South of Madison, at 58th and State in a large warehouse-garage, brick and cold and cavernous: a gathering of strangers. They mill and sip their coffees, chew on crumbly baked goods, then throng into a horseshoe around a bouquet of microphones.
A tiny woman, her eyes barely seen above the metal bulbs, gives her endorsement to the proceedings. This is Catherine Haskins, the owner of the business hosting the press conference, Exclusively Yours Auto Spa.
On the north wall behind her: A large rectangular political poster full of intention; just a few yards away from it, a massive canvas in reds and blacks.
“The definition of revolution is love,” says Che Rhymefest Smith, announcing his aldermanic candidacy in the 20th ward, where, in spite of being a stone’s throw west of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, the emptiness is palpable even on a clear and clean fall day.
The canvas, ignored by the cameras and the media, has its own mantra: Love All Love Ball Trust None.
“It shouldn’t be made hard to help people,” says Smith, his family and friends in a mirroring horseshoe behind him.
Smith is perhaps best known for co-writing “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West’s big hit, but he’s third generation Woodlawn, he’s all over the community, and at this meeting and that. He lives here, takes his son to the McDonald’s at Cottage Grove and 47th, goes to block parties off Washington Park. He knows the corners, calls people by name.
And on the mural, Haskins’ brother, Michael Avery, oversees. He’s standing in front of a black Chicago skyline flanked by street signs marking a stretch of the 20th ward from 49th and Calumet to 57th and Wabash (a quick cruise reveals sturdy brick six flats with gummed up window frames, a few boarded up buildings, some flanked by vacant lots, a couple rehabbed – eight blocks of wary silence). In the lower right hand corner: “Rest in Peace Mikey 1978-2007” (an artists’ error: it should be 2006).
“He was killed right here, in this building,” Haskins says later, while Rhymefest is still circled, now more informally, only individually held microphones poking at his face.
Her family had bought the garage at her brother’s instigation, from an elderly couple whose own adult son had also been shot here, in the very place where Mikey would die years later, and where now Rhymefest was promising better days.
“We don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” he’d said during the press conference, “just reinstate it.”
“Someone came in with a handgun,” says Haskins about her brother’s murder. “We were closing up. The other workers heard the gunfire. Police believe it was a botched robbery, cuz they didn’t get anything. All they did was take a father of four away from his children.”
On the mural, Micheal Avery is accompanied by the family pet, a floppy-eared pitbull named Chica, now very fat and living the life of Riley with their mother, says Haskins.
Behind Avery on the mural is a 1978 Malibu, Carolina blue and beautiful, and Haskins points to the real thing, at the other end of the garage, which she drives now. Before he died, her brother had a new engine put in, the body restored and re-painted.
When she talks about her brother, she describes an ambitious and industrious young businessman, a charmer, a man close to his kin. Which makes a detail on the mural incongruous: on Avery’s shirt on the canvas, the familiar design of the “Scarface” movie poster.
“The artist did that,” Haskins says with a shrug. “For me, it just means life wasn’t a walk through the roses. I look at it as an interpretation of where we come from.”
Has she seen “Scarface”?
Haskins, annoyed, nods. “Yeah, I remember it – Tony Montana, cocaine, guns. I don’t think it associates my brother with any of that. It’s what we live through. Gunfire happens. Life for African-Americans isn’t so easy, you know?”
A few feet from her, Rhymefest is still talking: “We will reclaim our grace,” he promises.