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.