For most of his life, 16-year-old Jeremiah Sterling lived in West Pullman, on Chicago’s far South Side. His mother’s house on May Street abuts the northern border, but the neighborhood goes south all the way to the Calumet River, east almost to Indiana, and west to Ashland Avenue. A cruise through West Pullman shows small, cozy bungalows, their lawns trimmed; in warm weather, there’s plenty of stoop seating. About 75 percent of these homes are made up of families – people actually related to each other – which is about 9 percent more than the rest of the country.
Altgeld Gardens, a historic public housing site on the far end of the neighborhood, is poor and troubled to this day – in spite of being the site of a young Barack Obama’s organizing efforts. A brown field on 120th Street near Altgeld Gardens is also the site of the largest urban solar plant in the country, Exelon, which opened this year. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former Chief of Staff and now running for mayor, was key to bringing the plant to Pullman. David Axelrod, the president’s PR whiz, also did consulting for it. (Exelon, which runs 12 nuclear plants throughout the country, also owns Braidwood, just south of Chicago, which paid fines for spilling millions of gallons of water containing a radioactive form of hydrogen for decades.)
These days, The Gardens struggle with many issues, but particularly the redistricting that sent most of its young people away from its neighborhood school, Carver, now a military academy, to Fenger High School, just north of Pullman and where Jeremiah used to attend.
Public transportation in West Pullman means buses, especially the Halsted Street and 111th Street lines. Both routes are routinely used to get to Fenger by kids all over the neighborhood, including The Garden students. Both lines are dotted with fast food restaurants — Wendy’s, White Castle, Subway, The South China kitchen at 116th and Halsted, a few soul food places, a McDonald’s at 114th and Halsted, Joey’s Pizza at 113th and Halsted.
Jeremiah and his pals in Terra Squad, his footworking crew, would sometimes “tag” at the traffic light off 113th and Halsted, asking drivers for donations to help with uniforms and equipment for their performances.
At Fenger, The Gardens transfers found kids from mostly middle and working class families – much like Jeremiah, whose parents are college educated professionals: LaWanda Thompson-Sterling worked in insurance all her life until the economic downturn, when she was laid off. Odel Sterling, a pastor, works for the Chicago Board of Elections.
The 60643 zip code where LaWanda’s house sits includes residents with incomes varying from less than $10,000 to upwards of $250,000. Nearly 14 percent of the population – the largest bloc – makes between $75,000 to $100,000. Houses sell for between $50,000 and $192,000.
But the economic crisis has hit West Pullman hard. On a 3-block radius around LaWanda’s house, there are more than a handful of houses in foreclosure.
And crime is up. A recent report lists domestic battery, vandalism, carjacking, theft, narcotics, a confidence game and gambling – a dice game in the alley on the 11300 block of South Carpenter.
The Personal Crime Risk based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report suggests the 60643 area code – which includes the part of West Pullman where LaWanda lives but also a slice of Calumet Park – is more than double the chance of car theft here than in the rest of the country, twice the chance of larceny, burglary and property crime, more than four times the chance of assault, nearly six times the chance of being robbed, more than three times the chance rape, and nearly three times the chance of being murdered.
This summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, there were 167 murders in Chicago. Four of those were in West Pullman.
One of them was Jeremiah Sterling, a block from his mother’s house.