With Changes at Cabrini-Green, Longtime Ministry Closes

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

CHICAGO -- When Steve Pedigo showed up at the Cabrini-Green housing project as a young seminary student, he mostly hung out on the basketball courts. It was 1976, the gang wars were raging, and Pedigo, a white guy from Milwaukee, was foolish enough to think he could make a difference.

Not that he figured on staying. He and his wife, Marlene, raised on an Iowa farm, planned to finish their Chicago studies and move on. Twenty-nine years later, after shepherding youths from one of the nation's most notorious projects through after-school homework, trips to college and stretches in jail, the Pedigos are finally closing up shop.

So is Cabrini-Green. The Chicago Housing Authority, midway through a 10-year transformation project, is shifting families from high-rises into more varied dwellings, scattering Cabrini residents and eliminating the community the Pedigos served. An after-school program that started with 40 children in September was down to 18 last month.

"It's good and bad," Marlene Pedigo said. "Displacement is hard because you're tearing at the fabric of the community."

Most of the good has been obscured by the bad and the ugly for four decades at Cabrini, once the largest public housing project in the country. It earned its reputation as a violent place where childhoods ran short. When then-Mayor Jane Byrne wanted to make a point about housing troubles in 1981, she moved into Cabrini. Chicago police leaned hard, and things quieted down.

After she left, the killing resumed.

"When we got here in 1976, this place was humming," Steve Pedigo, 53, said late last month as he made his final rounds. "There was gang shooting all around at the time. We didn't know anything about turf. Ignorance was bliss."

The Pedigos soon learned the basketball courts were considered a no-fire zone. Winning trust was another matter. Theirs was an ecumenical street ministry with no home base.

"Nobody knew us. We were so green. The secret was staying there, being there," Pedigo said. "When you stay there long enough, through the hard times and the good times, they get to know you and they see they can trust you."

They waited a year before scheduling a meeting for the teenagers they hoped to reach. More than 100 kids showed up.

The Pedigos formed basketball teams for the boys and volleyball and cheerleading squads for the girls. They emphasized homework and tutoring. A teenager who wanted to play or take a trip had to show up to study.

In 1980, the Pedigos aligned themselves with the Religious Society of Friends, the formal name of the Quaker church. The Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, for a nominal fee, sold them a dilapidated three-story brown brick building at Cabrini-Green -- and also gave them the money set aside for demolition.

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