Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Imagine Englewood If

The craggy stretch of South Halsted St. around the 6500 block has, for the most part, seen better days. The closest businesses include fast-food restaurants, a dollar store, a launderette, and a few cell-phone stores. Vacant lots lie scattered among them. The counter at Sam Food Market, a convenience store, has bulletproof glass; a flyer on a pole down the street reads, “ROUND TRIPS TO PRISON AT AFFORDABLE PRICES.” Offsetting all this is a complex of handsome, light-red brick buildings and grassy lawns sprawled out just north of 65th St.— a recently finished campus for Kennedy-King College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

On a temperate Friday morning, a visitor travels along South Halsted St. remembering that the previous day, five people were found shot to death in a ransacked house just two miles from here.

Two blocks to the west, South Peoria St. is quiet. There, among a tidy row of two- and three-flat houses sits a medium-sized building with the letters P – E – A – C – E in blue on what look to be painted-over windows.

Inside, in a large room with off-white walls and fluorescent ceiling lights, some 20 adults have gathered. They mingle among hand-drawn pictures of crosses on the wall; a table with artificial fruits and vegetables and stuffed animals; and paintings with ribbons reading “4-H PROJECT WORK IN CHICAGO.” Everyone in the room, save for two women, is black.

“Thank you for coming,” Anita Dominique says to the crowd from a lectern shortly after 10:30. “Welcome to the PEACE community center, which, it stands for ‘People Educating Against Crime in Englewood.’ We like to say ‘everywhere’.”

“Mmm,” hums Jean Carter-Hill from one side of the room.

“May we have Pastor Leeks come and lead us off in prayer, please?” asks Dominique.

“He’s outside,” says a man in the crowd.

“I think he’s on the phone,” adds another.

“Well, is there another minister in the house?”

“Yeah, I can do it,” Johnny Banks, Sr., chimes in. He walks up to the lectern.

“God, we’re comin’ this morning thanking You for what You’ve already done,” Banks begins, his hands clasped together.

Thank You, Lord,” whispers Carter-Hill.

“Ask that You continue to put a head of attention around us, Father God, around Your children.”

Please, Lord.”

“Father, provide the resources that we need, Father, to, to lift up Your children. Let us plant into the ground what needs to come up, Father God, which is safety, Father God. Which is non-violence. Father, give us the things, Father God, that You would have us to need to grow Your children.


“As we look to the hills where our strength comes from, we always know, Father, that You will be there—

Yes, Lord.”

“—to protect us from all hurt and harm. Father, we ask that You would come into the Englewood community, into the city of Chicago, and find a way, Father God, to have the people release the guns. To just give ’em up, Father God.”

Yes, Lord.”

“Father God […] we need to put sin on the run. So, on this day, Father God, we beseech You, and we petition Your call to grace, Father God. That you will provide for us, Father God, a safe haven to raise our children.

Yes, Lord.”

“A safe haven to educate our children. Father God, will our children just simply come outside and be five years old?”


“Or be ten years old. And be what You have created and called them to be. That’s today’s daily prayer. Amen.”

“Amen,” replies the crowd.

“We really thank you for coming out this morning,” says Anita Dominique, back at the lectern. After some administrative announcements, she calls upon Jean Carter-Hill to come up.

“Good morning,” says Carter-Hill, as a woman floats around snapping pictures.

“Good morning,” responds the crowd.

“I’m happy to see you this morning,” she continues. Carter-Hill, who is black, has closely-cropped graying hair and wears a black dress with white images of letters, pencils, flowers, and little schoolhouses. She speaks in a softish voice, drawing out her words somewhat.

“We are here for a cause, and I’m sure that, ummm, you planned to come out and get information today. And we came to share it. We are a community on the move, and regards to what they say about us, we know that we have some good people and some good things going on in Englewood, and we’re gonna’ share this morning.”

What they say about Englewood isn’t so good. Or at least what’s said about it isn’t.

