Children of the projects; Will Cabrini-Green's youth start a fire or light a candle?

Barely a mile from Chicago's chic lakefront looms Cabrini-Green.

The 81 buildings of the housing project cover blocks of otherwise empty and trash-strewn lots. The high-rises are the most imposing, cutting huge profiles out of the gray sky. The children who stroll under the structures seem lost in a cavernous vacuum.

Despite appearances, however, these youths are the sparks of Cabrini-Green. Making up about 70 percent of the project's population, they face the problems faced by disadvantaged black youths everywhere. Sometimes, the rough streets, the recession, and a 46 percent jobless rate for black teen-agers have a way of snuffing them out.

Guy, Kelly, and Michael weren't about to be snuffed out, so they turned to a life of crime. But all sparks don't fly in the same direction. If sometimes they ignite the smoldering environment, other times they light a bright candle.

In a very real sense, these three 21-year-olds sit in a no man's land. They want to join society's mainstream, but they haven't burned their bridges to the past. They are enrolled in a basic skills training program at the Safer Foundation, the Midwest's largest nonprofit, private agency that trains and places ex-offenders. Safer has made more than 16,000 job placements in its 11 years of operation.

Michael talks of getting a job and going straight. But, like the average Safer client, he has little training and, of course, a criminal record. Recession, meanwhile, is eroding his opportunities. It used to take Safer job developers 10 calls to find a job opening. Now, on average, it takes 20. And that is no guarantee the ex-offender will be hired.

''It's very tough,'' Michael concedes. But not impossible. Last year alone, the agency made 2,350 job placements.

Kelly doesn't say what he wants to do, though he is quite certain he wants to put an end to his periodic visits to jail. ''Man, you've got to be crazy to go back there,'' he says.

But if ex-offenders don't find jobs, Guy says, ''you're going to do what you're doing best.''

And that means survival. ''They're just not going to starve,'' says Richard Weis, Safer's director of fiscal development for the private sector. ''They're going to do whatever they have to do to survive.''

While youth crime experts laud Safer's efforts to find jobs for ex-offenders, many call it a stopgap measure that doesn't deal with the root causes of delinquency.

Bounce. Bounce.

The red, white, and blue basketball rebounds off the grimy gym floor. A pair of teen-age hands maneuvers the ball down court. One more dribble. A running step. Leap . . . .

A missed layup.

Many boys (and girls, too) spin dreams of stardom in professional sports, and the children of Cabrini-Green are no exception. But reality has taken on a harder edge for this seventh and eighth-grade basketball team from the Schiller School, which is in the project. Recently, one of the team's players was tragically and senselessly slain - reportedly by a member of a local gang.

On their way to today's game, the players, who are squeezed into the back seat of the car, show little outward emotion. But tough surroundings have a way of hardening young brows.

''These kids grow up a lot faster than others, and that's not always good,'' says their coach, Jesse White, who is also an Illinois state representative. ''They're exposed to a lot of things that youngsters never should be exposed to.'' He estimates he has attended 50 children's funerals in the past five years.

But if Jesse White knows the dark part of Cabrini-Green, he also represents a bright hope. To many of the children, he serves as combination coach and father figure.

''One of the things these kids need is good encouragement,'' White says. The children also need discipline, he says. ''We don't have enough men in Cabrini-Green.''

Of the 13,626 official residents (White estimates another 7,000 live here unofficially), 70 percent are children. Almost all of them are brought up by one parent, almost always their mother.

Discipline in the project's high-rises is difficult, White says, because a mother cleaning house on the 16th floor has a hard time knowing what her child is up to outside. And outside, of course, are the gangs and drug dealers.

''I wonder first of all how they make it,'' White says. His own family was on public aid for 12 years when he was a child and attending the same Schiller School. ''But in this day and age, when everything is sky high, (and) yet we're cutting back on social programs . . . . They (the children) live from day to day.''

But if the sparks are to fly the right way, it is with the children at this age - before they make the mistakes of a Francisco, a Guy, or a Kelly.

