A reporter returns to her old South Side neighborhood to search for answers, and hope, in a summer of gunfire
Heading south on Halsted, I told my friend Tom to make the right onto 106th, even though my landmarks, the Century Foods and Church’s Chicken, were long gone. I’d been back to visit my old neighborhood just a half-dozen times since 1977, but the tree-lined streets and neat rows of one-story brick homes, part of Chicago’s “bungalow belt,” looked untouched by time.
ABOVE: The 7100 block of Ingleside Ave. on Chicago’s South Side.
We neared my old house, and I felt giddy. When President-elect Barack Obama once visited the Washington Post newsroom and it was my turn to shake his hand, I blurted that I was from the South Side.
“South Side!” Obama shouted-out in response, because it’s a place you claim with percussion.
We turned onto Morgan and began to crawl the block. A layer of well-cut grass covered the empty lot next to the house my family left when I was nearly 10. Tattered blinds now hung in the picture window, and the downspout was unhinged. The big maple in front was gone. It was late afternoon, and a half-dozen young men were hanging out in the street.
Headlines out of Chicago had grown particularly violent over the years. More than 500 people were slain in 2012, the most of any U.S. city, and Chicago has been in the top three since 1985. But it’s a city of millions, and statistics felt unconnected to the Chicago I knew.
The “Wild Hunneds,” Tom’s college friend Duane had called it when we told him where we were going, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d fantasized about buying back my house as a vacation getaway.
I wanted to get out and walk. Tom, who is also from the South Side and now lives in Centreville, Va., vetoed the idea. He noticed a couple of the young men were drinking. They smiled and waved at me as we drove past. I waved back. We drove around the block and decided to park at Mount Vernon Park, now called Jackie Robinson Park, where a group of Little Leaguers were chasing fly balls.
Tom, who like the Chicago boys I knew grew up playing baseball, went to watch the boys practice. Without telling him, I walked back toward my old house. The playground across the street, newly remodeled but not yet reopened, was surrounded by tarp and warning signs to keep out. A young man walked out from the nearby field house, and I peppered him with questions about the park and school.
Suddenly a loud burst of explosions — Pop! Pop! Pop, pop, pop! — maybe 30 or 40 yards away, tore into our conversation.
For a moment, I stood frozen. It was July 2, so I thought they were firecrackers. “Those aren’t firecrackers,” the man said. He began waving me toward him. He started running into the field house, and I ran after him, high-heeled shoes cutting into my feet. Rounding the corner, I saw Tom looking for me. He began waving, too.
“C’mon! C’mon!” he urged. We jumped in the car and headed back toward Halsted and the highway as the afternoon filled with sirens and flashing lights. Neighbors gathered on corners. First responders converged.
Still think this would make a good getaway, Tom asked. I was quiet on that point, and the next day we returned to Washington. That Fourth of July weekend, Thursday to Sunday, saw 82 people shot in Chicago, 16 of them killed. That wasn’t including the young man who was shot and injured that Wednesday as I was standing in the park. I couldn’t stop thinking about my old neighborhood. I decided to go back, to try to understand what had happened to the South Side I had known.
Perhaps a third of the kids in my sister Lisa’s kindergarten class picture were white. By the time I was in kindergarten four years later, in 1973, there wasn’t a single one. In my world, white didn’t even really come in kids. It came in teachers only.
I grew up in racially turbulent times, but the homogeny of my daily life featured few signs of it. Chicago is a city of 77 officially designated neighborhoods, and the three-square-mile Washington Heights neighborhood, where I lived, was solidly middle class. By 1970, it was 75 percent black. It’s been between 98 and 99 percent black since 1980. “As African Americans move in and whites move out, it remains very middle class,” says Chicago historian James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
My father, a police officer, and mother, a schoolteacher, bought our three-bedroom house in 1968. They wanted a starter home for their young family and found it right across the street from Mount Vernon Elementary School and park. I liked to sit at the big picture window in front of the house and watch people scatter when it rained.
There is a term in winemaking called terroir. Loosely translated, it means the grapes taste like the dirt where they were grown. I was grown in South Side soil and cocooned in the contours and rhythms of black life. Emerald grass, backyard barbecues and Earth, Wind and Fire on AM 1390. Women who smoked cigarettes hands-free and teenage boys who sat on porch steps between the knees of young girls who braided their Afros into cornrows. I learned to speak to everybody on the South Side, and when I think to myself, the words come to me in South Side dialect.