The neighborhood— which stretches roughly from West 55th St. down to West 75th St., and from South Racine Ave. over to the Dan Ryan Expy.— made the news most prominently in recent memory when two girls were shot and killed by random gunfire in 2006. On March 3 of that year, 14-year-old Starkesia Reed was struck from a stray round of an AK-47 while standing in her living  room. Then, on March 11, a stray bullet, or bullets, from a TEC-9 hit and killed Siretha White as she celebrated her and her cousin’s birthdays. White was 10 years old.

To understand the Englewood neighborhood today, you have to understand its history. And to understand its history, you have to understand the history of Chicago’s South Side. A significant migration of black southerners to Chicago towards the end of the 19th century saw the city’s black population explode, with most of the migrants settling on the South Side. At the same time, Christian and Jewish European immigrants lived in the area in large numbers. At the end of World War I, during a period that saw a bourgeoning African-American population, race riots broke out where black and white residents lived close to one another.

After the Second World War, cars brought greater mobility to the area, along with “white flight” to peripheral areas. In the mid-20th century, the South Side saw patterns of segregated housing and swaths of poverty, and in the latter half of the century, meatpacking companies and steel mills closed, eroding Chicago’s industrial base. Today, with the exception of some pockets of areas, the South Side suffers a reputation as poor and crime-ridden.

Englewood’s history parallels the South Side’s. In 1901, a multi-level shopping center opened at Halsted and 63rd Streets, and several years later, the completion of an el line to the community from downtown brought in shoppers from outside the neighborhood. According to the newsmagazine The Chicago Reporter, which cites newspaper reports, the 63rd Street shopping district brought in $30 million annually in the mid-1930’s. But the Great Depression hurt banks and small businesses in the area, as well as housing prices. In the 1950’s, as the “Great Migration” brought an influx of black people to Chicago from the South, many Irish and Swedes and Germans moved to the edge of— or out of— the neighborhood.

In the decades to come, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the population of Englewood would drop from about 98,000 in 1960, to around 40,000 in 2000. Black residents made up about 98 percent of the community in 2000.

In 1999, no other than President Bill Clinton himself visited the neighborhood to promise support for Englewood with his New Markets initiative, which was to encourage investment from the private sector in disadvantaged communities.

“I am Jean Carter-Hill,” says the woman at the lectern, “with a vision— umm, to make a difference in my community. I’m the co-founder and executive director of Imagine Englewood If…, and our mission is to improve the quality of life. And that’s what we’re trying to do each day.”

Carter-Hill gives a brief introduction of Imagine Englewood If…, explaining where their sites are and what they offer. She’s followed by Pastor James Dukes of Liberation Christian Center, who speaks of a “collaboration council” that meets to talk about how a so-called safety net in Englewood would function.

“This is a youth initiative, so we want to insure that the youth are the primary directors of this,” he says. “We learned, uhhh, when Siretha Woods”— he means Siretha White— “had got shot, uhhh, one of my members right behind the church, Harold Belafonte, called me on the phone. He said, ‘Pastor Dukes, what you need is a outrage from the youth!’ Because if they are the ones being under attack, their voice needs to be heard.”

He ends to a round of applause.

Anita Dominique comes up again. A project of the PEACE community organization, she says, is to have a “safe-passage strategy,” which includes setting up a two-block radius around four designated sites in the neighborhood by which young people will be able to pass in peace. Residents, business, and churches will be asked to act as “the eyes, ears, and a voice” in those areas. As Dominique talks, audience members look up, or hold a hand on a chin, or purse lips downwards. One takes notes; another looks at a packet of information.

Dominique speaks of putting up posters identifying a resident or a business or a church as part of the “safe haven network.” She says input for the program will be solicited from the community, and the Chicago Police Department will receive the safety route and program times. Transportation may even be set up between the four sites, she adds.

