August 9, 2013
Such a peaceful summer field.
Yellow butterflies. White poppies. Purple wildflowers. Clumps of Queen Anne's lace.
And up in the blue sky, just beyond the green grass, a giant red bull's-eye.
Coming soon. Another Target superstore.
What used to be here?
Occasionally when I'm wandering around Chicago, I try to remember what used to sit on land now claimed by some vacant lot or new building. Sometimes I can't recall. The city swallows itself, over and over.
For now, I can still see what once stood at the corner of Larrabee and Division streets on Chicago's Near North Side, but each time I drive past the Target while it's being built — the foundation, the beams, three stories of graceless wall that look fortified for nuclear attack — I realize the memory gets gauzier and more elusive.
On Thursday, curious to see who else remembered, I stopped the car and got out.
It was shortly after noon. A woman on her way to lunch strolled past, gazing at the cranes and the dump trucks, all the construction commotion next to the peaceful field.
Her name was Saher; she didn't want her last name used. She's 27 and works nearby in marketing.
Did she know what used to be here?
"I think it was just like nothing," she said. She glanced toward the hulking Target again. "Abandoned land?"
Awhile later, Valerie Davenport and Elena Aronson approached on their bikes, heading for the beach.
Did they know what used to be here?
Aronson, 22, said no.
Davenport, 21, cocked her head with a quizzical look.
"Isn't that where one of the projects was?"
It was. Ahmad Walker, 17, knew the details. He and his mother left for the South Side when their nearby building was torn down, but, like so many others, he comes back because this is where his memories and a lucky few of his friends are.
"Where the Target is at," he said, "it was 1230 N. Larrabee, 624 W. Division and 660 W. Division."
He waved a hand past the field.
"And this right here, it was 714 W. Division and 1230 N. Burling."
In short, it was a piece of Cabrini-Green, the most famous of Chicago's vanished housing projects, where building addresses were practically the equivalent of neighborhood names.
The last Cabrini high-rise, in what is now the grassy field, was torn down in 2011. Last fall, Target broke ground on a 150,000-square-foot store on land it bought from the Chicago Housing Authority.
Part of the deal was that 75 of the 200 jobs in the new store would go to people in the Cabrini community. The history of Cabrini's long redevelopment hasn't inspired trust in that promise.
"Of course they say they're going to hire the community," said James Fitch, who was passing the site on his way to visit someone incarcerated at the police station across the street. "But there's no more people left to hire."
Barely more than a third of the 1,200 replacement units promised to displaced Cabrini residents have been built. Years have passed. People have scattered.
Fitch, 56, lives on the Far North Side now and hauls scrap for a living, but he grew up in Cabrini and remembers exactly what was here before Target.
The bad, the good. Horror and home.
"Look at that fire station," he said, pointing across Larrabee. "See those bullet holes?"
Those were from the days, he said, when Cabrini's white high-rises stood on the Target land and gangbangers shot from the windows.
Two decades ago, he said, his own sister was found dead in a Cabrini sewer. He lost too many friends in the violence.
"Horrendous," he said.
And yet, like many former Cabrini residents, he still feels the sting of watching a community forcibly uprooted, generations of families fractured.
"Condos have replaced all the projects," he said, sweeping a hand past the new homes that have risen in fits and starts on the old Cabrini neighborhood. "Now the violence is just spread out."
In the peaceful day, the joggers, bicyclists and drivers kept passing, oblivious to what used to be here, heading for a time when the biggest horror will be traffic to the superstore.
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