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.

No comments:

Post a Comment