My wife, daughter, and I recently decided to spend the holiday season with my mother and siblings at the family home on the South Side of Chicago. Upon arrival at Nana’s house, I realized that I would always regard Chicago as “home,” despite having lived on the East Coast for the last sixteen years. And yet whenever I visit my childhood home, I often experience an odd muddle of feelings—from love and excitement at reuniting with family and old friends to anguish and despondency over the unrelenting poverty and crime that has come to define my community. A thoroughly African American area due to past and current segregative practices, the Woodlawn-Roseland neighborhood that I grew up in has long been plagued with high rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment. And while I spent long stretches of my childhood on “welfare” and avoiding gang violence, I had always remained ardently hopeful for the future of my community. Indeed, my commitment to social justice was strongly shaped by my experiences growing up in the “wild, wild, 100s” (south of 100th Street) and fed my personal and scholarly interests in overcoming oppression through action and critical theory.
As we drove through my old neighborhood, any lingering feelings of Obama-esque hope for change were tempered by the too-familiar signs of crushing poverty: burned-out buildings, hopeless drug addicts, boarded-up homes, and gang-controlled corner blocks. Far from experiencing a revival, my Woodlawn-Roseland neighborhood has suffered a re-entrenchment of race-based poverty over the last two decades. The strict racial boundaries that separate our neighborhood from nearby “white” neighborhoods are still often enforced with violence. Racial re-segregation of our public schools has increased at a startling rate over the last few years, while poverty and crime have become more rampant. And perhaps most worrisome, the feeling of hope for the future that previously defined my old neighborhood has dissipated since my childhood and is now replaced with a sense of desperation and resignation.
I steeled myself as we approached the family house, reminding myself that my mother’s new next door neighbor was a high-ranking leader of the Gangster Disciples (“Folks”) gang. I steeled myself at the memory of my youngest sister having to shield her infant son (my nephew) with her body during a fatal shooting at the nearby Ada Park a couple of years prior. I steeled myself as I considered the safety of my wife and infant daughter, both snoozing quietly in the backseat of the rental car.
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