While the neighborhood remained middle class, wealth is often more important, Grossman says, and “white people between World War II and the housing crash in 2007 built up their wealth through real estate.” My parents sold their house in 1977 for $26,500. According to the Cook County Assessor’s Office, it’s now worth $105,000 — virtually unchanged in 37 years after adjusting for inflation. Go to a comparable white neighborhood “on the Northwest side, or better yet in the suburbs, and compare its value for those dates and you’ll see a completely different trajectory,” he suggested.
Blacks were more reliant on public-sector jobs, many of which were cut beginning in the 1980s. That damaged the black middle class, as did the decline of unionized private-sector jobs, which had been a basis of black stability. Neighborhoods like Washington Heights began to lose ground, and lose people — from population highs of over 36,000 in 1970 and 1980 to just 26,493 in 2010. Many of them, like my parents, among the most able, were the ones who left. We moved to the Southwest suburb of Hazel Crest, an area that was majority white but grappling with racial change — sometimes through invites for sleepovers, and sometimes by calling us niggers, or calling the city “Chicongo.” I spent formative junior high and high school years in the suburbs, but the trees were never as impressive, the community never as cohesive, or perhaps it’s just that I never felt as special, with my window on the world, as I had on the South Side.
Segregation and income and wealth disparities aren’t a new story in Chicago, but they softened the ground, making even solidly established neighborhoods vulnerable to social ills such as drugs and crime.
And vulnerable, especially, to the widespread disruption that was just around the corner.
Coming up, “grown” eyes watched us everywhere. We knew our immediate neighbors, the people next door to them, and next door to them. Everybody in the world had to be home before the streetlights came on.
But for all my nostalgia, the South Side of my childhood could be frightening and jagged-edged.
The neighbors a few doors down would sometimes argue, and the mothers had to shoo all the kids inside because the husband would start shooting into the air.
I was sitting on the porch one day when boys across the street doused a cat with lighter fluid, then threw a match. My sister and I kept screaming as the fireball streaked the playground. My parents went to confront the boys. My father took his gun. “You’d do this to an animal, you’d do it to a person,” my mother said to them. Then my father shot the cat dead.
When I was growing up, it seemed like black folks all lived on the same striving pages, but there were always those who violated our sense of community and the good things we wanted to believe about ourselves. It took hyper-vigilance, all those “grown” eyes, to keep the neighborhood in balance. When the eyes moved, grew old or closed for good, so did our neighborhoods.
The walls inside the South Side Help Center feature posters of Barack Obama, awards and mementos from their 27 years of community outreach. Vanessa Smith, the executive director, attended Mount Vernon, as did her late sister, Valerie, one of my best friends. Valerie had also worked at the center founded by their mother, Betty Smith.
“A lot has changed,” Vanessa said. There’s “a lot of gun violence. A lot of shootings.” People “who were there when my mother first moved in are still there, but they’re aging. The newer neighbors have kids who are loud and rowdy.” Her mother raised her family in the Washington Heights home she’d lived in since 1967. She moved in with Vanessa in June.
In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority began its 10-year “Plan for Transformation” to do away with its infamous projects — places such as the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, Ida B. Wells — and relocate the 25,000 households who lived in them. The net effect, according to everyone you talk to, was to take centralized communities of poverty and crime, but also network and kinship, and scatter them throughout established South Side and West Side neighborhoods.
A 2011 CHA report says of the approximately 16,500 households that lived in non-senior, family or scattered-site housing, some are in new or rehabbed public housing, some have died, opted out of public housing or are waiting placement. Just 60 families relocated to the suburbs. Published reports say upward of one-quarter of those households have used CHA vouchers to rent homes in South Side and West Side neighborhoods. An additional 2,200 are unaccounted for.
The CHA declined interview requests, but it pointed to an Urban Institute study that shows the standard of living for those displaced residents is better, with those who choose to remain in renovated or rebuilt public housing faring the best, and those who used vouchers to move, the worst.
“You had all these people able to rent homes with Section 8 vouchers,” Vanessa said. “You had all these individuals who had a sense of community in the projects. The housing authority assumed the neighbors would help them acclimate to a new environment,” but that didn’t happen. “The neighbors were busy working. They didn’t deal with these individuals, or try to get them to be part of the community,” said Smith. “The scattering compounded with the downturn of the economy led to illegal activity.”
