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Searching For The Why In Violent Case Of Girl X

Peter S. Canellos Boston Globe

It is always midnight in the stairwell at 1121 N. Larrabee St., a rotting apartment house in the cement heart of the Cabrini-Green public housing complex.

Darkness never recedes because the light sockets are smashed, and iron mesh covers each window. The steps are pitted and uneven, as if hacked from a piece of granite, and bilious stains fill the atmosphere with the stale air of old offenses.

On the morning of Jan. 9, a housing authority employee found a 9-year-old girl lying on a stair landing. She had been raped. Her shirt had been used as a garrote and was twisted around her neck. She had been forced to drink gasoline. Her skull was smashed. Gang emblems were scribbled all over her body with a felt pen.

She was barely alive.

Children of violence exert a claim on the national conscience. Girl X, as she is now known, has come to stand for something as well. She is, according to many in the city, a symbol of how Chicago - from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s City Hall - has become inured to its everyday acts of depravity.

For the first week that Girl X fought for life, Chicagoans, whether unaware or unmoved, gave the attack no special attention. The leading newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, recorded it in five paragraphs deep inside its Metro section. Some television stations gave the story, with its faceless victim, no coverage at all.

As the days went by, however, word of the crime began to trickle out. The Tribune did another story, on the front of the Metro section. Then two columnists, one at the Chicago Sun-Times, one at the Tribune, picked up the cudgel and began pounding this city of almost 3 million people for its indifference.

“I’m disrupting your otherwise pleasant Saturday to tell this story because the public has scarcely noticed the tragedy that has befallen this young girl,” wrote Lee Bey of the Sun-Times on Jan. 25, more than two weeks after the attack. “The act has been treated almost like a footnote in the local news media.”

Since then, many Chicagoans have come forward with theories as to how Girl X fell between the cracks of indifference.

The Rev. Maxine Walker, an assistant pastor at a South Side Chicago church, placed the blame on old-fashioned racial double standards. Girl X, she said, should be Chicago’s version of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old who was found murdered in her family’s home in Boulder, Colo., in December.

Bey, who is black, used his column to criticize the city’s leading black organizations for failing to step in, noting that Jackson found the time to counsel flamboyant basketball superstar Dennis Rodman.

“Civil rights groups in this city are set up to react to the advent of white racism, but what they don’t see is black on black crime,” Bey said. “Surely if the girl’s attackers were suspected to be white, they would have mobilized. But they’re paralyzed when the attacker is black. You don’t see anyone marching. You don’t see the big churches mobilizing.”

Other Chicagoans suggested that, in the era of welfare reform, people view inner-city problems through the cold eyes of social scientists, with less empathy for the victims. Girl X is a third-generation resident of CabriniGreen, and her mother has been investigated for neglecting her children.

But the main reason the attack on Girl X didn’t attract much attention seems to be simpler and more distressing: Grotesque crimes aren’t anything new at Cabrini-Green, which has been in the national spotlight for a quarter-century and stands as a monument for the intractability of urban problems.

“That’s the story of Cabrini,” said Dan Coyle, who taught Little League baseball in the development for five years and wrote a book about it. “A well-meaning person shows up three times a week. But nothing changes.”

In the 1970s, the TV series “Good Times” wrung humor out of the deprivations of life in Cabrini-Green. It went off the air, but the deprivations continued.

In 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne, shocked by a crime wave, moved into Cabrini-Green, vowing to stay until everyone was safe. She left a month later, but the crime wave only swelled.

In 1992, “The Candy Man,” a horror movie about a supernatural serial killer lurking in a vacant apartment at Cabrini-Green, was a hit with audiences, but no one stepped in to stop the real-life killings.

Cabrini-Green, located just blocks from Chicago’s upscale “Gold Coast,” isn’t the only turbulent development in town; it’s merely the best known of a city of troubled high rises.

New York, with all its rough urban edges, still manages to run an efficient housing authority, annually topping the list of the nation’s best big-city authorities. The Chicago Housing Authority, however, is so delinquent that about half its 40,000 units are in danger of failing new federal viability standards. If so, federal policy dictates that they be closed, and the tenants assigned rent vouchers instead.

Many in Chicago are rooting for the developments to fail.

“People have known for a long time that large high-rise projects don’t work,” said Edwin Marciniak, author of a book on Cabrini-Green and the dean of Chicago urbanologists, with roots in the administration of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor. “You have to remember, when it started, all the good civic-minded people were for it. It’s been hard to get them to realize it’s not such a good thing.”

A plan to convert Cabrini-Green into mixed-income housing has been on the drawing board since 1988. It was a pet project of former housing authority chairman Vince Lane. But Lane resigned two years ago amid charges of fraud and mismanagement. The federal government has since placed the authority in receivership.

The Daley administration is tentatively moving forward with an expansive redevelopment plan for CabriniGreen, but many black leaders deride it as a land grab that favors big developers over poor residents. And Edwin Eisendrath, the federal housing official who is chairman of the authority, warns no makeover is a panacea.

“Architecture itself is not an answer,” he said. “People are the answer.”

The 7,300 residents of Cabrini-Green aren’t apathetic about the attack on Girl X, according to Eisendrath. “People are outraged and horrified,” he said. “But they’re sensible enough to know that simply saying it won’t change things.”

Other Chicagoans, however, believe the residents have become jaded or, worse, resigned to the presence of torturous crimes.

James Muhammad, editor of the Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, scolded some people in Cabrini-Green. “A proper response is for the community, particularly black men, to pick up the themes of the Million Man March and take responsibility for their communities,” he said. “If we did that, attacks like the one of Girl X will end overnight.”

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan visited Girl X. A fund set up by a black radio station has netted $150,000 to cover her expenses. She remains in a rehabilitation hospital. Sources close to the family say she is awake but does not comprehend what happened to her; there is likelihood that she will be permanently disabled.

Grieving for children has been something of a routine in Chicago. Two years ago, the city mourned Eric Morse, the 5-year-old who was hoisted over a railing and dropped from the 14th floor of the Ida B. Wells development by two neighbors, ages 10 and 11. Two years earlier, Dantrell Davis, age 7, pricked the heart of the city when he was shot dead in gang cross fire at Cabrini-Green.

A stretch of Cleveland Street in Cabrini-Green is now called “Dantrell Davis Way,” but the sign has come unhinged and flaps in the wind. In 1993, the Tribune devoted a year to highlighting every murder of a child in Chicago. There were 61.

“These tragedies that happen to kids galvanize us, and life goes on,” said Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who has taken up the cause of Girl X. “And then the next one comes along.”

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