Race, segregation and violence: Views from one block in Englewood

June 25, 2012

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(Robert Wildeboer/WBEZ)
The Alexander family used to live in this house on 68th Place.They moved away after two of their sons were murdered. A third son was murdered in the neighborhood in January this year.

Davinia Davis loves the small '60s-era bungalow she rents in Englewood.

“It's nice.  It's cozy, it's homey, it's just big enough,” she says. She laughs as she proclaims herself a homebody.

Davis grew up in Englewood and she’s comfortable there, but she seems to be working hard to convince herself that it’s not a violent neighborhood.  She says her block isn’t so bad compared to other parts of Englewood, but as we talk in her front yard at 5 in the afternoon, someone around the corner fires off eight rounds.

“Okay,” Davis says, part confused, part scolding and part exasperated. “Those are shots, just to let you know. Those are shots.”

Kids are playing in the streets and one shouts “gunshots,” but then the kids go right back to playing as if nothing has happened.

Davis has been in this neighborhood for four years, and in that time, she says, a number of the homes have become vacant. According to the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit that tracks economic issues, in the last four years, 14 of the 39 homes on this street have gone into foreclosure. Davis stands across the street from four houses in a row that all have boarded up windows. One of them is a lovely yellow brick bungalow that Davis would be interested in buying except for what happened once the house was empty.

“Well, it was a fire,” says Davis. “I know the fire department put a hole in the roof over there so….”

Several homes on this street have caught on fire in the last couple years. Davis' daughter Danita tells me she'd love to leave Englewood and move with her two sons to Lincoln Park on the city's North Side, even though she thinks she’d be signing up for extra scrutiny. “Believe me, I will be a focus if I live in a predominantly white building or neighborhood, but as long as I keep to myself and my boys are okay, and we let them know that we're not out to harm anybody I don't think anything would happen, I think everybody could all get along,” says Danita.

But Danita says there are neighborhoods in Chicago where she wouldn't be welcome, like an area near Midway Airport. She says she once went bowling with friends in that area. “It was maybe about three or four cars of us going bowling and it was some guys over there, get out our neighborhood and things like that or whatever, and I'm like, well y'all, we need to go. You know I didn't like it.  We need to go, because I didn't want anything to happen,” she says.

That was 17 years ago and yet it still bothers her.

Across the street from the Davis household, a 30-year-old man who goes by the name Book Gavalli says he's having a hard time putting a career together. He's an aspiring rapper and entrepreneur but he says this neighborhood offers him no way to get ahead.

“Networking is the key, man,” says Gavalli.  “As far as connections, all we do is go to the candy house and get a snowball stand, you feel me, and sell icy cups and chips to the neighborhood.  That's the business they doing.  We don't have nothing.”

Down at the end of the block Shumotta Gaines is leaning against a wrought iron fence. Gaines is 25 and an interesting example of just how segregated this city is. When I ask him how often he sees white people, he says, “When you trying to handle like some business, that's when you're going to see a white person or something, you ain't gonna seem 'em out here, not like that. They probably somewhere like better or somewhere where like something better going on, they ain't around trying to be around this.”

Gaines says the white people in his life have been teachers and cops. He really has to stretch to come up with a single white person he stays in contact with.

“My cousin kinda white. He mixed. I keep in contact with him,” says Gaines.

Gaines is hanging out with friends at the home of Mamie Clemons. Clemons is the matriarch of 2007 West 68th place. She didn't want to talk on tape, but tells me she has 10 children, 8 of whom are still alive, 25 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren, and 43 great-great-grandchildren. Many of those people were raised in her brick two flat with eight  bedrooms.

There are 3 women in the front yard at Clemons’ house.  All three have directly suffered from the gun violence in this neighborhood. Jackie Barrett is sitting on the porch. She’s one of Clemons’ grandchildren.

Barrett’s 17-year-old son Martell Barrett was killed a block away, shot eight times. She doesn't hide the fact that he was in a gang but says that doesn't actually explain why he got shot. “It doesn't matter if you was shooting at them, if you was fighting, if you live on this block, and they have seen your face on this block before, you was gonna get it.  And you are gonna get it, still, cause they still doing it,” says Barrett.

Patrice, down by the sidewalk-- her boyfriend DeAngelo Alexander was shot a year and a half ago. He lived at the other end of this block, but his family moved after his death because he was their second son to be murdered. Unbelievably, even after they moved, their third son was murdered.  That happened just around the corner in January.

In addition to Patrice and Jackie Barrett, the other person in Ms. Clemons' yard is another granddaughter, Quincetta Graham. Her 15-year-old son Kevin was one of three people shot in a 2009 incident.

“A lady at the bus stop got shot in her buttocks.  Another boy got grazed in his buttocks and my son got shot in the face so we don't know who they were shooting at,” says Graham.

Graham's son survived, though he needed seven surgeries.

When Graham first moved to this house in the '70s, most of the neighbors were white, and many were not terribly welcoming, especially the woman two doors down. “I think her name was Ms. Walker,” says Graham. “She would call the police like if we would get out and play hopscotch or red light, green light she would knock on the window, scream at us, we could not play in front of her house.  She was the meanest lady on the block.”

But despite the racial tension Graham says the block was beautiful, but then the white people moved away and Graham says the neighborhood declined. “When I was a product of Englewood, when I was growing up here, I didn't, I would see what was going on in the neighborhood and I didn't want to be that,” says Graham.

Graham and her husband bought a house near 43rd and King Drive. They thought home values would increase because she heard whites were moving into the neighborhood.

“Yeah, because you know it's not gonna be as much crime, you know that it's not gonna be as bad as the rest of the neighborhoods,” says Graham. “As soon as the white people start moving in, I don't want to make it a black and white thing, but it's the truth.  It is what it is.  We talking real, it is what it is.”

Graham says since whites started moving in she's seen improvements like police at the "L" stop.

When it comes to the violence in Englewood, on this block of 68th Place near Damen, Graham has no answers. “Most of the time you hearing about black on black crime and it's really heartbreaking to see that and not understand and you grew up here, all your life, and you still can't understand and figure out why, why it's happening,” she says.

Graham says she wants her 12-year-old daughter to live in an integrated neighborhood, to learn about diversity and to know more about life than what she'd see if she'd never left this block. Graham says kids who grow up surrounded only by drugs and violence, that's all they ever know.

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