The plight of Cabrini-Green has not gone unnoticed. Last year, Chicago's Mayor Jane Byrne lived for two weeks in the troubled project, pledging to stay ''as long as it takes.'' Police protection was increased and children report that gunshots don't wake them up in the night anymore.

Nevertheless, police surveillance has declined since she left, and gangs are trying to move back into the project, White says.

After virtually disappearing in the early 1970s, Chicago's black gangs have resurfaced in the past three years. Police report they are better organized, heavily involved in lucrative drug dealing, and increasing their violent activity. Last year, gang-related homicides in Chicago rose to 69, almost double the 1980 total.

Although many youths are on the fringes of the gang, the street offers powerful incentives for joining: protection from other gangs, peer acceptance, identity, and respect.

''If [you] hook up in this gang, then you're somebody,'' says Edward Saddler, a former gang member. ''You wear your cap a certain way'' and look up to the gang leader ''maybe like Superman.'' A typical age for joining is 11 or 12, says Walter B. Miller, a Harvard criminologist and gang expert.

Breaking away, even after going straight, is even more difficult, says Francisco Perez, an ex-gang member who is now a Safer staff member. ''It's hard for you to turn down your old friends. It's hard for me still when I see those guys.''

Like an increasing number of gang members, Saddler carries a gun. ''A gun in your hand makes you feel (like you own) wide earth,'' he says. ''It makes you walk down the street and you see a guy. And you step on his foot and you wait for him to say something to make you mad. You try to play this role.''

Gang influence is even evident among the majority of youths who don't join. The fifth- and sixth-graders in one gym class at Schiller School know what signals and dress codes distinguish various gangs. Blue and black is for the Black Disciples; yellow for the Vice Lords. Jesse White's local Scout troop wears white helmets in the area instead of the traditional red berets because red is the identifying color of another local gang.

Chicago has the most persistent tradition of gang activity of any major US city, Dr. Miller says. But the gangs are not a monolithic force. During the 1970 s, they made up only 3.8 percent of Chicago youths between the ages of 10 and 19 .

To fear the gangs and criminal youths without knowing Francisco Perez's story is to recognize the forest without understanding the tree. ''They're individuals ,'' Miller says. ''There are enormous variations.''

Perez, a handsome 22-year-old, speaks quietly and candidly about his reformation. From a broken home in Chicago's rough Humboldt Park area, Perez drifted into a local gang at an early age. ''I had never seen a high school,'' he recalls. ''I went out to the streets.''

Like his older brothers and stepbrothers, he ''hung out.'' One day he earned his nickname: ''Will Kill.''

At 19, Perez was convicted of manslaughter and spent the next 18 months in jail. It forced him to take stock of himself. When he came out, he wanted a job and turned to the Safer Foundation.

''I was desperate,'' Perez recalls. ''But once I got in here, the staff motivated me to look for not just any job.'' After a year in the program, Perez joined the Safer staff last fall. He is also taking night courses in computer science at De Paul University.

Helping youths to stay on the right side of the law depends a lot on the community, according to Joseph McCarthy, deputy superintendent for the city police bureau of field tactical services. ''A community should expect really good police, and (citizens) should demand it.''

Individuals also can help disadvantaged children by providing an alternative to gangs, says White. ''When you have a lot of people idle, they have to find a way to entertain themselves. Become involved with these kids. There's a need for tutoring'' and sports coaching. ''They've got to see the grass on the other side of the city.''

Although these efforts have helped reduce gang activity in isolated incidents , no single method has worked most of the time, Dr. Miller says. More needs to be known about a city's gang population and the effect of various solutions has to be studied, he says. ''What will work with one group won't work with another.''

Three out of 4 children here will turn out all right, White says. ''Some of the greatest talent is right here in Cabrini,'' he adds, noting that his local Scout troop consistently wins several sports and art awards. And White - as well as many others - tries to develop the talent despite the surroundings.

Often he can be seen leading a troop of children in other neighborhoods - sometimes on bicycles or cross-country skis. ''I want to show them that Cabrini-Green is not the end of the world,'' he says.

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