People often tell me how much they love Chicago. It is hard for me to see the allure, having spent most of my early years trying to get out of there. To say I hated living there wouldn't be exactly true, but it is a place that elicits a wide range of emotions that are not all positive.
|Common "artwork" in My Chicago|
When I hear about the Magnificent Mile, Lake Michigan and the Bean, it's like I am hearing about foreign places. They were not a part of My Chicago. My Chicago was corner stores and Cobras; dollar stores, drugs and Disciples; bullets and brown people. I grew up far from the magnificence of Lake Shore Drive, the Sears Tower and Wrigleyville. The streets I knew were in Humboldt Park, a place where you had to be aware of your surroundings at all times, and what colors you wore where. You wouldn't want to be caught wearing black and green in a neighborhood ruled by black and yellow. It became second nature to know what colors belonged where and if you forgot, there was always graffiti on the walls to remind you which ganged controlled the territory. As a female, I often felt like I'd get a pass if I messed up the dress code but always feared for my brothers, cousins and male friends.
Some of my best memories were of the summer, which happens to be when Chicago is most dangerous. I loved being outside and tried to do everything out there from play with my Barbies to scooting on the scooter, rolling in my skates and my all-time favorite thing - riding my bike. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to go outside and there were over a dozen neighborhood kids waiting for the next game of Catch, Hide N Seek or ready to share bubbles, sidewalk chalk and junk food. In many ways, my block felt like a small town. Everyone knew everyone. Most of the moms stayed home and were always popping their heads out the windows to check on us, offering cold water or allowing us to run inside and use their bathroom. The elders on the block sat outside and watched us, sometimes bringing us ice cream or slices of watermelon. It sounds idyllic but there was also an air of tension.
Although the block wasn't very long, I was only allowed six houses away from home in one direction and eight in the other. Corners were off limits. Do you know how much concentration and coordination it took to turn a bike around on a sidewalk, avoiding the lawn on one side and a fence on the other? As my bikes got bigger, it became increasingly more difficult and annoying. But the corner was where there was an open lot. When I was six, a girl not much older than me was raped in that lot. Next to the lot was an apartment complex where a ten-year old kid shot someone to earn his street cred but got prison time instead. I remember his mother inconsolably crying on the sidewalk as the cops hauled off her youngest son. The corner was where drug deals and gun sales went down and I was told to stay away from there. It was also where I became a victim of crime for the first time at the ripe old age of four. My mom and I were on our way to the corner store and I insisted on riding my Strawberry Shortcake tricycle. As we approached the corner, my mom just a few feet away, a guy ran by, snatching my gold necklace and scratching my neck and chest in the process. I don't recall what he looked like, or even what the necklace looked like. What I remember most was the surprise at how quickly it happened and the panic in my mother's voice when she called out.
Panic was a common feeling that stemmed from fear and progressed into the anxiety I still deal with today. Fear for my safety is what I remember most about living in Chicago. The worse was at night. My dad often worked jobs where he either left before the sun came up or long after it had set. Because our apartment didn't have garages, he had to park his car wherever there was a spot. It was sometimes on another block and he had to walk in the dead of the night. As a young child, maybe eight or nine years old, drive-by shootings would often wake me up. I would get in the fetal position, clamp my hands together in prayer and beg God to keep my dad safe and that he didn't catch one of those bullets meant for someone else. I would repeat my prayer over and over again like a mantra, my entire body tense, feet rubbing over and under each other, eyes shut tight while tears and sweat dripped onto my pillow. I don't know how long this went on, but it felt like hours. I'm not sure how many times a week this happened but since drive-bys were pretty constant, I imagine it happened often. To this day, I know I am stressed when I lay in the fetal position and rub my feet over and under each other.
Chasing the feeling of safety led to my choice to attend Iowa State University. By my senior year in high school I had seen a girl get shot by a stray bullet at a bus stop; lost friends and neighbors to gangs, AIDS and prison; been in and witnessed fistfights, and extended my fears past my dad's nightly walks to my siblings growing up and becoming targets in their own neighborhood. When I visited the campus I was less impressed with the academic accolades and more with how people left their cars running at the gas station and students didn't lock their dorm rooms. There was a feeling of peace and safety I hadn't known and I wanted that more than a degree from a certain institution. In fact, I had been all set to attend New York University before visiting Ames. It had been my dream school throughout high school but when it came time to decide, safety won out.
Growing up in My Chicago carried into my experiences on campus. Whenever I saw someone in a baseball cap I would make a mental note of which side it was cocked so I knew what they represented. It took a long time for me to stop seeing people dressed in black and fill-in-the-blank color and not instantly categorize them into a gang. Even though I was in a place that was safe, embracing it didn't come easy. I often locked my roommate out of our room because I locked the door even to go to the bathroom. A phenomenon that blew my mind was how students of color always nodded and said hello when we passed on campus. I had no idea who they were and hadn't figured out the unsaid solidarity in being one of so few students of color. My lack of response to those greetings got me labeled as "that mean Spanish girl" by fellow students and I figured if it meant they left me alone to get my work done, then I was OK with that title. It took over a semester for me to allow myself to feel connected to the safety of my new environment. While I never got to unlocked door status, I did adopt the nod and greeting and stopped associating colors and hats with gang culture.
But going home was a different story. I felt the tension of My Chicago in my muscles as I got closer to home. I expected violence at every corner and avoided venturing out as much as possible. In fact, I made it a point to stay on campus as often as I could, taking out loans for summer courses, working during breaks and finding internships in different states. I knew almost immediately upon leaving Chicago that I would never live there again. Twenty years later, my opinion hasn't changed.
Now that my family is out of the city and has made a life away from the dangers of My Chicago, I don't even have the desire to go back and visit. While I recently made a special trip just to visit the places I grew up hearing about like Navy Pier, Grant Park, Michigan Avenue, etc. it didn't feel like a homecoming. It was more about trying to see Chicago from a visitor's perspective now that I no longer have to call it home. While the handshakes, colors and hand gestures aren't as prevalent in Chicago's gang life, their legacy is still found in the homicide rates and makeshift memorials created on sidewalks across the city, honoring lives cut short over the same territorial mentalities that ruled when I lived there. My old stomping grounds has a Starbucks and high-end dog grooming place but the old artwork that adorned garages and sides of buildings that announced whose territory it is still shines. Gun shots are still commonplace and summers continue to be the deadliest season. It saddens me that a place that holds such beautiful architecture, amazing food and charismatic sports fans shares space in my heart with such strong memories of feeling scared for my life and that of my loved ones. Yet, I know that it led me to people, places and experiences that have profoundly shaped my life. It also holds some dear memories and I appreciate Chicago, even if I still don't want to call myself a resident ever again.
|Mural that depicts My Chicago, titled A MOTHER'S GREATEST FEAR|