Englewood and the Heaviest Wait

[from Reservoir / November 15, 2006]

“You must be crazy,” says the CTA security guard.

We are riding along on the 63/Ashland branch of the Green Line in the early part of a weekday afternoon. I have explained to him that I want to visit different areas of the city and write about them for my school’s magazine, and that I wanted to check out Engl63rd and Halsted, 1929ewood to see if it’s at all like people say it is.

“You be careful,” he continues. “They’re gonna know you’re not from here.”

I ask if he means because no one will recognize me or because of the color of my skin.

“They’re just gonna know” is all he says.

Not long after leaving the Halsted station, a police car pulls up alongside me. Two officers approach.

“Alright kid, what are you doing down here?” one asks. I explain myself, again.

“Oh man,” the other laughs, “yeah, it’s like people say it is.”

“Worse,” says the first one. “There, we just wrote your story for you.” They tell me they’ll be parked at the end of the block, and don’t go too far down any side streets unless I’m either stupid or have a death wish.

Great. Thirty seconds ago I was just another passerby and now I’m an outsider with a police escort. Surely I was going to die here.

There was a time where Englewood was famous for things besides oppressive poverty and crime figures that rival some war zones. In the early part of the 20th century, this was one of the premier shopping districts in the city, and lured buyers from around the state thanks to the then-newly built Jackson Park Transit Line (grandfather to the modern Green Line). The Stratford Theater on Halsted was considered one of the world’s finest theaters until it became a Carr’s department store, which was later torn down.

Still, decades of racial hostility and a northbound exodus of wealth can take their toll. In 1999, Mayor Richard M. Daley pledged $256 million dollars towards rebuilding Englewood. The centerpiece of this development would be the return of Kennedy-King College to the intersection of 63rd and Halsted.

Ironically, it was the first Mayor Daley who oversaw the relocation of that very college in 1971 to 67th and Wentworth to make way for new shopping development. To walk down these streets, you wouldn’t know that either of them had done anything.

While there are some partially-completed new buildings, there are also plenty of partially-destroyed old buildings. Weeds, junk-food wrappers and liquor bottles litter the cracked sidewalks. Empty lots sit alongside graffiti-covered garages and burned-out storefronts. The stretches of Halsted, Ashland, and Racine that run through this part of town represent three of the four most crime-ridden stretches in the entire city of Chicago, according to data from the Chicago Police Department.

“You’d think they’d clean this place up already,” says resident Donetta Jones. “Garbage all in the streets, people sleeping in buildings that ain’t even homes. This ain’t no way for people to live.”

With the veto of this summer’s “Big-Box” ordinance, retailers won’t be required to pay their workers more than minimum wage, and mega-chains are rumored to be eyeing potential sites down here. Still, that’s a long way off; for now, those vacant lots and abandoned homes are going to remain vacant and abandoned.

Across the city, people will wonder when that new store’s opening, or wish the ‘L’ would hurry up and get them downtown already, or lament that the yuppies are ruining everything,.

But here in Englewood, they will just wait. For what, no one knows: maybe cleaned-up schools, or jobs, or a drop in crime, or for their neighborhood to get better after so many years of getting worse.

As Jones says, “Not much else to do around here anyway.”