna try to support me as much as they could.

Before too long, I got a few friends in Chicago Heights and we developed a little network. Some were selling weed and all that stuff. But I had to make another decision when I was a sophomore. Cause my grandmother was like, “Naw-uh. Hold up.” I think what broke the camel’s back was that she came in my room and she saw some baggies with some joints in it. I didn’t have anything hard, just some joints and stuff, and she was like, “No, you got to go.” She put me out right there. She sent me out to live with one of my cousins, and I stayed out there for a minute. Then my grandmother and my cousins, they moved to Park Forest just south of the city, and she pulled me back, and I got back to books and studying more. All this happened in a one or two-year period.

My senior year, I made a big change. I was in a motorcycle accident. I wasn’t hurt bad or anything, but I thought, Damn, I almost got killed messing around in the streets. What am I gonna do? And then they had a recruiter come to the school from the Marine Corps and he told us about this program called Delayed Entry where you sign the papers before you graduate, so they lock you in. I signed the papers for the Marines.

[1] A pseudonym.

[2] Robert Taylor Homes was made up of twenty-eight identical sixteen-story towers. The buildings were arranged two-blocks deep between the Dan Ryan Expressway and State Street, and ran from Thirty-Ninth Street to Fifty-Fourth Street. Originally planned for 11,000 inhabitants, Robert Taylor Homes housed as many as 27,000 residents in the seventies and eighties.

[3] The Chicago Housing Authority Police Department was a police force established in the late eighties that was dedicated to patrolling public housing.

[4] Branches of the Gangster Disciples, a prominent gang in Chicago. 

[5] A Catholic high school on the Near South Side.

[6] Gang prayers occur when meetings are called to order.

[7] “Board member” refers to a leader of certain gangs such as the Gangster Disciples.


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