Off the Lease: Mario Bailey Part I

Mario Bailey travelling on the sidewalk in his wheelchair along State Street

From The Chicago Sun-Times, March 26, 2001:

Some may already be lost

In the dying days of winter, Mario is in bed at his grandmother’s third-floor Stateway Gardens apartment. The steady pounding of a wrecking ball can be heard in his bedroom as the first of eight high-rises is demolished.

At 25, Mario is a hardened veteran of the gang and drug activity that has a viselike grip on many CHA projects. A convicted drug user, he is in violation of his grandmother’s lease.

But she can’t throw him out. In October, bullets from the gun of a rival gang member ripped through his spinal cord. . . .

the shooting, Mario would have been a challenge for those pledging to turn tenants’ lives around. . . .

Though he is still recuperating, Mario would move out before putting his grandmother, aunt and brother, who also live there, at risk of eviction.

But where would he go?

Kate N. Grossman and Curtis Lawrence “CHA Must Change Minds Before Changing Lives”

Mario Bailey is a child of Stateway Gardens. His grandmother, Sarah Bailey, brought him there to live when he was ten years old. (Five years earlier, the Department of Children and Family Services had placed him with his grandmother, because there was no one else to care for him.) Today he is twenty-six. Stateway has been the setting for almost everything memorable and meaningful, lovely and terrible, that has happened in his life, including the shooting incident in the autumn of 2000 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Yet it is illegal for Mario to be at Stateway. To come home is to trespass. And his presence endangers his family. By embracing her grandson within her household, Sarah Bailey risks eviction.

Mario belongs to a large population of men who have, in effect, been banished from their communities because they have been arrestedtypically on drug chargeson CHA property. Their presence on the grounds of CHA developments not only exposes them to criminal trespass charges, it may also jeopardize the housing status of their families and friends. Under the “One Strike and You’re Out” policy, a family may be evicted if anyone on the lease or a guest is arrested on CHA property. Often the only way parents can settle One Strike cases and avoid eviction is by taking their child off the lease and agreeing that he will not live at home. That is what Sarah Bailey did in 1994 after Mario was first arrested on drug charges.

Much of the criminal activity at Stateway takes place in the open air lobbies and elevator corridors that residents refer to as “up under the building.” This is where the drug trade operates. It is also the village square. The commons. The public forum. And for the young men endlessly cycled and recycled through the criminal justice system and back into the community, it is the purgatory to which they return to hang out with friends, to get the news, and to wait for a door to open. In my experience, most do not return from periods of incarceration eager to resume laboring in the sweatshop working conditions of the street corner drug trade. As they emerge from prison, there is often an extended moment when they are ripe to move in a new directionto shift their weight, to realign their muscles, to alter the trajectory of their lives.

It was at such a moment in his life that I first met Mario Bailey in the autumn of 1998. Because my colleagues in the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC) and I have generated a handful of employment opportunities at Stateway over the years, I am often approached by men recently released from prison looking for jobs. Mario had returned home 48 hours earlier, after spending two years and two months in Cook County Jail on a murder charge. A jury had just found him not guilty. We stood in the lobby of 3542-44 S. State, the building where his grandmother lives, and talked.

“I used to see you around Stateway,” he told me, “but I was too shy to say anything to you.”

He inquired about a job. I told him we didn’t have any openings. Keep in touch, I said, perhaps something will come up.

“Sometime I’ll show you a scrapbook I made in jail,” Mario said.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He explained that he had clipped newspaper stories, including a Chicago Sun-Times article on NCC members working on the interior demolition of the Overton Building across the street—an article that mentioned men with whom he had grown up at Stateway. (See “Up on the Roof.”)

I was moved by the thought of Mario, in jail on a murder charge, clipping a story about our “grassroots public works” at Stateway and imagining himself joining in that work. I did not, however, have a job to offer him.

Apart from our program, the odds were heavily against Mario finding a job. He had never worked outside the criminal economy. Rather than a resume, he had a rap sheet that included multiple arrests for drug dealing and assault. Volatile and quick with his fists, he was, by his own account, a man of violence. As the chief of security for the Gangster Disciples in 3542-44 S. State, violence was, in a sense, his vocation.

As is often the case when ex-offenders can’t find a jobwhen the world they are trying to reenter seems a wall without a doorMario drifted back into the criminal economy and resumed laboring in the drug trade.

There was another factor as well. Mario had been arrested in connection with the murder of a Black Disciple leader. “I’ve been acquitted of murder by a jury,” he once remarked, “but I haven’t been acquitted by the neighborhood.” He found a measure of security within the fold of the Gangster Disciples.

We remained in intermittent contact. When he saw me, Mario renewed his request for a job. Then in the summer of 2000, several NCC members mounted a campaign on his behalf. Mario began to “volunteer.” He would show up at an apartment at Stateway that several NCC members were helping to rehab and look for ways to pitch in. He wanted, he said, “to get out from under the building.” He told me that he had stopped selling drugs and had imposed a curfew on himself.

At the time, the NCC was engaged in “trashing out” and securing vacant units throughout Stateway under a contract with the management company. As a matter of policy, we make no concessions to gang geography. We work in buildings “controlled” by the Gangster Disciples, and we work in buildings “controlled” by the Black Disciples. The NCC crew included veterans of both gang “nations” (giving rise to wisecracks about the NCC as a “multinational force”). It included men who used to shoot at each other, and now, working side by side, have become colleagues and friends. But Mario presented a special case. Would we put him at risk, if we assigned him to work in Black Disciple buildings? Would his presence put other NCC members at risk?

We discussed these questions among ourselves. We talked with a Black Disciple leader, who assured us, “As long as he comes as a working man, he’ll be okay.” And we decided to hire Mario.

There was one quiet dissent. Danielle Walters, the only other middle class member of the NCC besides myself, came into my office and closed the door.

“I just want you to know that there is one person I don’t want to have to work with directly,” she said. “Mario. He scares me.”

In August of 2000, Mario began to work as a member of the NCC. He worked hard. The transition to daily employment was not, however, without its bumps and stresses. There were occasional flaps with co-workers. In one instance, the foreman sent him home for the day. He phoned me. It took me a while to understand what he was saying, because he was weeping.

On Saturday, September 29th, I brought NCC members their pay checks. Mario was standing outside 3542-44 S. State. He did a little dance and displayed his check to the young men at their posts in the drug marketplace.

“Legitimate money,” he exulted. And he headed off to the bank.

The next week war broke out between the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. There was regular gunfire between the buildings at night and occasional gunfire during the day. It shut down our trashing out operation and was a source of great frustration to NCC members.

I had a conversation at the time with an NCC colleague about how important it was that we embody for the young men with guns a different way of being a man in the world.

“That’s right,” he said. “We’re not GD’s or BD’s. Each of us has his own name.”