You could forget that Chicago has had a reputation for violence since the gangster days of Al Capone. More than 600 people a year were murdered every year during rampant drug and street-gang violence of the 1980s and 1990s, and several years saw more than 900 homicides. But according to the Chicago Police Department, 2013 featured declines in every major category of crime, including the fewest murders since 1965.
Robert Tracy, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Crime Control Strategies, and Evelyn Diaz, commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, say attention should be paid to those reductions.
“The point is, the crime is not random,” Diaz said. The police use “data in innovative ways to predict where the violence outbreaks are significantly most likely to occur.” There’s been more investment in troubled communities; mentoring and summer jobs programs, a record 22,000 this year.
“We’re one of the most transparent police departments in the nation,” said Tracy. “We’re putting out daily numbers so they can help us reduce crime and bring it to our attention.” But he acknowledged a perception gap with residents. Some don’t feel that progress, Tracy said. “If there were five murders in your neighborhood last year and three this year, you don’t feel 40 percent safer.”
A further complication: Residents often express deep distrust of and disconnect with the police department. Over the Fourth of July weekend, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old were shot and killed by the police in separate incidents. “I think we have a long way to go to gain public trust,” Tracy said. “That’s what we’re attempting to do. To get that relationship back.”
Meanwhile, for many, crime still feels random and out of control.
To Andre Hamlin, 42, a former gang member who now does gang outreach, the character of street violence has changed. He cited 11-year-old Shamiya Adams, killed while at a sleepover in July. “When that little girl got killed, somebody would have had to answer for that,” he said. Hamlin grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, long plagued by crime, and, for him, the memory of a white teacher who told him he’d never need math. He went on to get a criminal justice degree from Chicago State University and heads security for Bulls superstar Derrick Rose, whom he coached in high school and who, Hamlin says, considers him a surrogate uncle.
In doing gang outreach, he shares his story. And listens to theirs. “I just let them know, ‘Try this side. Just once in your life.’ ” But it’s hard, Hamlin said. “You don’t know what they’ve been through.”
When he was young, “guys in a 20-block radius” hung together. Now it’s two or three blocks, he said, and kids shoot back and forth at one another. “My neighborhood, we had a lot, a lot of guns. But the difference was little Johnny couldn’t get ahold of guns. The gangs, you had a chief of security, one guy would be holding 30 to 40 guns. You had to listen to somebody.” Also: “We still respected parents and the neighbor next door. We couldn’t step on nobody’s grass.”
There was still killing, said Hamlin, “but you knew who was going to get killed.”
On the plane to Chicago, Marcus Chatman, 26, was on his way home from the BET Awards in Los Angeles. He told me how his twin brother — younger by a minute — was shot and killed outside a house party in 2010. “Just wrong time, wrong place stuff you can’t control,” he said. Chatman served time for drugs and passing bad checks, but he’d “liked messin’ with fabrics” in high school.
He told me about the apparel line he started — “No Talking” — in honor of his slain brother and that the Chicago Fox affiliate had done a story about the brothers. He’d missed a couple of flights earlier. “I ain’t in no rush to get back to this war zone,” he said. I told him about my old neighborhood, where someone had been shot, and he nodded. “The Wild Hunneds,” he said.
He explained Chicago street violence: When “shorties” step outside, they’re going to get “touched,” Chatman said. “These kids, they got ‘opps’ — opposition.” That’s what kids from one neighborhood call kids from another. They get revved up listening to Chief Keef, he said, referencing one of a generation of young Chicago rappers who use a signature style — lyrical nihilism over menacing beats — to rap about gunplay. “They just fallin’ in line. Just dyin’ trying to keep up.”
Chatman started No Talking because “I don’t appreciate how that situation happened with my brother and ain’t nobody speak on it,” he said. “To be honest, I need to speak this out. It gives me a fierce inside. Like, why ain’t nobody saying nothing after all these years?
“This was tragedy. This was destruction.”
Later, inside the South Side Help Center, I told this story to Turron Clayton Sr., a youth mentoring coordinator, who’s worked with the center since 1992. “I told Chatman he needed to talk to somebody,” I said to Clayton.
“He did talk to somebody,” Clayton said. “He talked to you.” You have to talk it out, “or you’re going to fight it out.” Clayton said closing the projects created its own problems, but he pointed to other, long-standing declines: resources, services, leadership and community responsibility — not just in the black neighborhoods, but citywide.
