Protected by a Gang Leader

I rented Candyman. The 2021 movie tells the urban legend of a Southside region of Chicago that had project buildings built in the 1940s that by the 1980s and 1990s had become notoriously dangerous as gang and drug trade territory. Cabrini Green has an amazing history related to Irish and Italian gangs and then African American and Latino gangs later. It was originally referred to as Little Hell.

I was visiting my older sister who lived near the Lake just east of Cabrini Green and near the University of Chicago I think. She lived in a posh high-rise overlooking the waterfront. I brought my roommate Amy with me. We must have been about 19 or 20 and it must have been around the summer of 1998.

On our trip, Amy and I got all dressed up fancy to go shopping downtown and at the Navy Pier. We were Midwest girls from Kansas and we wanted to shop at all the expensive shops we didn’t have back home. We dressed up fashionably with heels and brand-name purses and our nicest clothes and by afternoon that day, we were loaded up with shopping bags. We caught a bus headed to my sister’s street on the Southside. We were tourists and so we stopped and checked with the bus driver to make sure we were on the right bus. She just looked at us and nodded but looked a little surprised.

The bus headed first west quite a ways and we got worried we were on the wrong bus. Then it turned south and we breathed a sigh of relief. But as we stayed on the bus together with all our stuff, we headed into worse and worse looking neighborhoods. We kinda got quiet and looked out the windows.

There were metals bars on the few shops in the neighborhood we were approaching. There were only a few people out in the streets and few cars and no taxis. A lot of the people we saw were wearing puffed up jackets even though it was warm that day. The churches were gated with high fences and the windows were barred too. Meanwhile, the big high rise houses looked pretty rough. Concrete jungle with lots of graffiti and some of the buildings were all boarded up with dark stairwells. I remember there didn’t seem to be a lot of kids around playing outside.

We got off the bus on the street corner of my sister’s street but it clearly was not in a good neighborhood. We didn’t really know where we were but we quickly reasoned that if we headed east we’d eventually come to the lake.

We crossed the street in our heels and fancy clothes with all our shopping bags. A man came out of the barred up convenient store across from us and quickly headed down the road south. We kept our heads down and our eyes on the ground, trying not to trip as we tried to pick up our pace. We didn’t speak to each other much but we knew instinctively not to stop much and not to talk to anyone and just keep moving towards the lake.

We made it maybe two blocks.

A large 1970s style grey Lincoln town car with lowered suspension and tinted windows quickly pulled right alongside us. We looked at each other quickly and kept walking, a little scared honestly at this point.

The Lincoln followed slowly behind us by the side of curb.

We didn’t stop to talk to them and they never lowered the windows. But whoever it was followed close behind us as we headed down the road for at least 8 blocks while wearing heels and laden down with shopping bags and purses.

We were afraid of the person or people in the car but in hindsight, the person or people whoever they were became an unlikely guardian. We were safe for 8 blocks in an area of the city where a lot of drive by shootings and rapes and murders sometimes occurred. That year around 704 people lost their lives in Chicago to murder.

On the 8th block, as we neared what looked like nicer houses and restaurants and some university area, the grey Lincoln silently pulled away from us. We could see them quickly turn right and head back into the neighborhood. Whoever, it was, they seemed to have protected us and probably had some clout or some money in the neighborhood, maybe even a gang leader or something.

We never learned who they were.

Another five or so blocks and we made it to the lake and to my sister’s high-rise. When we got to her apartment, we told her what happened and she looked at us in shock. “You were in Cabrini Green,” she said surprised.

“What is that?” we asked, having never been to Chicago before.

“It’s a bad area of town. Even the taxis don’t go down there.”

You can see what Cabrini Green looked like in the 1992 movie Candyman and then in this more recent version. I’ve traveled to the Middle East and to other places where I felt uncomfortable but no place ever worried me as much as that long walk that day.

In the late 1990s, a lot of those project buildings were tore down and in recent decades much revitalization of the area has been done. It now is a pretty nice region to live and I think they even renamed it to something like the Parkland or something like that.

I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to the occupants of that grey Lincoln car with the tinted windows that day. I am 44 years old today thankfully. I’ve been lucky like that, to come across unlikely protectors and guardians here and there. I was pretty young and very naive and stupid that day. I thank God they were there, whoever they were.

Author: J. Speer

I like to write. I have 5 books currently on Amazon, mostly fiction. I try to write positive and uplifting children's stories, expressive poetry for women, and interesting articles about personal growth, alternative medicine, and spirituality. My stories are often about diverse people but with human connection in mind through inner perspective. I love my characters especially the ones from my first book, Searching for Fire. I moved recently to Vermont. I live in the North Country region near Lake Willoughby, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. My heart will always be with Kansas but I love travel and meeting new people with diverse perspectives on life. I have found Vermonters to have many admirable qualities like stoicism and a love and stewardship of nature. My hobbies are writing, gardening, outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, and hiking. I am an amateur herbalist. Many years ago, an alternative medicine doctor cured me of a respiratory illness by teaching me about vitamins and for that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. I recently bought a Jeep Wrangler that fits my personality and love for adventure. Associated with the military in my younger years, I have lived in Israel, Germany, and Virginia as well - all of which I loved in different ways. I thoroughly believe in the military spouse phrase, "bloom where you are planted" and endeavor to carry a positive optimism wherever I roam. Most days are good but admittedly I get down sometimes. I am prone to sadness or severe cynicism at times, so I turn to music as my consolation and source of expression or inspiration. My favorite songs currently are "How Deep is Your Love" by the Beegees, "La Vie en Rose", "A Million Dreams" or maybe Karen Carpenter singing "Close to You" or Elton John singing "Your Song." I also like "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us" by Starship or "I'll Stand by You" by The Pretenders. "Faithfully" by Journey always reminds me of rollerskating with friends in the 1980s. My favorite quotes are from the Velveteen Rabbit, Steve Jobs, and this one..."To the caterpillar it was the end of the world, but to the butterfly it was merely a beautiful beginning." Or there is the quote from Peter Pan teaching Wendy..."What if I fall? But, oh my darling, what if you fly?" I also believe in being a pearl - graceful on the outside but full of grit and gratitude on the inside. My favorite women of the Bible are Ruth, Hannah, and Hagar. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Cheers, friend.

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