Monday, July 21, 2014

A little relief

It's been something of a grim spring and summer in Chicago. People are being shot and killed at an alarming rate. Monday morning headlines have taken on the regularity of box scores or opening weekend movie grosses. They are just that dependable.

Much of this carnage has been taking place in a concentration of poverty stricken neighborhoods where historical patterns of segregation going back over half a century have all but assured that those neighborhoods stay poor and violent. Rogers Park, where I live, has suffered a bit too, though nothing on the grand scale of parts of the south and west sides. I live in a "mixed" neighborhood in every sense of the word. There is a vast diversity of incomes, races and cultures. There is also a pronounced strain of progressive politics and community engagement that dates back to the 1970s. We've been gentrified, suffered setbacks, and re-gentrified. That progressive streak keeps the gentrification from getting out of control and, at the same time, keeps the violence mostly in check. It's a delicate balance, but one that we are generally pretty good at. This year, though, it began to feel that the violence, even here, was making a comeback.

People are on edge.

Devon & Glenwood, July 12
Hell, I'm on edge. Just a little over a week ago, on a Saturday afternoon, a man was shot and killed on Devon Avenue, just kitty-corner from a hip farm-to-table restaurant that I often eat at. I have no doubt that at least a few diners were still finishing up their brunch on the patio. I heard about it before the media reports broke because my girlfriend was on her way to my place in her car, and a bevy of police vehicles blocked her way. When she asked an officer what happened, the reply was (and I'm paraphrasing here), "One gang banger killed another."

Not quite. The gang member might have been gunning for a rival, but his indiscriminate hail of bullets found someone else. Later on, I learned that our alderman, who was doing some political canvassing right around the corner, heard the shots and saw the killer running away. My girlfriend, because she's chronically late to most engagements, was not in the middle of this. But she could have been.

A couple days later, I was walking up to a cafe that I often go to for both the quality of their coffee and the community engagement that they practice. It's a very cool place and is located on Howard Street, which is still trying to shake a decades old reputation for shadiness and danger. Someone was shot on Howard just a few months ago.

That's when the edge got me. There's no dramatic punctuation to this part of the story, just the realization of the creeping unease that I was feeling walking this same street I have walked a hundred times.

Celebrate Clark Street

This isn't what I was thinking about last night, though. Because last night was the conclusion of an annual party that we throw called Celebrate Clark Street. Here is a festival that indeed celebrates everything that is good about Rogers Park, namely, its stunning diversity. It's about music and food and culture and dancing. It's a profoundly family affair. I've gone for so many years I almost take it for granted, but this year it felt especially powerful. My girlfriend remarked that attendance seemed higher than previous years. Another friend, a Mexican-American who lives in Lincoln Square and was visiting my 'hood for the first time, was most impressed by the family atmosphere.

Thousands of people gathered along a three block stretch of Clark Street, and the availability of cheaply priced Modelo Especial and Dos XX assured that many of them, including myself, were fairly well inebriated. There were definitely a lot of people acting the fool. But there wasn't a single fight. And nobody got shot. By the time Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca played their final notes for an impromptu conga line that featured, improbably, a life size cutout of the World's Most Interesting Man, I was exhausted, sweaty, elated and, I realized, relieved.

Ricardo Lemvo, sweaty dancers, the World's Most Interesting Man

Collectively, it was what we needed. Rogers Park residents have been holding their breath and treading cautiously for months. And I'm certainly not implying that being alert to possible danger is not an essential component to urban life. It is, every single damn day. But another essential component is community, and still another, hope.

Rogers Park has plenty of those, too. I wouldn't live anywhere else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Summer in the City

There's something about summer in Chicago that, for me anyway, brings out the multicultural mélange that makes living here a wonderful thing. A couple of factors are really bringing that to the fore this year. First, there was the awfulness of the polar vortex winter combined with a rather dreary and rainy spring. This one-two punch has kept me indoors a lot, but starting around the middle of June sunny, warm days became more common than the other kind. It was time to break out.