Even still, in some of the most violent areas, “there are beautiful, educated black families who keep their neighborhoods,” Clayton said. “You cut around the corner, you’ve got a block club, but you go two blocks, that’s disarray, that’s chaos.”
In the back room, Felicia Simpson runs programs for young people, most from nearby high schools such as Percy Julian, where my sister took classes, that have struggled with rivalries and violence. There’s so much threat around them, they’ve become desensitized, Simpson said.
On a Monday afternoon, kids sat at computers, played on their phones or talked with their legs all piled across one another. Simpson gathered them, as she did weekly, to ask them the good, bad and worst parts of their weekends.
I stood and introduced myself. Said I was a reporter and had lived around the corner. I told the kids that coming back to Chicago had been the best part of my weekend the previous week. And that running from gunfire on my old block had been the worst.
A young man, Darrius Barron, raised his hand. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” he said, “but what did you expect?”
Barron, 21, and Alexandria “AJ” Smith, 21, both went to Mount Vernon and have been coming to the center since they were children. Smith, a student at Olive-Harvey College who wants to be an elementary school teacher, grew up in the house behind my old house. “Now you can’t really go past a certain block,” Smith said. “Now everybody is into it with everybody.” According to the Chicago Police Department, there are two major gang affiliates, but a large and shifting number of offshoots and informal neighborhood factions.
Barron said his stepfather told him about a gang war in the 1990s. “Gangs were still popular and organized to a certain extent. They still had a chain of command. . . . Now, in my generation, I noticed since high school everybody wants to gang-bang. Start their own clique.”
Smith and Barron’s conversation about their aspirations and lives full of age-appropriate challenges is constantly sprinkled with calculations about risk and safety.
“I was never the type to associate with gangs,” said Barron, who works at Planet Fitness on 95th and wants to get into broadcast journalism. “I always watched cartoons and after-school specials.” It didn’t keep him safe.
As a freshman, “I’m just trying to get to the bus stop. I don’t know anybody and they don’t know me.” The first day of his second week of school, “I got robbed,” Barron said. “At gunpoint. I’m terrified. I’m 14. My first memory of high school is getting robbed. How would that make you feel?”
The two recounted the Chicago neighborhood nicknames they’ve heard: Terrortown, Murderfield and of course the broad swath of far South Side blocks that stretch roughly from 100th to the city limits at 138th. When the projects came down, people couldn’t afford “to live in those gentrifying areas,” said Barron. “Where did they go? To the Hunneds.”
Their lives are circumscribed by all the places they won’t go. “I wouldn’t go to the Gardens,” said Smith, referring to a far South Side housing project. “After 5, you’re not going to see me.”
Barron won’t go to the massive annual summer food festival “Taste of Chicago.” Or the “low end” farther north. In many ways, “gangs don’t even matter anymore,” Barron said. It’s, ‘Oh, I ain’t never seen that nigga over here before; who is he? Where is he from?”
“It’s like we’re so desensitized to it,” Barron said.
Even with all that, neither has given up on Chicago. All cities have problems, they say. “This is where my morals were learned to me, and me and my brothers created a bond,” said Barron. He wants to own the house where he now lives.
Smith agreed. “I still think where I was at is still a good neighborhood.”
Aaron Smith 25, a housekeeping aid at a Veterans Affairs hospital on the West Side, lives in the same house his grandmother Betty Smith lived in for nearly 50 years. Smith and his roommate, Brandon Smith, 25, whom he’s known since they were at Percy Julian and who works at a Home Depot, both did two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Brandon was a sniper. Aaron, a rifleman, was shot in 2009 and was awarded the Purple Heart. Vanessa Smith thinks her son may have some post-traumatic stress, but he won’t get checked. Vanessa has often wondered what would have happened if she’d gotten Aaron, who was so bright that he skipped third grade, away from the fear and violence at Julian sooner. Maybe he never would have gone to that military alternative program to finish high school and been so eager to enlist.
Aaron, Brandon, Vanessa and I were in the living room, and Aaron and Brandon resumed their running argument about whether they’re living in a war zone.
“I see a lot of senseless killing, but I don’t see war,” said Aaron. “War has an endgame; this feels like it carries on for generations. This is just people being murderers.”
“In Afghanistan, they’ve been at war since the Russians,” said Brandon. They haven’t had an endgame yet. “I talk to people. I understand what’s going on out here. It’s a war. They nicknamed it Chiraq.”
“War is strategic,” Aaron said.
