-- 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.
The Pedigos were not only green. They were white in an overwhelmingly black community. The Quakers do not have a significant presence among African Americans. But through the combination of weekday tutoring, Sunday meeting and all-hours listening, they connected.
"We weren't here to build the church. We were here to help in the community. The church was a tool to facilitate it," Steve Pedigo said. "A lot of times people measure success by whether the program is getting bigger. I measured it by the progress we were making."
Sam Boens, now 31, attended the Pedigos' program, which recruited college students and paid local high schoolers to help the younger ones. When things became especially grim in Boens's home in Cabrini, he moved in with the Pedigos for several months -- one of about a dozen kids to do so.
"Marlene and Steve practically raised me. They're like a mama and daddy. Back in the days, I used to hang out and do things I wasn't supposed to do. Thanks to them, I stopped doing it," Boens said. Steve is "just like an ordinary person. You could talk to him and he'd listen. He'd never say he had no time."
Three of Boens's own children were in the Pedigos' program when it closed late last month. Randy, 7, won school honors each of his three quarters this year "thanks to that man right there," Boens said, nodding toward Pedigo.
Vanessa Dosie, whose son Israel has been in the program for three years, calls the Pedigos "inspirational, truly godly believers. Their rep is that everybody loves them. If you need something, if you need prayer, you can come and ask them."
"They're black. They've been here so long, they're part of us. Because they're Caucasian doesn't mean anything," Dosie said. "We do have people who came into the community to do it for tax purposes; it's not genuine. For them, it's genuine."
Operating from the building at Cambridge Avenue and Oak Street in the heart of Cabrini-Green, the Pedigos gradually shifted their focus from teenagers to younger children. The move gathered pace after the Clinton administration's welfare changes, which often sent women into the workforce with inadequate child care.
The Pedigos got a state child-care license. They drew public money from Chicago and Illinois and raised funds on their own. In class, the rules remained firm.
"No hitting, no running," Steve Pedigo said. "You don't push, touch, slap. When you sit, you don't reach over the table; you ask. You want to go to the washroom, you ask."
The Chicago Fellowship of Friends, as the Pedigos called their ministry, shared successes and failures. Pedigo mentions an elected alderman, a sheriff's deputy, a laundry service supervisor, a few ministers. Others are in prison, some for more than half their lives. One became known as the Lincoln Park rapist before his arrest and conviction.
Pedigo believes many Cabrini youths suffer what amounts to post-traumatic stress syndrome from gunfire, violence, frustration, anger. "Terrorism has been going on in this community for a long time," he said.
Cabrini-Green is entering a new phase. As Zoneike Boens, Sam's wife, put it, "Cabrini is fading away."
Today, 495 apartments are occupied, down from a peak of 3,152 in the 1960s. A portion of the property will be redeveloped with public housing or a mixture that includes affordable and market-rate dwellings. Starbucks has taken root nearby along with a large supermarket.
In 2003, the Pedigos started the year with 50 students in their after-school program and finished the year with half that number. This year, attendance dropped further, even with some children making the trip from beyond Cabrini's emptying streets.
With the changes in welfare and public housing, Marlene Pedigo said it has become more difficult to help children. Families are scattered, and they tend to move more often.
"You see the kids get isolated and it's hard," she said. "It's hard to have a sense of community when there's such a transition."
The Pedigos decided last year it was time to shut down. They accepted jobs in the Quaker hierarchy in Indiana and will soon move there with their three adopted children. Steve Pedigo concedes that he feels burned out.
On the last day of class, Pedigo drove the van to a pair of elementary schools, picking up eight boys and girls and their homework. One boy gave him two metallic balloons that said, "Thank you." He traded gibes and joked with a girl who borrowed his cell phone. Other students filed in later.
In a classroom, Pedigo worked with Timothy Murry, a tall eighth-grader who had written in a school essay, "To play basketball you got to have a education if you don't have a education you will not make it know where in life." Pedigo headed downstairs for pizza, homemade banana cake and a few final words.
"I want you to hear this. I want you to look at me," Pedigo began. "You need to know always in the back of your mind that you're loved. . . . All of you have the potential to succeed. That's why we had the after-school program. You are loved. You can do it. You can make it."