Chicago’s Cabrini–Green may be best known for its violent past,
but Danny Sherrod ’03 sees it as a neighborhood with a future,
and a place that he has always called home.
Story by SUSAN DEGRANE
Portrait photos by LLOYD DEGRANE
“I came home and started a company and gave people jobs,” Sherrod says. “I’ve put
my own personal profit aside, basically. I’ve paid people good wages and put the money
back into the business.”
The seven-story apartment building still stands at the western edge of Cabrini–Green,
a massive public housing complex that at one time sheltered 15,000 low-income residents
on Chicago’s North Side. Slated for demolition, the structure at 1121 N. Larrabee
once straddled a dangerous vortex of three gang territories. Cobras to the north.
Vice Lords to the east. Gangster Disciples to the west. Smack in the middle of what
locals called “the triangle of death.”
Scarred by years of violence and neglect, this may seem anything but a place to call
“home,” but for Danny Sherrod ’03, the building once was that and much more.
The fifth of eight children, Sherrod has fond memories of playing with his siblings
and with children from other families living in the 200-unit structure.
Here is where his mother, Evelyn Burks, taught him and her other children to “do your
best, nothing but the best,” “always have a positive thought in your head,” “keep
busy with constructive activities,” “work hard,” “don’t just talk, take care to listen,”
“believe in God,” and “never hit a woman.”
So grounding were the lessons taught by his mother that on Father’s Day 2006, Sherrod
bought her a case of lobster, “because,” he says, “she’s my mother and my father.”
Sherrod’s father stepped out of his life early on, a fact upon which Sherrod does
not care to elaborate. Even so, he is not bitter about his early life. “I wouldn’t
change my life,” he says. “We learned survival skills.”
Sherrod, 27, was one of four honorees named a Shining Example for 2006 by the Associated
Colleges of Illinois (ACI), a group of 24 private colleges and universities that includes
Illinois Wesleyan University. This year’s awards — built around the theme “The Road
to College Success” — honored ACI alumni who “overcame significant obstacles, achieved
success in their chosen fields, and are outstanding role models.”
Today, Sherrod remains involved with public housing and helps others. He works as
assistant property manager at the Harold Ickes Homes, a 1,600-unit complex which serves
as temporary housing for Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents making housing
transitions. The job places Sherrod in direct contact with residents affected by the
CHA’s massive transformation from high-rise apartment buildings to smaller buildings
and scattered-site townhouse units.
Initially, the plan sparked much bitterness and resentment among residents, displacing
some 27,000 and requiring another 15,000 to relocate within available public housing
until renovations of remaining units and construction of new ones are complete. Even
so, Sherrod believes it’s “a good thing because it’s upgrading people’s living accommodations
and making more people responsible for their own outcomes.”
Sherrod’s job, which includes serving eviction papers to residents who have violated
public-housing rules, can be “rough at times,” as he describes it. But while some
residents may not be happy to see him, still others count on him to put them in touch
with needed social services. “I try to let them know we’re here,” he says. “I try
to be respectful and professional. I don’t make promises. I try to let them know what
options they do have.”
Sherrod also launched and operates his own contracting and construction business,
the Sherrod Group. So far, rehabbing single-family homes for private owners has been
the mainstay of the business, but Sherrod is bidding for Chicago Housing Authority
contracts for scattered-site housing.
Since Sherrod established his business in June 2004, he and the 20 individuals he
employs have completed 20 renovations. The work has included removing old woodwork,
walls, roofing, plumbing, and wiring; installing roofs, windows, floors, woodwork,
and cabinets; and painting, plastering, drywalling, tuck-pointing, and high-pressure
washing of basement floors and exteriors.
“I came home and started a company and gave people jobs,” he says. “I’ve put my own
personal profit aside, basically. I’ve paid people good wages and put the money back
into the business.” Many construction firms pay laborers $5 and $6 an hour, says Sherrod
who pays workers between $9 and $13. Many of those workers are employed part-time
among some of Cabrini–Green’s remaining residents. The firm also gives non-paid internships
to students at Dawson Technical Institute. In some cases, those internships have led
to employment with Sherrod’s company.
“I believe in helping others through my business,” says Sherrod, who responded to
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by driving to New Orleans with a five-man crew
to repair and paint two hotels in the La Quinta chain. He helped in other ways, too.
“At night, I’d volunteer, asking people if they needed help,” he says. “A whole lot
of people were just waiting for supplies.”
