Carol Steele, ‘queen of Cabrini-Green’ and longtime public housing activist, dead at 72

Steele, who grew up and remained in the neighborhood, fought to keep its row houses and residents in place amid the redevelopment of the area.

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Carol Steele watches as demolition begins on the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green on March 30, 2011.

Carol Steele watches as demolition begins on the last high-rise at Cabrini-Green on March 30, 2011. Steele served as local advisory council president for Cabrini-Green for years and fought to preserve the development’s row houses.

Associated Press

Carol Steele, longtime Cabrini-Green local advisory council president and public housing activist, died Aug. 3. She was 72.

Her brother, Ronald McDonald, said she had battled illness for “quite some time.”

McDonald said Ms. Steele was a “go-getter” from a young age, working with local youth groups in and around the Near North Side neighborhood where her family of six children grew up.

He said her path to public service “wasn’t surprising at all” given that she came from a “community-driven” family. McDonald has served on several city and neighborhood committees relating to mental health, and several cousins have taken on similar roles. Ms. Steele took over as the president of the Cabrini-Green local advisory council from another relative.

“Auntie passed the baton to Carol, and she took it and ran with it because of her love for the community,” McDonald said. “When the people couldn’t speak for themselves, I was proud she was there for them. If it wasn’t for her, more than likely the Cabrini-Green row houses would’ve been torn down.”

Carol Steele, shown at a June 19, 2001 CHA meeting at the Charles Hayes Center, 4959 S. Wabash Ave. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Carol Steele addresses a CHA meeting at the Charles Hayes Center in 2001.

Sun-Times file

In various advocacy roles, Ms. Steele took time to mentor younger advocates whom she sometimes had to “convince” to join the fight, according to mentee Willie J.R. Fleming, who is now executive director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.

The two met when Ms. Steele helped him secure a music studio in Cabrini-Green when he was younger. He was eventually brought into the fold of fighting for public housing. Fleming said Ms. Steele had many sayings that she would frequently offer up, such as “me today, you tomorrow,” and other messages about helping one another.

“You get what you fight for,” Ms. Steele would tell mentees. “Sometimes, you have to take actions into your own hands.”

Fleming accompanied Ms. Steele on trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where they helped with the aftermath of the storm to ensure that public housing residents weren’t forgotten. They pushed to move displaced residents to Chicago.

Carol Steele (left), New Orleans public housing advocate Stephanie Mingo and Willie J.R. Fleming are shown outside St. Bernard public housing in 2006. Steele and Fleming made multiple trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping displaced residents find housing in Chicago.

Carol Steele (left), New Orleans public housing advocate Stephanie Mingo and Willie J.R. Fleming are shown outside St. Bernard public housing in 2006. Steele and Fleming made multiple trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping displaced residents find housing in Chicago.

Provided

More recently, Fleming said Ms. Steele’s message gained relevance as people struggled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with more issues in public housing arising as people struggled to pay rent.

“That’s why we gotta fight for everybody,” Fleming said. “Everybody is a paycheck away from being homeless.”

Outside work, though, Fleming said the two were a good fit because they were both Aquariuses who were big on jokes and laughter.

McDonald said that when she wasn’t working, his sister enjoyed playing cards and was fond of dolphins.

But it wasn’t just her dedication to educating others that got her where she was.

Charles Price, a longtime confidant who also worked as manager of the Cabrini-Green row houses for many years, said her commitment to knowing the ins and outs of public housing policy gave her an advantage when contending with government officials. He said that was why she was elected to so many community posts throughout the years.

“The neighborhood knew,” Price said. “She argued with [the city] up and down because she knew her rules and regulations.”

But in recent years her integrity was called into question when the city’s inspector general accused her and others of misusing more than $180,000 intended to help displaced and current residents.

An agreement was reached, and Steele and the others were forced to step down from their positions at the community development council.

Price and Fleming maintain that she did nothing wrong. Price said developers would often try to get to Ms. Steele through him, but Ms. Steele would turn them away. He said there was “no amount of money” that could buy her.

“Something you learn early on in advocacy is that the city will attack your character, but when you have work that outweighs anything they could say, it’s harder,” Fleming said. “She had been a thorn in the side of the government for too long. Her work spoke for itself.”

IMG_3640.jpg

Carol Steele (wearing hat) holds a peer exchange meeting with Charlottesville, Virginia, public housing leaders in 2018.

Provided

Ms. Steele was barred from running for local advisory committee president, but Price said she fought for the community until the end. He said the last conversation he had with her, just two days before she died, was about the future of the row houses.

Empty Cabrini-Green row houses north of Chicago Avenue in 2014

Empty Cabrini-Green row houses north of Chicago Avenue in 2014

Rich Hein/Sun-Times (file)

“Tuesday she told me when she gets out and feels better, ‘We’re gonna go back to fight for the row houses,’” Price said.

Fleming said he had received calls from other activists expressing condolences and their regret for not having had the chance to be mentored by Ms. Steele, but also to reiterate their commitment to the fight they all shared.

“We lost a legend,” Fleming said. “I’m not Carol Steele. No one could ever fill those shoes. She was our Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. … She was the queen of Cabrini-Green and godmother of public housing.”

Services, which are open to the public, will be held Thursday at Park Community Church at 1001 N. Crosby St. from 10 a.m. to noon. Ms. Steele is survived by her four children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and siblings: Ronald McDonald, Charlotte McDonald and Sheila Smith.

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