Rockwell Gardens housing projects

A file photo of the Abbot Homes building in which Ruthie Mae McCoy was slain in 1987. The killer or killers entered her apartment through the hole in the wall for her medicine cabinet.On Monday, Longform posted a Reader story I wrote 27 years ago about a murder in a Chicago housing project. Longform is a website that curates articles—most of them current, some of them old—of at least 2, 000 words. My story, "They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror, " slipped over the minimum by 8, 217 words.

The victim of the murder, 52-year-old Ruthie Mae McCoy, may have been schizophrenic, but definitely was paranoid. On an April evening in 1987, she was shot to death by someone who entered her apartment through the hole in the bathroom wall for her medicine cabinet. McCoy heard the intruder or intruders coming, called 911, and told the dispatcher frantically that someone had "throwed the cabinet down" and was breaking in. Two neighbors also called police and reported hearing gunfire in McCoy's apartment. Yet the officers who responded to her door that night left without entering, and it was not until a return visit two days later that they found McCoy, decomposing on the living room floor.

It sounds like a nightmare, of course. But that's what the high-rise projects often were.

McCoy lived in the Grace Abbott Homes, which were near Roosevelt and Loomis. The seven Y-shaped, 15-story Abbott towers housed 3, 600 poor African-Americans, most of them children being raised by single mothers, aunts, or grandmothers. Members of a faction of the Black Gangster Disciples, the Paymasters, roamed the halls, calling out, "We got what you want, we got what you need"—meaning the rock cocaine, heroin, PCP, and reefer they were selling. Robbery, theft, and burglary were rampant, Abbott residents doing what they had to in order to buy what they wanted and needed.

The Abbott Homes back then were but one example of the abomination of Chicago's public housing. There were also Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Ida B. Wells Homes, Dearborn Homes, and the Ickes Homes on the south side; Rockwell Gardens and the Horner Homes on the west side; and Cabrini-Green on the near north side. Most of these were built or expanded in the 1950s and '60s. Chicago Housing Authority officials had wanted public housing to be integrated, racially and economically, to the extent possible, given that public housing would be mainly for those of modest means. They suggested sites in a variety of neighborhoods, including white, middle-class areas. But white aldermen weren't about to tolerate public housing projects in their wards, so the projects ended up in black ghettos, where they soon filled with African-Americans on public aid. The projects were woefully funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and CHA saved what money it could by not maintaining them.

  • Sun-Times/Rich Chapman
  • A bathroom in a vacant apartment in the Abbott Homes in 1991. Chicago's high-rise housing projects were often in disrepair.

I wanted "Bathroom Mirror" to give readers a sense of the plight of the people living in the Abbott Homes. The media, like most everyone else, tended to neglect the projects. Medicine-cabinet break-ins weren't rare in the Abbotts, I learned in reporting this story, but they'd never been written about. ("Bathroom Mirror" describes the mode of entry.) And despite the bizarre circumstances of the McCoy killing, Chicago's dailies and other media virtually ignored it.

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