Growing Up In Cabrini-Green

"I'm Jacky Robinson. I'm Somebody."


You may or may not remember my October 2012 post about Jacky Robinson. Jacky was a homeless man I met one day while I was out walking in Lincoln Park. Large, friendly and soft-spoken, he was a fixture and people often stopped to chat with him. After several months, Jacky eventually was placed into a tiny one-room apartment. Many of us have walk-in closets larger than his apartment and he still struggles to make ends meet but he is supremely grateful to have a roof over his head.

Recently, he and I met for lunch and, after I asked him some heavy-duty questions, he agreed to share his story. But to tell the tale of Jacky Robinson, we have to go all the way back to the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s - before the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. Jacky's parents were "modern slaves" in the delta, working and living on a plantation, earning 50 cents per week (and maybe a chicken, if the plantation owner felt especially generous). Jacky's mother was just 13 years old when she was married off to his dad. Three years later, in 1966, Jacky's parents, newly free, having heard of the signed Civil Rights Act, moved to Chicago on the advice of family members who had already left Mississippi for the Windy City. Although they were destitute by middle class standards, moving into the Chicago projects was such a step up in living standards, the Robinsons felt like they were on top of the world. Somewhere along the way, violence, drugs and alcohol became a way of life for the Robinson family.

When she was 18 years old, "Sister" Robinson gave birth to her fifth child. A son. She named him Jacky. Jacky was always much larger than the other kids and, as such, he was often encouraged by family members to be the "tough little guy," showing everyone his unusual strength. Jacky says that he can't remember a time in his life when he felt love and affection from his mother. His dad was, for the most part, absent. He says he distinctly remembers thinking by the age of four, "nobody cares about me or what I do."

By the time he was six years old and in elementary school, he'd been labeled a problem child. He remembers one especially painful, unforgettable scene in his first grade class room. One of the other children had been whispering mean things to Jacky under his breath. Not one for subtleties, Jacky responded loudly. The other child hissed another insult and Jacky did what many other young children would do: he responded angrily and hit his tormenter. The classroom teacher ran to the boys and, using a pointing rod (common in classrooms many years ago), whipped Jacky in the middle of his back hard enough to give him a welt. He let a stream of obscenities loose and was rewarded by being given a mouthful of dish detergent and told to sit through the rest of the class without spitting it out to help "clean out his dirty mouth." The other child went unpunished. Skipping school whenever he could, running around Lincoln Park, feeding Funyuns to the blue gills in the lagoon, avoiding beatings at home as often as possible became the name of the game. In his heart, Jacky knew he was capable of better things but, after being told over and over by his mother that he was stupid, an idiot, a loser... Jacky says, "well, if she's gon' call me those names, I thought, 'Well, who cares, then?' I mean, why not just be who she already said I was anyways, right?"

When he was 8 years old, Jacky had become so difficult for the teachers to handle that he was sent to what he calls "bad boy school" (an alternative school for troubled youth). At age 12, his mom bought him his first carton of cigarettes. Four months before his 13th birthday, she caught him smoking marijuana and she kicked him out of their apartment. Family members were threatened with bodily harm if they tried to offer him shelter. Even so, Jacky was determined to graduate from elementary school. Somehow he managed to motivate himself to get to school each day until graduation.

Cabrini-Green's "660 Building"

Cabrini-Green's "660 Building"

In 1978, Jacky's family moved into Cabrini-Green's building 660. As we begin chatting about life in Cabrini-Green, Jacky's voice changes. His usually open and friendly facial expression becomes blank. Here's the story he told me in his own words:

"I think I was 11 the first time I saw a dead body. It was this woman in the elevator. This was just part of our life. They didn't tell these stories on the news. No one cared. It was just life. So my brother, J____, and me, we was gonna visit some friends and they lived up on the 13th floor. I wanted to take the elevator but they said 'Come on, man! Them elevators take too long! We're taking the stairs!' but me? I said, 'Well, you go on then. I'll wait right here until this elevator gets here,' and I waited. And when that elevator opened up and I saw that woman... that's something you never forget. Now, I was big for my age and I knew if anyone walked in and saw me standing there, I knew what they'd think so I high-tailed it out of there like nobody's business! I ran up those stairs after all and told the guys what I saw. They said, 'Maaaaan, you're full of shit!' so I told them to push the button for the elevator and they could see for themselves and they did it. We waited about three minutes and when the elevator arrived, they all saw. There she was, dead. Eyes open. Broom handle shoved up her... well, you know. Man, you never seen five kids run so fast in your life. We got OUT of there fast.