The other thing that started in the middle of June was the World Cup. Despite all the well deserved controversy leading up to the Cup (FIFA corruption, political corruption, you-name-it corruption), I've been hopelessly hooked since the games began. I confess that I'm a relative newbie to futbol, having first gotten excited during the 2010 Cup in South Africa. This year, though, Univision (By all means watch the games in Spanish, even if you don't understand a word. It's a lot more fun than ESPN.) is getting a serious workout on my TV. Catching broadcasts in public is fun as well. The phenomenon that is the Cup can leave even the most isolated individual feeling part of a larger global community. Whether your loyalties lies with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Germany or the United States, there is a party somewhere. I keep seeing this guy walk past my house (I'm pretty sure it's the same guy) with a large flag flowing behind him. The thing is, it's never the same flag. One day it's Spain, the next Switzerland, the next Brazil. I don't know where he's going, but I may follow him the next time he comes by.

So, let me tell you about my weekend.

It started quietly enough at home on Friday evening, although I did try out a new Italian recipe and watched a Mexican film that I borrowed from the library. I had a number of things that I needed to do during the day on Saturday, but the double hit of two World Cup semi-final games featuring all Latin American teams kind of obliterated that plan, especially the overtime + penalty kick Brazil-Chile nail biter.

Saturday evening began one of those 'only in Chicago' nights. First up was delicious Cuban food on the patio at 90 Miles, although that was a bit rushed because of an approaching summer thunderstorm. Fortunately, by the time we reached our next destination, the storm had passed and the sun was shining.

Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is named after a Puerto Rican abolitionist. The center was screening a documentary about a nearly (and, some argue, deliberately) forgotten figure in Puerto Rican history who, in the mid 19th century, had a vision of a united and free Antillean confederation consisting of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Only Haiti was a nation at the time. Only Puerto Rico remains a colony today. You can see why the schools in Puerto Rico might not want to teach kids about Ramón Emeterio Betances, or El Antillano as he was known.

Segundo Ruiz itself is quite a remarkable place, which I wrote about here last December. The screening was the second one of the day (one of the organizers told me that he spent most of the 3pm screening watching the Colombia-Uruguay game on his iPhone) and both were well attended. The community served by the center probably has divergent thoughts about Puerto Rican independence, but most everybody feels that there is something not quite right about the United States still ruling the island over 100 years after invading it. The film was a thoughtful call to arms, a questioning of why this is still the case. 

I would have loved to stick around for the post screening reception, but we still had one more thing to do.

A local band that I love, Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra, was opening for Chicha Libre, a band from Brooklyn that mines some of the same Peruvian and Colombian sources for inspiration. That was an irresistible double bill, so we we're off to Martyrs, a rock club in the North Center neighborhood. We unfortunately arrived near the end of Dos Santos' set, but managed to catch 4 songs. They were on fire, and I'm glad they'll be playing again in a few weeks at a street festival in my neighborhood. Chicha Libre was awesome, and we ran into some Peruvian friends who welcomed them as heroes. I'm getting up there in age a bit, but Chicha Libre had me dancing at the foot of the stage for well over an hour.  Exhausted and sweaty, we finally stumbled home at 1:30am.

Sunday is a day of rest, but the Mexico-Netherlands game demanded that the rest be had over tequila sunrises and huevos con chorizo at a Mexican restaurant, so there we were meeting a friend at the bar at 10:30 the next morning. Could it be a coincidence that one of the stars of El Tri is named Dos Santos? Mexico ultimately lost in a heartbreaking finish, but for 88 minutes I was in the happiest place in the world. Well, outside of Mexico City.  Costa Rica relieved some of the sadness with their surprise win over Greece later that day.

Monday is work day, but looky here, it's a short week because of the 4th of July holiday and Brazil faces Colombia on Friday afternoon. There's this little Brazilian bar I know and I hear a samba band will be there...