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redeyechicago.com

In Cabrini, cash offers chance to live--and escape

Mary Schmich

August 10, 2003

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`One point five million. A million, five hundred thousand. Shoot."

It was Friday morning and Clyde Dortch sat under a solitary tree at Cabrini-Green, a newspaper on his lap, a huddle of friends shaking their heads at the headline: "$1.5 million in shooting by cop."

A few feet away along Oak Street lay a patchy lawn once occupied by a red-brick high-rise, now razed, where five years ago a Chicago police officer shot and killed a 20-year-old gangbanger, Michael Russell. On Thursday, rejecting the Police Department's contention that Russell was armed on that April night, a Cook County jury awarded $1.5 million to his family.

A million five. That's a lot of money even next door in Chicago's pricey Gold Coast neighborhood. In Cabrini, where poverty is the inheritance passed through generations, it's a lot more.

"To us," said Debra Crosby, 42, a lifelong Cabrini resident, "that's like a billion dollars."

Nobody would wish for such a jackpot if winning it meant losing a loved one. The assembled residents were quick to say that, fiercely. Still, they see the money as a ticket out of public housing for Russell's family, and they can't help but fantasize what such a well-heeled escape might be like for them.

"If I had that much money," said Dortch, rolling a cigarette, "I'd travel. What, I'm 44 years old, man, and I ain't never did nothing. Been to Alabama and back. I want to see what the world's made of."

Andrew Hardin, 48, an ex-con carrying his resume and the help-wanted ads in a black briefcase, spoke up.

"I would give some of it back to the community, build something where the kids could feel comfortable," he said. He'd also buy stock, he said with a laugh, especially in the Department of Corrections.

"What about you?" Dortch said to a third man.

"I'd help out the little kids. My family. And just enjoy my life."

"To the fullest," Dortch said.

"To the fullest."

The jury's award, which the city may appeal, gave Cabrini residents a brief moment to cheer and vent and dream, but they seem to know that in the long run, it doesn't change much for them. Sure, it's a victory to feel that in the eyes of one jury, in one case, they're not the bad guys.

But their relationship with the police, whose blue-and-white cars constantly roam Cabrini's littered streets, remains a complex mix of anger, fear and need. And their relationship with money remains a matter not of millions, but of pennies.

"Doesn't mean nothing to me," James Yates, 60, said about that million five as he organized three shopping carts filled with cardboard. He'd rescued it from trash bins and was waiting in a Cabrini parking lot for the salvage truck that pays him 7 1/2 cents a pound.

This is the economy in which Cabrini residents continue to exist--or subsist--even as Chicago's most notorious housing project is torn down bit by bit to make way for mixed-income development. Walk around on a summer day and in addition to the jobless and the drinkers who sit on milk crates or mill on sidewalks, you'll find the entrepreneurs. Dumpster divers, Snow-cone sellers, candy peddlers, drug dealers and, most days, Ronald Patton, who has moved away but comes back to hustle.

"You need socks, boss? I got socks. Three pairs, $2."

Patton, 61, called to every passerby, and whenever one took the bait, he fished socks from a plastic bag emblazoned "The Pampered Chef." He also sells pots, pans, towels, incense and body oil. This is how money works in Cabrini, he said. Sell it cheap and you can sell anything, partly because people here seldom leave the grounds.

As for that million five?

"It's the right decision," he said. "But I feel sorry for the cops. Here's the thing: People got so much frustration, and the cops, they got to bear the brunt of it. What's up, daddy?" he interrupted himself, "You need socks?"

Back under the tree, the newspaper readers wondered whether the $1.5 million would amount to much for the dead man's family.

"Once she get through paying the lawyers' fees and taxes she won't have nothing," said Debra Crosby.

"Money is like a shadow," added Dortch. "Here today, gone tomorrow."