The second dead body I saw wasn't much after that but it was big news on the television. I don't know what exactly happened but it was another woman behind the next building. She was found sitting up, dead as can be, with her [breast] cut off. Whoever killed her placed it in her hand and she was holding it when she was found.

But the last dead person I saw, that was Fat Daddy (Gangster Disciples governor, Dwayne Harris). He was the boss of the GDs. He lived across the hall from us with his girl, Kathy. I know he had a bad reputation. I mean, come on, he's the mother fucking head of the GDs, right? But he was good to us kids. He'd give us little jobs to do and then pay us $5 or so for the things we did. Yeah, I know it was drug money he earned but you know what? It was money and he was good to us kids. He also was an unbelievable DJ. He DJ'd at all of our block parties. Well. You call 'em block parties but really it was a black top party. You know. Asphalt? And that sound system could be heard all the way from Division to North Avenue!

Anyways, there was some rivalry stuff that went down with some west side gang but somehow, Fat Daddy survived that even though he was left for dead and spent six months in the hospital recovering. Well, when he came out and got his strength back, Fat Daddy went across town and got rid of every one of the people who took part in trying to kill him. It wasn't long after that when we were coming home one day and we heard BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM! We knew it was guns so we all ran inside as fast as we could but watched out the window the whole time, too. Now here's the weird thing. Cabrini-Green had a really bad reputation. If there was a domestic [fight] happening, it took the police an hour or more to respond! But (at this point, he makes brackets with his fingers), "for some reason," the cops (more finger brackets), "just happened" to be there as quick as you please. I can't say exactly why they were there but let's just say everyone around knew those cops had it in for Fat Daddy.

Anyways, he was all shot up full of holes. I don't know why they didn't cover his body when they wheeled him out but they didn't. Man (he shudders), I'll never forget that as long as I live. His face looked like Swiss cheese with blood coming out. Man. I couldn't sleep for the longest time after I saw that. And I was scared for my life for at least 8 months after that. I mean, we all knew him! If that could happen to him, who knew what could happen to any of us?"

We talked a while about the impact of his story. What I've learned so far is barely the tip of the iceberg. Before we parted ways for the day, I had one more question. "Jacky, if there's one thing you want these readers to know about you, what would you tell them?" and here is what he said:

"You know, they say people don't change and for some that may be true. But for a lot of us, there's a turning point that comes after we've done a lot of wrong. We know the difference between right and wrong and we want to do right but we were taught to do wrong to survive. I'm not saying it's right or okay or any of that; it just is what it is. But some of us - like me - get sick and tired of being sick and tired. It's not easy but every day I work and try to find ways to keep flipping it around. My mom always said I was a mother fucker. Stupid. Nothing but a dumb idiot. These are the names she would call me as she was beating me with the ax handle. But now I know better. I ain't none of that. I ain't Bone Crusher; I ain't Big Man (nicknames given to him during his gang days). I'm Jacky Robinson. I'm somebody."


To be continued...


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  • Youre kidding me right? I grew up in Rockwell Gardens/Maplewood courts during the 60s and 70s I knew murder and mayhem but I also knew Lane High School and Choate prep school students yes there were many parents and I do mean parents who came from the south to raise their kids and give them a better life Jacky Robinson is just the one the press and people who have no real knowledge of the "hood" harp on sure things have taken a turn for the worse when black women decide to drop their standards for fatherhood knowing the man was the ultimate cad yet growing up there were also men who stood out who organized activities from boyscouts to riverview for the residents as well as neighborhood parades we do have a story that is as rich and as complex as any Lake Forester if you can see past the concrete.

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