“The youth will tell us how and where and in which ways they go to these organizations, and then we’ll do the mapping,” she announces. “In 2005, we had a summit, and that’s one of the things the youth said: They would like to go to other places. The parents don’t feel safe, and they don’t feel safe. So, that’s what it’s all about.”

Jimi Orange, project coordinator for Englewood Safety Networks, goes on to invite participants to introduce themselves. There’s Riley Davis, representing the president of Kennedy-King College; Deacon Mosley of A Knock at Midnight, a non-profit organization providing services to Englewood and neighboring communities; Johnny Banks, the executive director of A Knock at Midnight, and the pastor who led the prayer at the beginning of today’s meeting.

There’s a woman with the Dreamcatcher Foundation, an agency for females 12 to 25 years old that works to prevent prostitution, unplanned pregnancies, and other “health-related risks.” A woman with the MGR Foundation, which has programs to help local communities. Another man with Liberation Christian Center.

And then there’s a young man at the back of the crowd. Unlike others in the room who wear button-down shirts or dress slacks, or perhaps a jack and a tie, he wears a white, mesh shirt with the number 34 on it. A pen sits clipped to his shirt neckline.

“I’m a visitor,” he announces in an unsure voice. “I wanted to talk about the, uhh, the guns. I mean, the guns in the community.” Behind him on a far wall, posters have the words “Myself and Others” and “PRIDE” and “LOVE.” One has an image of a black child and a white child walking together, with the word “ACCEPTANCE.”

“Whereas these little kids being killed and stuff like that,” the man continues. “I wanted to talk about the gun that killed— the guns in the […] community. Like, I was […] telling this, ummm, you know, this guy on my block, at 63rd and Sangamon. He was passing out brochures on my block, so I was telling him about the […] killing.

“I was telling him […] a kid had went to the store, had went to a dollar store, and he had some stuff that he liked at the dollar store. And I was telling him about that. […] If a kid see something he like at the dollar store, the first thing he’s gonna’ go do is go get a dollar from his mother, you know.”

He stutters a bit and looks down. “Lemme’ calm down,” he says, thrusting his hands down in the air.

“If you give a kid a dollar,” he goes on, “the first thing he gonna’ do is go, go get […] that gun from the dollar store. And he’s gonna’ use it. […] A cap gun”— he slices his hands downward through the air. “A play gun.”

“So, really, really, what I’m sayin’ is, we really need to ban all, all play guns, all cap guns and guns, period. You know what I’m sayin’? […] That’s my feature of tellin’ young people it’s time to grow up. It’s not […] real life, like that, you know?”

“Mmmm-hmmm,” says Jean Carter-Hill.

“It’s more to it than just using the gun,” says the man.

“Mmm-hmm,” Carter-Hill says again. “Mmm-hmm.”

“You know what I mean? […] It’s more to it than just, than just using the gun. You know what I’m sayin’? You can […] be easy to talk things out without using—”


“—without using, uhhh, using a gun—“


“You know what I’m sayin’? […] It’s better for you to talk, talk things out. To work something out with this person. To be a better person. To be a bigger person than what you already are. Or you can just walk away from the situation.

“Mmm-hmm,” she says.

“[…] That’s what I wanted to talk about to— today, is the, the guns in the community. Whereas everybody, with these kids being killed or not.”

“I heard last week,” he goes on, “a little, little boy of four years old— well, two weeks ago […] got shot in the leg. And I was like, I was kind of furious at that, you know?


“And I was like, ‘Man, this, this, this not right,’ you know? This stuff really need to stop, man! That could be anybody’s child, everybody, you know what I’m sayin’? Could, could get shot in the leg. […] That […] child coulda’ gotten killed!


“Another, another black child dead!”

“Mmm-hmm,” this time from multiple people.

“Because, simply for— ’cause of several factors. Uhhh, a brown person wanna’ be ignorant. See, you can’t be ignorant. You gotta’ avoid that. […] ’Cause another person being ignorant, you can’t be ignorant with that person.”

