A Diamond In The Rough

It's a hot, muggy Chicago afternoon, and the Morgan Stanley Mau-Maus are facing the Pax Option Pygmies across a scraggly diamond. Both Near North Little League teams are undefeated, so the contest is expected to be a close one. But the touts are wrong. Pygmy shortstop Ellison Barnes steps to the plate and swats a long fly ball to right field, which is undefended--only eight Mau-Mau players showed up. As the center fielder scrambles, the hit turns into a home run. The Pygmies win, 13-3.

With elevated trains rattling over right field every few minutes and boarded-up high-rises looming behind home plate, this isn't your typical Little League. It's Cabrini-Green, home to 7,000 residents and one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects. When local insurance broker Robert Muzikowski created the league five years ago, he wanted it to be a nonviolent oasis for Cabrini's children.

They need one. Five players have been slain since 1990 in incidents away from the field. Some players' parents are in jail, while others are upstairs smoking crack. Few show up to watch their kids. A part-time umpire hired by the league in its early days is serving a 100-year sentence for murdering a 7-year-old. Still, on this day at Cabrini, the kids are sliding into second, not shooting each other.

I'm doing my own small part to keep it that way. For the past four years, I've played the role of math expert, computer troubleshooter, and cheerleader for 11-year-old slugger Barnes. Our tutoring program is run by Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue, whose wealthy parishioners have adopted Cabrini as their special project. Ellison and I meet every Wednesday at the church during the school year, mostly to play educational computer games. A shy boy who loves art and books, he certainly doesn't need a lot of help with his schoolwork. Ellison is a straight-A student at St. Joseph's School on the edge of Cabrini, where his tuition is paid by a corporate-funded scholarship.

This summer will be his most challenging yet. He was accepted into an academically rigorous summer program for 40 minority students at an exclusive private school a bus ride away. Tuition at Chicago's Latin School is steep--$12,000 a year--but for the lucky kids accepted into its High Jump program, everything is free. Ellison's next goal is to draw an offer from a public magnet school or private secondary school. My reward, though less tangible, is real. Just the other day, Ellison told me he didn't think 35 is "too old" to have fun.

When he's not at summer school or playing baseball, Ellison heads home to gne of Cabrini's worst buildings, 1160 North Sedgewick, a red-brick tower where he shares a two-bedroom apartment with two older brothers and his grandmother. The walk can be treacherous. Three street gangs have divvied up Cabrini's turf, and even children Ellison's age are afraid to cross certain invisible but exact lines.

WINNING WAYS. The gangs haven't scared off the white professionals from Merrill Lynch, Northern Trust, and Northwestern Mutual Life who coach Cabrini's 27 Little League teams. (And the field can indeed be a scary place: Gunfire ricocheting off the elevated tracks along right field caused one game to be called.) Uniforms and equipment are paid for with corporate contributions. "The kids are getting relationships with guys who are winning," says Muzikowski. "We've got coaches who are making a half-million dollars at the Chicago Board of Trade."

Baseball is only one visible example of corporate involvement at Cabrini. Retailer Montgomery Ward & Co., whose headquarters is literally a stone's throw from Cabrini, has a tutoring program that involved 550 Cabrini children during the past school year. Some 325 Ward's employees stayed after work to tutor last year, while other tutors came from a variety of downtown companies, such as Quaker Oats, First Chicago, and Arthur Andersen. In the middle of one Cabrini complex, a garden grows gourmet vegetables to sell to the city's restaurants. It is the creation of suburban accountant Jack Davis and is tended by 50 Cabrini children who are paid for their work.

Why so much corporate attention lavished on one place? Part of the answer is geography. Cabrini sits smack dab in the middle of Chicago's affluent North Side, just a few blocks west of Michigan Avenue's tony shopping district. It's a daily reminder of how the other half lives for professionals who drive or take the elevated train to work.

DEMOLITION PLAN. Lately, Cabrini's woes have made headlines again. Faced with widespread fraud and mismanagement, the Housing & Urban Development Dept. seized control of the Chicago Housing Authority in late May and ousted Chairman Vincent Lane. Now, Cabrini's high-rises, along with those of its sibling, the Henry Horner Homes, are on HUD's fast track for demolition. Under the latest plan, 660 Cabrini units would be razed, but only 200 would be rebuilt. Other residents would be given rent certificates or relocated to other parts of the city.

Already, real estate speculators have bid up land prices adjacent to the project's 70 acres. A politically connected group of developers is seeking to buy city land next to Cabrini to build 92 townhomes with prices up to $250,000. The same group has snapped up a 10-acre site that abuts the ball field where an Oscar Mayer plant that closed a few years ago was recently demolished.

Knocking down Cabrini's high-rises--where 93% of the households have no earned income--could have unintended results, one sociologist worries. "It certainly sounds like a good thing on the surface. But they can end up just spreading out the ghetto," warns University of Pennsylvania urban sociologist Elijah Anderson. And destabilizing working-class neighborhoods, where homeowners fearing an onslaught of Section 8 rent-subsidized tenants might sell in a panic, would depress home values. I worry, perhaps selfishly--I really love tutoring--that if Cabrini is torn down, it will be harder for people like me to reach out. And corporations might not devote the same resources to the poor when they are no longer as visible.

But on this day, life at Cabrini isn't so bad. Ellison hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and his team may be on its way to a second Near North Little League championship. For today, that's enough.

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