Every school day at precisely 2:40 p.m., Diana Brooks turns to the window of her apartment in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. She stares at the bleak concrete landscape between the red brick high-rises until she spots John, 12, Charles, 7, and Jermaine, 5, picking their way past the broken glass, rusty cars and trash. Only when the boys are safely inside the apartment can the 28-year-old mother relax.
The window where Diana keeps her vigil has been pierced by a bullet, and there is another bullet hole in the wall, which she covered with a cabinet and a neat display of picture postcards showing Chicago's tourist attractions. Diana and her sons and the other families of Cabrini-Green live in a cross fire between rival gangs, who have turned the project into an American version of Belfast or Beirut. Constant warfare between gangs like the Disciples, Vice-Lords or King Cobras across such notorious between-building battlefields as "the Blacktop" or "Wild End" have made Cabrini-Green one of the most dangerous places in America. Too often, the innocent bystander is gunned down in a murderous fusillade. This year alone, there have been eleven killings. During the summer, someone gets shot on the average of every other day. As one young mother puts it, "There are days when you feel it. Death is in the air."
Hunkered down in their apartments decorated like shrines, cinder-block walls adorned with pictures of children, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus, the mothers of Cabrini-Green feel fear every time their children go out. The other night, Diana's son Charles ran home crying in terror after missing his ride from class. When he arrived, Diana had already phoned the police. "I was crying my heart out. A child has to be home at a certain time," Diana recalled. Even before nightfall, when radio rhythms are punctuated by gunshots, children cannot play outside. A neighbor child, Angela Grant, 6, has never once frolicked in the play area by her apartment building because fighting frequently breaks out there. "She knows," says her mother, Sonja Grant, 26, "that she's never going across that battlefield."
"When it's bad out," said Kathy Ford, pregnant and holding Tramaine, 2, on her lap, "I don't go out to the store for milk. Or sometimes I grab his hand and say, 'Come on, Tramaine, walk fast.'" The regular sounds of shooting used to upset the little boy. "It was 'What those shots, Mommy?' and 'Him was killed? Who dead?'" said Kathy, a fashionably dressed 19-year-old, imitating her son. These days, though, little Tramaine has grown accustomed to the gunfire; when it begins, he ignores it. Sonja, who has childhood friends now in the gangs, cannot remember how many funerals she has attended. Still, she sighs, "when I hear shots and they're close by, I panic. But if they be far away, it's like, 'I'm tired, it's fine.' "