Sherrod lives in the row-house portion of Cabrini–Green, near his mother and two younger
sisters, and he is helping to raise his 3-year-old nephew. He plans to purchase a
home before the end of the year, preferably, he says, on Chicago’s South Side. Yet
before moving on, one sunny day last July, Sherrod decided to revisit his first childhood
The Larrabee Street structure Sherrod resided in for the first 13 years of his life
is now boarded up and ghostly quiet, except for the fluttering of pigeons that roost
in the upper stories. He has not taken a good look at it in several years, though
it’s just a few blocks from his current address on the 900th block of Mohawk Street.
“When my family moved to the row houses, that seemed a world away,” he says.
Surveying the freshly mowed fields where massive, 19-story high rises once towered
above acres of blacktop, he says, “This is my ’hood. … For all of its vices, violence,
poverty, and drugs, it’s still community.”
While much of the violence has abated, police cameras mounted atop poles nearby constantly
flash their blue lights, the telltale sign of a high-crime area.
Condos and scattered-site public housing will eventually replace Sherrod’s childhood
home, according to Karen Pride, a CHA spokesperson. Still, for now the signs of a
hardscrabble childhood remain.
“See those milk crates with the bottoms cut out?” Sherrod asks, pointing two stories
up to two red crates secured inside of the mesh-covered walkways where children once
played. “That’s what we used for basketball hoops when we were little. Yeah, that’s
how we did it in the projects.”
Sherrod takes in the desolate view at his childhood home, a public housing structure
that now stands empty and will be demolished. With support from his mother and teachers,
he was able to avoid the the lure of gangs and drugs that consumed the lives of many
in his neighborhood.
Sherrod comes upon a crab-apple tree at the back of the building and recalls what
fun he and his friends had throwing the fruits that wielded a stinging whack. Then another memory hits him like a bolt of lightning. When he was only 8 years
old, he explains, he was jumped by a member of the Cobra gang who was trying to take
away Sherrod’s new scooter which his mother had bought for him. A fight ensued, during
which the gang member cut Sherrod’s wrist with a knife. He lost so much blood from
the injury that he passed out.
Family members took Sherrod to a nearby fire station and he was eventually transported
to a local hospital for stitches. He still bears the scar from the injury. Even so,
at the tender age of 8, he held his ground against an armed boy two or three years
his senior. The Cobra fled, never to be seen again. “He did not get that scooter,”
Sherrod says resolutely, then laughs. “No, he did not. Now, that was a true fight
to the death.”
There were other fights — with rescues made by older brothers — and frequent barrages
of gang crossfire, which made walking to the nearby Jenner Elementary School a deadly
“Once you got to school you were safe,” says Sherrod, who served as a crossing guard
in 1992 on the day that fellow schoolmate, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, was killed while
walking the morning gauntlet at the other side of the school. That incident made national
news, and Sherrod claims it was “the nail in the coffin for all public housing on
a massive scale, and the beginning of the end of public housing as we knew it.”
Observing his own personal reaction to the shooting, Sherrod says, “When you grow
up in a place like this — and this is me talking years later — you’re like, ‘Wow,
somebody got shot. Things are messed up. Things are real messed up.’ You learn to
duck and cover and wait for an adult or a police officer to say it’s okay to get up.
And then you have to move on with your life.”
It seems Sherrod often managed to move on, or forward, by being resourceful. At age
8, he decided he wanted money for candy. Instead of joining a gang or dealing drugs
to earn money, he began bagging groceries after school for $25 a week. What he didn’t
spend on candy, he turned over to his mom to help out with daily expenses.
Even so, gang activity in the projects and recruitment efforts intensified as Sherrod
turned 10, and still he managed to resist. “In my mother’s words,” he says, “we were
our own gang.” For a moment he pauses and smiles as if amused. “Plus, I would have
had to face her. That would be far worse than dealing with gangbangers.”
While Sherrod’s life set him worlds apart from his college peers, he wasn’t the stereotypical
child growing up in the projects, either. As his mother tells it, he spent lots of
time reading books, practicing the viola, and participating in after-school enrichment
programs. “He was like a nutty-professor type,” Burks says. “He loved reading; he
was like a bookworm.”
Stimulating his academic growth was Sherrod’s participation in the Little Cabrini
tutoring program for elementary students and the Cabrini Connections Tutor/Mentor
Program for high school students. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, his involvement
in the program gave Sherrod his first Illinois Wesleyan connection: Daniel Bassill
— a 1968 IWU graduate and a 2004 ACI Shining Example award-winner — established Cabrini
Connections in 1992.