“This is their strategic,” said Brandon. “ ‘My man just got shot. I’m getting a gun and I’m going over there to shoot them.’ ”
“That’s not a strategy,” said Aaron. “That’s a thought. That’s a simple thought.” A strategy is a plan. “It requires steps.”
“Step one, get a gun,” said Brandon. “Step two, go over there. Step three . . .”
“Shoot gun,” said Aaron, laughing.
Vanessa reminded her son of how he said he wanted to leave before summer came, because he said people would start dropping like flies.
Brandon pressed his point. Wars are fought over territory, he said. People live in a territory with a drug corner. “ ‘It makes $5,500, so I’m going to get this area and I’m going to keep it.’ That’s what these guys think,” Brandon argued.
Aaron deadpanned: “I think we just found the problem. $5,500.”
My last day on the South Side, I headed for my old school, Mount Vernon Elementary. The “Demountable” — the primary overflow building — was shuttered and tombish, so I looked for an entrance into the towering main building, which can hold 700 kids but routinely has fewer than 300. Mount Vernon and neighboring Marcus Garvey Elementary (the one people call “the good school”) both fought off efforts to close them in recent years, and last year to combine.
Principal Dawn Scarlett met me at the door and showed me around. I remembered the gym where Cheryl Franklin taught me the words to “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder; I remembered the cavernous auditorium where we watched all those science tutorials with the all-white faces.
It took a lot of doing, “but I’ve got good kids now. We got an award for low suspensions last year,” Scarlett said. She pointed to the new lockers and fresh paint. “Don’t write this as a heartbreak,” she urged. “Like there’s nothing left and there’s no signs of hope. The kids here are still good kids.” Mount Vernon renovated and expanded its park, she pointed out. “People still take pride in this neighborhood.”
I walked back toward the park district building. Boys were playing basketball. Signs announced the “Movies in the Park.” They were showing “42,” the Jackie Robinson biopic, that Friday. Bring lawn chairs.
I watched a group of young girls in their burgundy Chicago Park District shirts practicing their dance routine, and I remembered when I was a little girl standing in the same spot, singing a bluesy version of “Little Sally Walker” with my friends. “Put’cha hands on your hips, and let your backbone slip.”
“I grew up right there,” I told them. I started to walk away, and one little spark plug of a girl came running after me.
“Excuse me, but do you want to see our dance?” she asked. She reminded me of all the little South Side girls I had ever known, and the one I had once been. A sweetness that could change the world.
“I would love to see your dance,” I said and hovered as they gyrated to the Iggy Azalea song: “I’m so fancy.”
A police car raced down 107th.
Later, I was in front of my old house again. About a dozen young men were smoking in the fenced-off, still-closed playground. A few yards away, a group of parents watched the 11-year-old Jackie Robinson West Little League all-star team. I had been a cheerleader for Jackie Robinson West, and it was one of the few South Side Little Leagues to endure. (In August, their 12-year-olds would become the first Chicago team in the Little League World Series since 1983. The Chicago White Sox and Mayor Rahm Emanuel would co-host a watch party at the field. The team would win the U.S. championship, lose to South Korea in the final, and the city would fete them with a parade.)
Both groups represented what was true about the neighborhood every day, when nobody was looking.
I walked over to the moms; they’d been keeping a wary eye on the young guys and deliberately parked their lawn chairs with a huge tree between them. Other than that, they were enjoying the game, they said. The lights were starting to come up in the park.
I started for my car, and for the first time saw the door open at my old house. I introduced myself to the women who lived there and described the house in detail; the bedrooms and built-in bookshelves. I showed her the patio that still had the faintest traces of my mother’s handwriting: “Betty Lou and Lonnie, 1969.”
Edwana Stitt and her family have been renting the house since 2008. “The neighborhood has its good days and its bad days,” Stitt said. Somebody got shot in front of the park right across the street, she told me.
“I know. I heard it, ” I said. I described the block when I lived there, and she said it sounded like her mother’s neighborhood on 84th and Carpenter, where everybody knew everybody, their kids and their grandkids. But not Morgan. She didn’t really know anybody else.
She went inside, and I got in my car and crawled the block. I was ready to come home. I rounded 106th, and a group of young men were walking in the street. They were laughing, and I wondered where they were headed and what was in store for them. They made an exaggerated show of looking in my car. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.
I smiled and waved back, and kept driving.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
A young man floats in the air while jumping on a trampoline at a summer party thrown by a “block club” in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.