All week, I was looking forward to Saturday July 28th. Then it came. I woke up at 5am because I couldn’t sleep. In a few hours, we would be headed to a walking tour of a neighborhood well-known for gun violence and I was getting nervous.
I didn’t want to back out, but I was taking my younger sister and wanted to make sure we were going to be safe, so I searched the evening’s news headlines for North Lawndale. My heart sank.
I started to draft an email to Jahmal. Sorry, something came up and we can’t make it. Please keep our money as a donation to your organization..
I didn’t send it, jumped in the shower and promised myself if I still felt apprehensive afterward, I’d cancel and call Molly to let her know.
We pulled onto Ogden Ave in North Lawndale around 9am and by the time we had gotten to our starting point for the tour, the Green Tomato Cafe, I had already seen four tow trucks pulling cars off the street. I live close enough to Wrigley Field to hear the crowd roar and I see less tow trucks on a game night in Wrigleyville than I saw in those few minutes in North Lawndale. In a neighborhood with barely any stores or businesses, I found it really jarring and weird that cars would be getting towed off the streets so regularly.
After quadruple-checking that my parking spot was legal, we headed into the cafe. We could hear the frenetic chatter of our teenage tour guides as soon as we walked in the door. We were greeted immediately by one kid, and then another, and several more back to back. Bright. Warm. Funny. And excited to show us their community. If I had any nerves left, they melted away the second I was face to face with these kids. A few t-shirt purchases and a couple icebreaker exercises later and we were out the door.
Our first stop was outside Dr. King Legacy Apartments, built on the same site where Dr. King himself lived with his family in 1966. After that, we went onto Stone Temple Baptist Church, a beautiful temple turned civil rights focal point where Dr. King regularly spoke. Watching these kids stand in front of a group of their peers and complete strangers and proudly tell us the history of their neighborhood was one of my favorite things I’ve done in my five years here. But it was also sobering.
Between sites, we walked past a church where people were setting up for a funeral. The hearse was outside and we nodded silently to the two men in white suits standing on the church steps. A few of the kids told us that they’ve had to attend so many funerals, that sometimes they fake being sick so they don’t have to go. They’re high schoolers and are faking sick to get out of going to a funeral because they’ve been to so many. Of all the things we talked about in those three hours, this will sit with me for a long time. Not just because I’m sad for them, but because I’m in awe of what it takes to stare death in the face that often, at that age and continue to persevere.
I hesitated writing this for quite some time because the last thing I want is to be seen as some newly woke white person who is taking attention away from this community of people and their needs. North Lawndale is both beautiful and broken. It has a tumultuous and colorful history and is struggling to build a better future, but it is hugely lacking in economic resources, and that affects the future of Chicago – our kids – every single day.
We walked the neighborhood for hours. I saw more empty lots than grocery stores. There aren’t small businesses around and the large anchors like Sears left decades ago. The city’s politicians have ignored the area for decades. I don’t know where people work or spend their money, but it’s not in the community in which they live — and that’s a problem. I saw a statistic that twenty-five percent of North Lawndale adults are unemployed. I believe it. A large percentage are on food stamps, but have few places to buy healthy food. And they have lost schools — several of them. If you’re wondering what the recipe is for violence.. this combination is a good start.
But they’re also making strides. Vacant lots are being sold and turned into community gardens. The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council is working with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to create a neighborhood plan. The Farm on Ogden recently opened to provide well paying jobs and fresh produce to the community. Want to make a difference? Go spend your money there.
You can appreciate the good things happening while also being mad that there’s not a whole hell of a lot more of them taking place. You can be sad about the consistent shootings and still show up and hear about how people are carrying on with their lives in the face of violence. But you do have to show up. And I thank Jahmal and his organization for helping these kids and pushing me to do exactly that. Nothing changes unless those of us in positions of relative power and privilege make them change. And I am so grateful to these kids for reinforcing that for me and pushing me to do better.