Panorama: Inequalities in Chicago

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Rick Kogan

This week’s Panorama (Rick’s bi-weekly essay) is about inequalities in Chicago. Scroll below the audio to read Rick’s full essay.

A couple of years ago I was with Matt Damon, the famous movie star, when he came to Englewood High School.

He said to some of the kids there, “We are all brothers.”

Matt Damon lives in New York with his family. He can live anywhere he wants to live.

Not everyone is so lucky. People live where they are born and some people have to stay there, trapped.

Welcome to Englewood, a community with a complex history that started in the 1850s when railroad companies lay tracks and built stations in the area. “Junction Grove” became the first name for the neighborhood and it became a prominent stop on Underground Railroad.

You know what that was, don’t you?

Not a railroad at all but a network of secret routes and safe houses used by black slaves to escape to free states with the aid of allies sympathetic to their cause. That cause was freedom.

After the Civil War, the area’s name became Englewood, after a city in New Jersey, and by 1887 Englewood was thriving, filled with business and opportunities for all.

One entrepreneur was H.H. Holmes and he built a hotel/torture chamber near what is now 63rd and Wallace. There, in the early 1890s he killed and disposed of his female victims, victims in numbers we will never know.

Today a post office sits on that lot of horror. Eric Larson, who wrote about this in “Devil in the White City,” went to the spot. We stood there and he told me, “It’s a tough neighborhood. But Chicago is a far safer city today that in the 1890s.”

But is it? Go ask the children of Englewood.

Englewood….electric trolleys came there in 1896, the L ten years later. Buildings rose and by 1920 nearly 90,000 people lived here. The shopping district at Halsted and 63rd was the second busiest in the city, second only to the Loop.

There were almost no blacks living here then but one of them was Willard Motley, now a forgotten man.

Motley went to Englewood High and when he was 13 a short story of his was published in the Chicago Defender newspaper. The editors, impressed, offered him a weekly column and thus did he become the first of many to write under the byline of Bud Billiken, a mythical figure invented by the Defender to tell children’s stories, and a character celebrated for decades in the annual South Side parade that is the oldest and largest African-American parade in the country.

Motley wrote four novels, tough and honest novels about poverty and crime. Now if he is remembered at all it is for 10 words out of the millions that he wrote.

Ten words spoken Nick Romano, the altar-boy-gone-bad, in Motley’s 1947 novel, “Knock on Any Door,” words further immortalized by John Derek in the 1949 film of the same name.

“Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.”

It was never intended to be funny. It was meant to be sad and now it seems to haunt the neighborhood and its children.

“Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.”

This is Oscar Brown.

Derrick Rose is a child of Englewood, won a basketball championship for Simeon, went on the University of Memphis, lost in the NCAA championship game, came to the Bulls, rookie of the year, MVP,  five year contract worth almost $95 million.

Derrick Rose lives in Trump Tower.

But for every Derrick Rose, thousands do not escape.

Jennifer Hudson made it out too.

She is a child of Englewood, graduated from Dunbar High, sang in her church choir, “American Idol,” “Dream Girls,” an Academy Award, a net worth of $18 million.

Jennifer Hudson lives in Burr Ridge.

But the old neighborhood got her, didn’t it?

A mother, brother and seven year old nephew killed there.

The statistics from the 2010 Census are sadly sobering: Poverty rate in Englewood, 46 percent/unemployment more than 20.

Both are more than double national averages and higher now, only three years later.

And there is more. Blocks once filled with homes now little more than weed-choked prairies. Foreclosed homes havens for bad deeds before they disintegrate before our eyes. Thieves and gangs, rapists and murderers…sexual predators prowl, drug dealers deal.

And yet there are good people here too, abandoned. Good kids too, about to be lost.

There is a teacher at Englewood High School named Missy Hughes. She tells me about her kids: “Their lives are tough, but they are amazingly resilient. We know what people think when they hear Englewood…gang violence and poverty. There is a judgment placed on the kids and their community. It is easy to dismiss us, to believe the lie that the kids here are not all of our kids, that the problems here are not all of our problems.”

So, Matt Damon came to visit Missy Hughes’ class. He did this without any other media around. He did this for a good cause called “The People Speak,” to help the kids understand that their voices were important, as were their lives.

He told the kids, “We are all brothers.”

And then Matt Damon went back to his family in New York.

The kids stayed in Englewood. But they wrote Matt Damon a letter. The letter said, “Thank you for coming to our neighborhood and for not being scared.”