WEST LOOP — As a massage therapist for 15 years, Lillie Barnett has used her hands to help hundreds of clients at her West Loop clinic manage the stresses of life.
But before she got her license in massage therapy, she used her hands to build houses on the South Side and helped construct the 49-story Presidential Towers, often as the only woman or person of color on the job. For two years, her hands helped save lives while she worked as an emergency medical technician.
"I feel so fortunate that I'm able to give to people like that and enjoy it," said Barnett.
In many ways, Barnett's passion for working with her hands is what led her on a journey from her childhood on the West Side to owning Lillie Ann's massage clinic, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month in the booming West Loop.
Barnett, 53, was born in Rockwell Gardens, a 16-acre public housing complex that once stood where the West End redevelopment is slowly replacing 1,000-unit high-rises with mixed-income housing.
Growing up the youngest of six in the East Garfield Park housing, "I always got the hand-me-downs and the bottom of the barrel," Barnett said, ungrudgingly. There wasn't enough to spoil any of the children, but her father worked hard to put food on the table, while her mother stayed home to raise them.
"As I got older, I noticed a lot more struggling and kind of how rough it was, but I guess when you're younger, you don't really see those things," Barnett said.
Lillie Barnett (bottom left) grew up the youngest of six children in the Rockwell Gardens projects. [Provided/LillieAnn's]
When she was 12, Barnett moved in with her grandmother, Ora Cossart, in Hyde Park.
"She made everyone around her feel comfortable, and I drew a lot of inspiration from her," Barnett said.
As high school applications loomed, Barnett found herself on a path she did not like. She felt "deep down inside" that her friends were trouble. Her siblings, too, seemed stuck in lives Barnett did not want for herself.
She set her sights on Dunbar Vocational High School, which around that time had about 2,300 students and a range of 27 shop programs, like aviation mechanics and brick masonry.
"That was my way out," Barnett said simply. "I look at the people I used to hang out with, and if I hadn't gone to Dunbar, I wouldn't be here."
Electrical shop classes caught her interest as Barnett was drawn to construction work. She graduated into a coalition program that taught her "pretty much everything to build a house, from the foundation to the last shingle on the roof," Barnett said.
Through the program, she got a job rehabbing houses on the South Side in the early 1980s. From there came a plastering gig on four sturdy skyscrapers that became the Presidential Towers.
Despite family suggestions she was "too little" for the job, Barnett took it. But her small frame was only one way she stuck out during her eight years in construction.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I was the only female on the job, and 99 percent of the time, I was the only African-American on the job," Barnett said. Once someone asked if she was there to clean the windows. Others made sexist or derogatory comments as they passed.
To get by, "I knew I had to do more than they did," Barnett said
She never asked for help; she would always carry her weight — and then some. During one job in west suburban Downers Grove, Barnett got a hernia after pushing herself to hoist two 62-pound buckets of wet plaster at a time off a pulley.
After she recovered, she copped to carrying just one.
"I would never let what someone else says get me down," Barnett recalled. "Before I would do that, I would go into the bathroom and cry, get myself together and do what I have to do, because I refuse to let someone else run me away from something I want to do."
Built in 1986, the four Presidential Towers buildings are 49 stories tall. [Creative Commons]
After eight years of going home covered in dust, Barnett was ready to switch gears. She picked up work as an emergency medical technician for a private ambulance company as a way to help people.
The toughest part for Barnett was getting called to upper floors of buildings. With just one partner, Barnett had to learn quickly how to maneuver a wheelchair down flights of stairs and assist people of all sizes, which could be a challenge for her 100-pound frame.
But the job got her interested in physical therapy, which led Barnett to six years of working as a physical therapist technician in Chicago Heights. Her hands loosened muscles so well that many patients insisted they were made for massage therapy.
Getting licensed wasn't cheap; Barnett's mother drained her savings to send her daughter to a massage therapy education program. Today, programs cost around $14,000.
It was just the start for Barnett, who was ready to open her own clinic within a few years of graduating. To her, massage therapy was just an extension of the physical touch people crave in times of hardship to make them feel better.
"When someone is mourning or not feeling well, the first thing you do is touch their shoulder and tell them it's OK," Barnett said. "You're giving them something emotionally and physically, and to work with my hands and do that for someone, too? That's a win-win."
There was no one to ask for advice on just how to open a business, "so I had to scratch my head and do research and ask questions," Barnett said.
She opened Lillie Ann's Massage Therapy and Skincare Center in 2002 in the South Loop but felt drawn still to the western side of the city she had long called home.
Lillie Ann's is celebrating its 15th anniversary with free massages and special discounts for clients. [Provided/LillieAnn's]
Five years later, Lillie Ann's moved to its current location at 1260 W. Washington Blvd. This month, she celebrates 15 years as a small-business owner with promotions for clients, and in September, two days of free massages as a thank you to the neighborhood that has supported her for over a decade.
And all the while, she's watched the West Loop's radical transformation.
"This used to be Skid Row, and there was nothing," she said. "You would drive down Madison, and you would lock your doors. Now you have Google here and all the high-rises. It's crazy."
It's also isolating at times. Rockwell Gardens was demolished by 2006, and now that most of her family has left Chicago, her sense of home is limited to playgrounds she once visited and the land where Rockwell Gardens once stood.
"Those memories will always be there, but it does feel like a part of you is gone," Barnett said. "I came back here to where I was born, and now that I'm here, am I the only one?"
Earlier this summer, she lost another anchor to her childhood home when her mother died. It's hard for Barnett to talk about the woman that put everything on the line to see her daughter's dreams come to fruition.
For a moment, Barnett is overcome by grief, but she finds her words.
"I always wanted her to be proud of me and to be able to say someone in the family did something, you know?" Barnett said. "I always wanted to work hard for her."
She's got a different family to worry about now — her clients and the six people she employs. She knows her mother was proud, but she's also proud of herself, for making it possible to give other women a safe and stable workplace.
"Every day, I'm still learning," Barnett said. "There is always going to be a struggle, or things I don't enjoy doing — like the paperwork. But those things have to be done. Failure, it's not an option."