Friday, March 27, 2009

Walter Payton Prep publishes Cabrini-Green issue

Posted By on 03.27.09 at 09:22 AM

To their credit, it occurred to the student journalists of Walter Payton College Prep that an important question to ask about nearby Cabrini-Green was whether their own fancy new school sticks in the residents’ craw. 

For as the Payton student paper, the Pawprint, reports in its most recent issue, the story of Cabrini-Green is now about demolition, gentrification, and displacement. “The people and the culture of Cabrini-Green are slowly being phased out,” write Julian Antos and Danielle Bennon, “leaving the few thousand remaining residents struggling to make do with what’s left of their homes. . . . The poster child of the transition from a ghetto to a Gold Coast neighborhood is inarguably Walter Payton College Prep, a school filled with good intentions . . . but a school that Edna Morris, a security guard at Schiller [Elementary], thinks of as an outfit that sits in the community but doesn’t make an effort to be a part of it.”

Antos (a junior) and Bennon (a senior) draw a contrast between Payton, just northeast of Cabrini at 1034 N. Wells, and Schiller, in the heart of the project. “CPS thinks of a school with 35 kids to a classroom, no library or special ed. classes, and no art programs as a well-run institution,” Schiller vice principal Brian Billings is quoted as saying. Payton is another world. Someone from the Department of Children and Family Services comments, “You should see the look on a kid’s face when he sees a new school going up in his neighborhood and he realizes that they won’t let him in”; and Antos and Bennon add, on their own authority, “For better or worse, Payton is part of a movement to phase Cabrini-Green out, making the building all the more frightening to local students.”

Faculty adviser Jonathan Miller had wanted for years to see the Pawprint tackle Cabrini-Green, and each fall he'd propose the idea to his new staff, but it always daunted them. Last spring Miller had a better idea; just before the school year ended he assembled this year's staff and said, let’s put out a Cabrini-Green issue next February. With a whole summer to get up to speed on their subject, the students felt excited instead of apprehensive, and Abby Klionsky, the incoming editor, passed out assignments. 

“People didn’t know much about Cabrini except what they’ve read in history books,” says Klionsky, “that it was one of the worst housing projects in the country.”  The Pawprint didn’t intend to leave it at that.  Payton has maintenance workers who grew up there, and a few students from the neighborhood. The grandmother of senior staff reporter Logan Cotton lived there most of her life. “As soon as they heard there was community and people love their community,” says Klionsky, speaking of her staff, “people got really into it. There was a lot of enthusiasm to go out into the area and talk to people.”

The issue's 28 pages long, it's mostly Cabrini-Green, and I'm greatly impressed. There's a focus on pop culture that in a student paper feels totally right -- recollections of the 1975 movie Cooley High and hit 70s TV show Good Times, both by writer Eric Monte, who grew up there, and the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. The 1992 slasher movie Candyman and Daniel Coyle's 1994 memoir Hardball (which was turned into a movie) are cited. As for Cabrini-Green's place in the nation's psyche, despite Monte's advocacy, senior Lee Sova-Claypool writes that "the image of Cabrini-Green generated by the media was of an unlivable environment filled with endless violence and incredible poverty."

The Pawprint dwells on vanished Cooley High, the neighborhood high school long before Payton, but a school that was actually for neighborhood kids. "It gave the teens a sense of community and established that deep connection to Cabrini," write junior Chelsea Brown and sophomore Melissa Wojdyla. "When Cooley fell [in 1979], so did that bridge of community to the kids. The people we spoke to had a glimmer in their eyes, or an excitement in their voice when the name Cooley was mentioned."

“Why Cabrini-Green?” asks senior Marissa Carroll's introductory essay to the 28-page issue. “It is our duty to highlight . . . a community that we all too often overlook. . . . Perhaps this issue will inspire you to volunteer for the Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program, to rent ‘Cooley High,’ or simply to step out of your Starbucks comfort zone and think about life on the other side of Division.” Aware that the Cabrini-Green issue barely scratched the surface of its subject, Miller and the underclassmen on his staff intend to return to it next year.

Here's a PDF of the complete issue.

I had a chance to speak to Carroll and Klionsky. Carroll hopes to land in a good journalism school, while Klionsky, after a gap year in Israel, wants to study international relations somewhere to prepare herself to be a foreign correspondent. "I’ve been noticing the Reader's coverage in past weeks that journalism is dying," Klionsky says bravely, "but people will always need news and they’ll always want to be informed." If journalism has a future, I hope they're it.

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