This past weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot and in a 24/7 news cycle kind of world where our attention flits from one tragedy to another, rarely are we given an opportunity to go deep. Instead we hear the grim stats, we feel bad and if we are given to empathy we may wonder why the people in “those” communities live like that. But rarely do we allow ourselves to go beyond the usual stock answer that involves a need for better gun control. Without a doubt, gun control is something that this country needs to get serious about but the gun lobby isn’t too fond of that idea and the chances of it happening anytime soon are slim to none in my opinion.
Chicago’s violence problem is less about guns and violence and more about what happens when people lose hope and communities are systematically stripped of the resources that allow people to live fully and completely. It’s also about how underneath the surface, racist policies set in motion decades before impact future generations when the bill comes due. This recent piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic pretty much breaks it down and explains how racism is still very real and impacts Blacks in ways that are often hidden from the average white person.
This post today, though, is personal; in reading about the shootings that occurred over the July 4th holiday weekend, I realized that several occurred in an area that I’ve long considered home, an area that for many years was the only home I knew.
In the mid-60s, my grandparents settled into a neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, they were one of the first Black families to move in and by the time I was born in the early 70s and was old enough to be aware, all the white families except for one had long since moved out of the area.
As a kid, my grandparents’ house was like the promised land; my grandparents were firmly in the Black middle class. Unionized factory jobs allowed them to own a 3 bedroom brick bungalow with a yard and access to the American dream which back when I was a kid included an annual vacation to Jamaica and Texas to visit family! My parents on the other hand had fully embraced a lifestyle that was counter to my grandparents’ “uptight” middle class life, having proclaimed themselves Black hippies. Looking back, I admire my parents for the choices they made but as a kid, I wanted the lifestyle that my grandparents had, which included Saturday morning trips to the grocery store where my Granny allowed me to put whatever I wanted in the cart! Overnight weekend visits to my grandparents was one of the highlights of my childhood: Saturday mornings involved a visit to bank, the barber, the grocery store and maybe even a special treat after all the errands were ran. Late afternoons involved playing with the other kids and grandkids on the block, the only rule being that when it started getting dark, it was time to come in. This was a tight knit community, so tight that at 14 when I started smoking and had snuck out for smoke while running to the store for my mom, a neighbor spotted me and had called my folks before I made it back home! In other words, it was a community, people knew each other and cared for one another and looked out for each other. It was a community with the things in a community that you expect to have to function; things like a grocery store.
Fast forward to my early 20s, after the breakup of my first marriage. I was 22 or so, divorced with a young child with no nickels to rub together and I desperately needed to get myself together. By this time, my grandfather had long since passed away, my grandmother had fallen out of the firmly middle class category and was teetering on the edge financially but she still had the house. My grandmother offered my son and I the chance to live with her so that I could get myself together but it didn’t take long to realize that this neighborhood was not the same one from my childhood. This was around 1994-95 and gone was the grocery store and many of the things from my childhood. The area had changed and not for the better; walking to the local library was a no-no because of gang activity. Several times I tried to order food delivery, only to have it not show up because the area was deemed not safe by the drivers. On more than one occasion, I had to beg cab drivers to drive me home. Our time there was brief but life-changing because when I left, I did indeed change my life around and my times there as an adult will forever be a part of me. But looking back, it was clear this was a community in decline. Yet none of the people on the block had changed. In fact, many of the families who had bought when my grandparents bought were still on the block and in the area.
Pressing the fast forward button once again to about 10 years ago, which is the last time I stepped foot in the old neighborhood and, well, I didn’t really know it anymore. Two days after my mom died, I was in Chicago and after making arrangements for my mom, my dad and I drove to see my grandmother. We were almost at her house when in my bleary eyed state, I realized that I needed some coffee, now for most of us the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee in the afternoon is something that just happens. Yet there was no coffee to be found in my grandmother’s immediate area, we had to drive a few miles over to the predominantly white neighborhood to procure a cup of coffee. A community in the third largest city in the US, one of the largest cities in the world, yet a cup of coffee cannot be obtained without going to another neighborhood…this is not good.
My grandmother passed away 18 months after my mom did and a few months before she passed away, she was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight on her way to the store. A neighborhood she helped to create, a neighborhood that had risen and fallen in less than 40 years!!
I shared this personal tale because despite my current residence in Maine, Chicago is my home. I know it. It is in my blood. I also know that when Blacks moved in and whites moved out there was a brief golden period and then these same communities slowly devolved into something that no one could even imagine. Communities without grocery stores, doctors, banks, or any of the things that most readers of this piece assume to be the norm.
A dear friend of mine, after a decade away from Chicago, recently moved back home and told me there are parts of my hometown that look like literal war zones. I have relatives who tell me that places that I grew up going to are no longer safe areas, where going to grab a bite to eat might very well mean the end of your life.
At the same time in the 12 years since I have moved away, millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into beautifying Chicago and turning the parts of Chicago that are seen by tourists and white folks into showpieces. Millenium Park was completed after I left and while it is gorgeous, why couldn’t some of the money that helped create this showcase of a park be put into the communities that actual Chicagoans live in? In recent years, schools and public health clinics in almost all minority areas have been shuttered while resources have flowed abundantly into areas that have few minorities. This is no accident; this is how systemic racism works. The systems are not equal yet it becomes easy to blame “those people” rather than to acknowledge the structural inequity that is very real in large swatches of brown and and black communities.
We all make choices but sometimes the choices are made for us and we are victims of chance. If one is hopeless, longevity of life and aspiring to something greater than ourselves is hard to fathom if we have no role models or means to make such things happen. The lure of the streets and quick money suddenly makes sense when the systems that should work to help us to be a part of something larger than our base selves are simply absent from our reality.
Excuse the typos, this was written after a very long day.