Sherrod’s hard work paid off. He graduated first in his class from Jenner Elementary
School and was one of six valedictorians at Near North Career Metropolitan High School,
which closed in 2001.
“He was a terrific influence on other students,” recalls Alan Pulaski, a former hospitality-management
teacher at Near North. “These were the years when vocational schools, like Near North,
were attempting to integrate with regular academic subjects — English, math, and science.
We studied Junior Great Books. ... Danny took to it like a duck to water and truly
stimulated the discussions.
“He liked to argue but never made the other person feel bad, never put them down.
He was a natural politician. … He also had this leadership thing. He helped people
realize their potential,” says Pulaski, recalling that Sherrod orchestrated a major
class project, a banquet celebration and awards program that involved several fellow
Also observing Sherrod’s charisma was Justin Bradley, a volunteer for Cabrini Connections
who served as Sherrod’s primary mentor during his high school years. “He was one of
the people who was well-respected,” Bradley says. “Among the other kids, he seemed
to hold a great degree of credibility. … Danny could be very persuasive. When Danny
had occasion to speak up about something, his voice was listened to. In impromptu
debates, he has a definite skill that could be honed. … I think he held a lot of sway
Bradley was aware that Sherrod was a bright student, having witnessed his rapid reading-comprehension
skills. Bradley himself had earned a B.A. in economics from Illinois Wesleyan in 1992,
and the school seemed like a strong possibility for Sherrod.
Sherrod had interviews with other schools, but he chose Illinois Wesleyan because
“the way it was presented to me, it made it seem like they wanted me there,” he says.
“Also, I was from a small high school, and Illinois Wesleyan was small. I didn’t want
to be a number.”
At the start of his first year, Sherrod brought only a duffel bag stuffed with clothes
and an outsized work ethic. In order to put himself through school, he says he worked
45 hours a week. That work included setting up sound systems for visiting campus speakers
which afforded him opportunities to get up close and personal with activists such
as Coretta Scott King and her son Martin Luther King III, as well as a bevy of big-name
Sherrod smiles after receiving his diploma during 2003 Commencement.
Adjusting to campus life meant dealing with “culture shock,” Sherrod says, adding
that his public high school had not equipped him for the academic rigors of college.
His grades dipped, and he was put on academic probation. He spent the second semester
of his sophomore year and first semester of his junior year in Chicago, attending
Malcolm X College in order to bring up his grades. He then returned to Illinois Wesleyan
during the spring semester to continue on with his degree.
He managed to keep his grades up, and still maintained a demanding workload, including
service as a resident assistant his senior year. Looking back, he praises many of
his Illinois Wesleyan professors for enriching his life and for “opening my mind to
new ways of thinking and writing.” But the most valuable thing he learned while at
IWU, he says, was this: “They didn’t teach us the answers. They taught us how to get
the answers. I can go into any field and get the answers. More importantly, they taught
us how to formulate the question.”
Sherrod’s major in political science sparked his interest in a possible career in
government. After being named Senator of the Year by the IWU Student Senate for 2001-02,
he served an internship in Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s office in 2002, helping
downstate residents with public housing concerns.
“He was a very hard worker,” says Bill Houlihan, the downstate director for Durbin’s
office, who worked directly with Sherrod. “If someone tells him no, he doesn’t give
up. He talks to someone else until he finds the way.
“He also really seemed to care about people,” Houlihan says. “But the one thing that
truly set him apart from other interns is he had this incredibly positive attitude
that became infectious. Pretty soon the whole staff was in a better mood, had a better
attitude, thanks to Danny.”
Sherrod hasn’t given up his interest in politics. He belongs to the Young Democrats
of Chicago’s 27th Ward, which includes Cabrini-Green. He recently rewrote the group’s
constitution and is involved in outreach activities for high school students. When
asked what he’d like to do in the future, he says he’d like to become a senator from
Which raises another question, one that Sherrod has been asked a lot in recent years:
Why, after graduating from college, did he choose to return to his old neighborhood
when he could have pursued more lucrative, and safer, options? His answer comes without
hesitation: “Coming back home has allowed me to help my family escape the cycle of
drugs and poverty that we were locked into.
“My greatest success is happening right now — being in a position where I can be a
positive example and help other people.”