I grew up on the south side of Chicago. Usually, when I say that statement people get scared. Here are actual responses:
“Did you carry a gun?”
“Is your father in jail?”
“Are your parents on crack?”
“Were you ever shot at?”
I used to get furious when people responded to my childhood address like that. It was as if I said I grew up in a war zone populated by single mothers and criminals. But that’s the reputation Chicago has. Recent events haven’t made that reputation any better. In April, two Chicago politicians asked Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to call in national guard troops to quell the rising gang violence in Chicago. It’s as if Chicago, and by Chicago I mean the south side of the city, is some unruly child incapable of controlling its impulses and is in serious need of an armed time-out. The undulating tide of violence that permeates Chicago’s south side was to me like that music that played at the end of a movie when the credits rolled – a necessary distraction, but not really worth paying attention to. And thanks to my parents I didn’t have to.
Parents’ Love Quelled Chicago Violence
A Chicago news station recently did a piece on what they call the “Wild 100s.” It was a news report about the 15-block area on the south side of Chicago that’s known as Roseland.
This area, according to the reporter, has the highest amount of violence in a city where more people have been killed than American troops have died in the Afghanistan war. (Granted, our troops are better armed than the people of the Chicago since progressive handgun laws makes it illegal for Chicagoans to protect themselves by owing hand guns. There’s a reason that rural Texan towns don’t have gang problems, people tend to think twice about robbing folks who blatantly own their own firearms.)
When I watched this news report it was as if I was looking at a documentary about a foreign country. They interviewed children who were too frightened to go outside because of the violence. They talked to men and women who volunteered to walk the streets asking people to stop the violence. They went by sandwich shops that had bullet holes and blood stains. It was incredible. It was as if I was back in the Philippines, being surrounded by men with AK-47s who were protecting their neighborhood from roaming armed gangs or if I was standing on a street corner in the dusty city of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria waiting in fearful anticipation for the next mob, armed with knives and guns to sweep through the neighborhood leaving only dead bodies in their wake.
But the report wasn’t a about a developing country thousands of miles away. It was about a place near my neighborhood park where I grew up learning how to play tennis and swim. It’s amazing that the 13-year-old in the news report was too afraid to go outside while I, at age 13, was having too much fun outside to go in. I can’t believe that the people in that news report lived in the same neighborhood. My childhood experience and that little boy’s experience today is like night and day. Sure there was violence in Roseland when I grew up. It was in the 1980s. The crack epidemic was raging. There were plenty of gangbangers roaming around my neighborhood. But somehow, by a miraculous turn of events, I was shielded from the devastation. My parent’s love made me immune to the violence I guess. Instead of bullets and blood I was treated to soda pop and barbecue at the annual neighborhood block party my parents and the other parents on who lived on our street put on. Instead of a gang we had the Eberhart Improvement Association, a group of volunteers who worked together to keep the neighborhood safe for us and were a little more than militant about lawns, and house upkeep. It’s amazing that I grew up in the same neighborhood as the boys featured in this video because my life could not have turned out more different.
Can You Go Home to Chicago?
Though my childhood was idyllic compared to most I left Chicago as soon as I could. It was as if I couldn’t bear to witness the destruction of my idealized upbringing by the reality of my hometown ills. Despite being an economic powerhouse Chicago has the sixth highest poverty rate among African-Americans.
And people who live in my neighborhood in Roseland:
- Have a risk of being murdered 3x the national average.
- Have 2x the risk of being robbed or assaulted than the national average
- Have a median income of just $17,000 ($5,000 below the poverty line)
- Are likely to have never been married.
But as Benjamin Disraeli said, “ There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
The truth cannot be in reality. I grew up in that neighborhood and my life could not have been further from those data truths. I know my parents and God had a lot to do with that. The fact that my father worked like a dog so that I could attend a private Catholic high school. He paid more for me to go to high school than I had to pay to go to college thanks to all the scholarships I got. And then graduating and my family helping me to move and get my first job. I’ve traveled from the south side of Chicago to the Mediterranean, the Mayan ruins of Tikal, the sacred halls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to the street vendors in New Delhi to the djembe makers in West Africa. In my life that has not yet ended I’ve lived 100 lifetimes and it all started on the south side of Chicago.
My heart aches and my cheeks are stained not for what is but what could have been. I am not unique, special or all that extraordinary. My story is a bit out of the norm but certainly attainable. They say you can’t go home again but if no one goes home and shows what can happen with hard work, love and more than a little dollop of the Lord’s blessing than this broken record will continue to spin without ceasing. I refuse to believe that what was shown in that video is the ending to the story of my neighborhood. I refuse to believe it.