Driving east on 71st Street toward the expressway, I saw Mary Harris’s house and had to stop. In the Englewood neighborhood, smack dab between an empty lot and a boarded-up house, is a gem. A tidy blue house with a perfect porch.
“This is my haven,” says Mary Harris, who’s lived here for 46 years with her longtime husband, who is a retired teacher’s aide. “I can see the blue sky. I see the beautiful trees from this area. And I sit here – oh – hours. And I do have my bible.”
“Everybody around here knows me,” she says. “Yeah, they do.”
Harris, now 76 years old, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She was married at 15, when she moved with her husband’s family to Chicago. They settled into this house in 1966.
“It was gorgeous when we first moved here. Quiet,” she says. “When we moved here it was basically – on both sides – white people.”
“As the blacks moved [in], then the whites would leave,” Harris says, pointing to houses all over the block. “Mrs. – I forget her name – she was white when I moved here. Across the street – white. Over in that area, over on that other side – white.”
The neighborhood became segregated but stable, for a while at least, Harris remembers.
“I think when they closed up the [high –rise housing] projects, then the neighborhood began to change because people far and near began to come in the neighborhood,” she says. “Now it’s changed so much, it really is frightening. Because I’ve seen people…killing, being shot, you know, dead.”
The worst incident occurred in 2003, she says. A car driven by a man believed to be drunk slammed into the front of a house, just across the street from Harris’. Four people – three kids and a grandmother – died.
“All of a sudden, I heard that BOOM, you know what I mean. And I came outside to see.”
She kept the newspaper story, she says. “That was the most devastating incident I’ve ever seen.”
As I must always do in these conversations, I turn the topic to local elected officials. Harris says she had high hopes for new Mayor Rahm Emanuel because he had President Obama’s support. But she’s not sure how that’s working out yet.
Her personal experiences with government have been less than satisfying. Harris says she tried to buy the empty lot next to her home, but when she asked the alderman for assistance, she never heard back.
“So what do I do?” she says. “For about 25 years I’ve been cleaning it. I lawn-mow it – my son, and…before him I did it. I keep it clean.”
Harris’ big issue, though, seems to be the kids. Someone with authority, she says, needs to “find ways to help…these young people that’re walking up and down the street.”
“They’re not really applying themselves to do anything. Maybe it’s because of the family," she says. "Maybe it’s confusion [at home], maybe it’s not even comfortable even being there. But if there was something for young people to get involved in, you know, gyms and go on different trips and educate them, make them interested in something. I don’t know, but that’s what I think.”
“Since I am a Christian, I pray for the neighborhood, because we do need prayer so badly,” Harris says. “I know there can be a change…and I look for it to come, a miraculous change to come about.”
“I think the whole neighborhood is going to come back to where I saw it was when I first moved here. That would really be something,” she laughs her amazing laugh. “Whites living right next to blacks. That would just be beautiful….Make things better. I think when we come together then we’re a good fist. We can be powerful. But being by yourself, you can’t do it alone.”