Standing on her second step just after noon on a Wednesday, Mandy Wallace couldn’t talk about the future of her Englewood community without tears filling her eyes.
But the pervasive violence afflicting Chicago’s most underserved communities makes it a topic tough to avoid.
Late last fall, the Rev. Al Sharpton contributed to the conversation by announcing he’s rented an apartment on the West Side, where he’ll be staying once a week. He plans to draw attention to men and women working to fight against violence.
Whether Sharpton’s approach or any of the talk surrounding gun violence will work, Wallace is certain about at least one thing.
“If they don’t live in it, then they shouldn’t speak on it,” Wallace said as she grabbed her mail and swallowed back tears, now a habit for her.
“I’ve seen it,” she said. “And it hurts. It hurts like hell to see our neighborhood turn out like this.”
Wallace said she has been living in Englewood since the 1970s. She’s adamant that too narrow a view is often taken at the violence, aiming blame at neighborhood kids.
“You can’t blame these kids,” she said. “It’s never been no fascination to me—some of these kids, their parents are on drugs.”
In a monthlong span from mid-September to mid-October, a Chicago Tribune investigation showed 61 reports of violent crime in Englewood alone. Add that to the neighborhood’s 112 quality-of-life crimes and 133 property crimes in the same period, it’s easy to see why Wallace’s eyes so easily well with tears.
Further, University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which uses science to advise both government and non-government agencies on innovative approaches to reduce violence, released a 2008 report that showed “a large share of homicides of Chicago youth stem from impulsive behavior—young people with access to guns, massively over-reacting to some aspect of their social environment.”
The desperate effects of this reactionary and impulsive violence can be heard in the young voices of communities that see the bulk of it.
“It’s just a broken system,” one man, who only wanted to be identified as Hakeem, said before hoisting his book bag to board a bus on Garfield Boulevard.
“Nothing has really helped.”
“You born into a community like this, you’re only going to be able to do certain things with your life.”
Terrell McGill, 43, was vaguely upbeat about Sharpton’s chances of changing the communities he plans to work in. Waiting for laundry, he emphasized that Sharpton holds the respect of many community members.
“He’s sharp now, he was sharp then,” he said. “It could make a difference. I’d love to see him down here. Maybe some of the gang members will ease up.”
In an October interview, Sharpton said he thinks community leaders at the ground level have helped Chicago turn a corner in the fight against violence.
But among decrepit buildings, vacant storefront churches and nearly empty sidewalks strewn with tires, litter and men idly jumbling loose change on Halsted Street, it’s hard to see which corner this fight has turned. The effect of the violence on the economy, however, is evident.
Wallace said that increased opportunities for young men to get an education could definitively help her community.
“Open up trade schools,” she said. “There are some young men who want to get their lives back together.”
Dr. Albert Bennett, professor of public policy and education at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, said “targeting specific populations with a well-crafted opportunity” could be successful in underserved urban communities, but “it has to be well conceived and well executed.”
Bennett is also the director of the St. Clair Drake Center for African American Studies at Roosevelt, and part of his research has centered on young black men in under-sourced urban settings.
“We can’t lose another generation of students—we have to get it right,” he said.
On Garfield Boulevard, as Wallace began to corral her anxious dog and head back inside, she shot quickly back around.
“I put my hope in God, because that’s our only source,” she said.
“Man has failed tremendously. We go to nobody but God, and he is going to turn it around. My hope is in God.”
But her presence, tears and empathy demonstrate the paradox: That’s not necessarily the case.
In the 15 or so minute span she was outside, two different neighbors, seeing her with a stranger, stopped to make sure she was OK; one woman even pulled to the curb and sprang from her car to check on her.
Their hope is also in each other.