“I feel your passion,” Carter-Hill interjects in a raised voice, “and I think that, uhh, you should join up with us, ’cause there’s a place for you to be involved. I can see your passion for young people. And young people listen to young people more than they listen to us.” Her hands are clasped to her chest.

“So, make sure we know who you are before you leave, so you can be contacted.

“I can be contacted,” he replies, and he gives out his phone number. Carter-Hill writes it down.

“Be sure and see me after the, after the meeting, okay?” says Anita Dominique.

“Yeah,” responds the man.

“Thank you so much,” adds Dominique.

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” says the man in the white, mesh shirt.


A man with the Englewood Black Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce. A pastor at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, across the street. A man with another church in Englewood.

“Sir,” says Jimi Orange, motioning to a thin man wearing khaki pants and sporting a red tie with diagonal, light blue stripes. The man introduces himself as Howard Lee. His face bears a resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi’s, only with a taller head.

“I’ve been a pediatrician for 40-plus years,” Lee says. “I don’t wanna’ tell you my age.” Laughter from the crowd.

He begins to talk about lead poisoning in children. After about  minute and a half, he cuts himself off.

“Oh, if I talk too long, umm, just say, ‘Shut up,’ and I’ll sit down.”

More laughter.

A few minutes later, he stops abruptly again. “Ahh-hah,” he says. “Ohhh-hooo.” Giggle rise up from the crowd. Anita Dominique is making a circular gesture with her hand from the back of the room.

Lee sits down.

More laughter, and then a smattering of applause.

Totally Positive Productions. The Chicago Children’s Museum. Beloved Community Family Services. The Chicago Department of Public Health. Greater Englewood Healthy Start.

By the time the introductions are over, it’s 11:35, and Jimi Orange announces that time is almost up. He thanks everyone for coming and adds that the next gathering will happen on May 15.

Before the meeting closes, Wanda White-Gills takes the floor. White-Gills  is a project evaluator who’s gauging the effects of efforts in Englewood and on the West Side of Chicago. She tells the crowd that 15 years ago, in response to the question of how she and others would measure the success of spending 100 million dollars in Chicago, “I said if every school was functioning as a community center, then we would know we were successful. Well, now they have.”

Murmurs of “Mmm-hmm” come up from the audience.

“So, a hundred million dollars came into this city. And I say that to give you a context of about just how serious I am and why I’m passionate about this evaluation piece.”

Aggression in pubescent children that isn’t positively channeled, she goes on, can lead to stealing or violent offense or rape later in life. “This is documented,” she says. “This report went to congress. I praise it, because we— we don’t need more research studies. The question becomes: What are the things that help change that behavior in young people? And that’s why you, as providers— it’s now time to push the envelope, push the voices.”

“Most of you were involved in the youth summit that happened in Englewood, at Teamwork Englewood. Most of you were involved with the community violence dialogues after the little angels died, that happened all around the community. Everybody said ‘this is what should happen.’ Most of you were involved with the survey and the Saturday sessions. We had that happen with the 300 young people from the first summer program.”

“So,” she continues, “young people said, ‘We told you what needed to happen. This issue is: Are you gonna’ make it happen?’”

After the meeting breaks up, participants mingle with one another and filter towards the doorway— past a large piece of fabric with patches reading “We must become the changes we want to see” (Mahatma Gandhi), “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent (Eleanor Roosevelt), and “Our lives begin to end the day we become SILENT about things that MATTER” (Martin Luther King, Jr.); past a copy of the “New World Translations of the Holy Scriptures” next to a Jewish menorah; past boards with handwritten information about Nigeria, France, and India— and out onto South Peoria St. In the middle of the day on a Friday, it’s calm here, in the heart of Englewood.

Late tonight, two miles away, a 25-year-old man will be shot and killed.

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