Patricia Evans, who took the photo, remembers the day vividly. She was working on a project about children growing up in public housing.
“It was a very rainy day and I was there with the police … waiting for the kids to go to school.”
Neither Tiffany nor Evans could have known that the photo would eventually be used in homegrown rap videos, posters, photo exhibitions and news stories or on book jackets like this one.
How did this ordinary moment become such an iconic image of Chicago public housing?
“I think it’s the expression on her face,” Evans told us. “And the kind of barrenness of that playground and this very serious child. I’m sure that’s why I took that picture.”
What’s iconic to Evans, though, so many years later, is not really Tiffany’s pose.
“What’s iconic for me is those buildings in the background.
“There was a child dropped from the top of one of [them] by some older boys,” Evans recalls. The 5-year-old, who had refused to steal candy, fell to his death.
“Those buildings were taken down not long after I took that picture.”
Here’s where most of the projects were located in Chicago, before the demolition started in the 2000s.
Here on the South Side, the projects were built in historic slum areas. This only reinforced the invisible borders — social, economic, racial — segregating the city and contributing to the problems in poor neighborhoods.
From an aerial perspective, some of the city’s invisible borders come into view. Some of the poorest neighborhoods are boxed in by expressways.
“There were about 20, 25 blocks of housing all packed together,” Evans recalls. “Everything around public housing had vanished … as [it] became more and more concentrated, and poorer and poorer.”
Evans lived in a pocket of affluence and diversity amid the poorest South Side neighborhoods — in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. She’d often go running north of her neighborhood, along the lakefront.
On one autumn afternoon in 1988, she was doing just that, along her normal route.
She was attacked, dragged from the path and sexually assaulted. Afterward, the man who attacked her ran away. He ran across the highway that separates the lakefront from the tough neighborhood that was home to the Ida B. Wells Homes, Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens.
In that moment, Evans’ relationship with the city changed dramatically.
Evans had no idea how to navigate the projects at first, she says. “You don’t belong. You stand out and you’re not exactly sure how to be there.”
“You go into some people’s apartments and they were immaculately clean, well-furnished. And I was always struck by the details.”
Evans would eventually spend more and more of her time at Stateway Gardens, photographing the people who lived there.
“There’s lots of portraits I’ve done … that bring back lots of memories for me”
There was Frank, a former child prodigy who had toured Europe as an opera singer in his youth. When he sold tchotchkes and trinkets on the street, he would still occasionally break into song.
There was Andre, a young man whose brothers had criminal histories but made sure he didn’t get caught up in the gangs. He still lives in the neighborhood and is a social worker helping relocated residents.
Working mother Diane Bond sued the Chicago Police Department for alleged abuse, saying a group of rogue police officers known as the “Skull Cap Crew” systematically harassed her and her family. The department settled for $150,000 without admitting wrongdoing.
There was Russell, known as “Red Boy,” a tough young man who loved animals.
Bill grew up in the neighborhood before public housing was built. He held a succession of jobs as a cook.
There was Roy, famous for dancing in the hallways and chasing the ice cream truck and hollering his catchphrase, “Whoa, Mary!”
Francine Washington was a local community leader and activist. She and her husband, Larry (far right), raised two sons and are still advocates for public housing residents.
In addition to portraits, some of Evans’ favorite photographs are architectural.
“The photos of the buildings are much more meaningful than at the time I took them. Those raggedy buildings, but so many lives inside.”
“And now they’re just gone.”
People lost track of each other; the housing authority lost track of them.
Evans tried to stay in touch with the people she photographed and the friends she made, but it was difficult. As the buildings came apart, so did the life that inhabited them. The communities scattered — to the suburbs, to small towns in surrounding states — held loosely together with yearly reunions and social media.
Recently, though, out of nowhere, Evans did hear from one person she’d met about 20 years ago.
The girl on the swing.
Tiffany Sanders is now in her 30s. She has kids of her own and still lives in Chicago. She has worked as a security guard. She recently saw her photograph on a book cover and reached out to the author, who put her in touch with Evans. Evans gave Sanders a print of the photo.
The buildings are now gone, as is Sanders’ community, but photos and memories remain.
Today, Evans is still working on Chicago’s South Side. Her current project focuses on youth interaction with Chicago police. “You gotta keep going,” Evans says.
This story is part of a collaboration with the NPR Cities Project. Look for the next installment of stories starting in January: How We Live — Stories About Communities and Design.
This story was reported by David Eads and Helga Salinas. Much of the photography was originally featured in a project called “View From The Ground,” which both Eads and Evans worked on from 2001-2007.
Photography: Patricia Evans, Library of Congress, Getty Images, Hubert Henry/Hendrich-Blessing/Chicago History Museum; aerial photography data available from the U.S. Geological Survey
Design and Development: Wes Lindamood
Art and Editing: Gene Demby, Becky Lettenberger, Claire O’Neill
Supervising Producer: Kainaz Amaria
Published Dec. 23, 2014