Voices of Chicago Public Housing

Vivian Carter Homes, in Englewood

Katherine Jinyi Li

On a sunny February day, twenty-five UofC students file out of a yellow school bus for a Chicago Studies Program oral history project at the Vivian Carter Apartments, a public housing unit for the elderly located just west of where 64th Street and the Dan Ryan come together. The students are greeted at the door by Zenobia Johnson-Black, long-time community activist in housing, who casually points out a portrait of Vivian Carter hanging over the entrance. Johnson-Black gives a quick reflection on Carter’s life history (migrating from rural Mississippi to metropolitan Chicago, where she co-founded legendary African-American label Vee-Jay Records), an echo of the stories that students would soon hear from the building’s residents, seniors who had once made the decision to leave behind the poverty and racism of the South for something more promising in the North. Their stories, told to UofC students paired off with high school and middle school students who currently live in public housing, will be used by the National Museum of Public Housing to build its archives of public housing testimonials.

In order to create a more open dialogue, all of the students bring with them their own home photos to share with seniors. Maria Bavaro, a third year UofC student who grew up in the suburbs, explains that she took the afternoon off from classes and work to get out of the college bubble and “learn more about the community from community members.” For students like Bavaro, these sorts of collaborations allow for a more practical and interactive style of education, one that recognizes the value of engaging with the greater South Side community.

One of the seniors interviewed is Wanda Carter, a local newspaper and advertising entrepreneur and host of Chicago-area talk show “Omnibus.” Born and raised in Chicago Public Housing, she speaks of the many changes she has experienced in Chicago since the days of her youth, as well as her own achievements moving from minimum wage jobs to founding CC News Media, an online newspaper focusing on national and South Side news. Carter has lived in the Vivian Carter Homes for the last two years, and leads weekly media classes for her fellow seniors in the building’s communal computer room. For residents like her, public housing often creates a tight-knit community that works together. “All down the rows of houses, everybody knew each other,” she says. “People watched out for each other’s kids and held each other accountable. That’s how we grew up back then.”