July 26, 2013 marked the five year anniversary of my cousin Freddy Serrano’s death. He was only 17 years old when he perished, just 10 years younger than my father was when he spent his last day on Earth. Both now can be counted in the mass statistics that make up Chicago’s murder rate.
My cousin lived in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Recent transplants to the area might be surprised he fell victim to gun violence in one of the perceived poshest neighborhoods in the city. Yet, while yuppies are cramming by the hundreds to pay overpriced rent in the Second City’s SoHo, remnants from the past are still lurking around its dark corners.
Waves of Gentrification
In the 1960s, Wicker Park was a neighborhood full of Latinas/os. Due to Polish-American residents flight to northern parts of the city, the area was a prime space for Puerto Ricans. My mother grew up in this neighborhood and till this day gives me the obligatory story of better times. As she puts it, “it was a time where it was safe to be outside and play softball in the schoolyard.”
Freddy wasn’t safe that day in late July, when he was gunned down while shooting hoops in the (now shuttered) Anderson Elementary School basketball court, a mere few blocks from his house. A critical fact is that he was a gang member, a tradition passed down to him by his father, uncles, and paternal cousins. Some might say he didn’t have a chance to become anything else, as many urban youths ultimately become a product of their environment.
Yet, murmurs around his death spoke of a different story, one that revealed a young man being killed, “after seeking forgiveness from his church and sobering up,” which is how a front page spread in the Chicago Sun-Times put it.
Back on that dark day after his death, I sat alone in a LAX terminal telling a grammar school friend, Angel, of the news. Months previous, I had committed myself to two weeks of volunteering in Australia and had just taken an early morning flight to Los Angeles to meet up with other volunteers. Seeking comfort, I expressed my sadness and confusion asking, “Why would this happen when he was just playing one of his favorite sports with his friends?” Angel knew of Freddy’s affiliation with gangs and made a callous remark, stating it didn’t matter if he wasn’t doing anything criminal at the time, simply being a past or present member of a gang and appearing in public was an act of malfeasance.
Now, I don’t agree with that one Puerto Rican male’s harsh assessment of our community. If you take a look into the personal stories of gang members, many enter the lifelong group through acts of desperation. Countless stories could be found of Black and Latina/o youth getting attacked by gang members on a daily basis. Living in a community with sparse resources, some find the only respite from the constant violence in a band of brothers to protect them. Distant fathers, workaholic mothers and the failing school system only add to the issue.
Chicago has become infamous for its massive cutbacks, including widespread school closures. The mothers and fathers of the historically underserved neighborhoods weren’t surprised their communities were mainly hit with closures. The Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park lost four of its schools, with the city citing underperformance and low admission numbers the reason they were blacklisted.
Waves of parents came out to support the schools, where their children were settled and accustomed. Other concerned parents expressed fear of the new schools their kids were being forced to attend, stating they were too far and would make their kids walk through gang-riddled blocks.
If you look at the political landscape, some far-right conservatives blame the misfortunes on Blacks and Latinas/os. A popular phrase is that they want to give them a “hand-up not a hand-out.” Yet, what is not being realized is that Black and Latinas/os just want an equal shot; a wish not being granted with a school system that just last year had a teacher’s strike, closed 50 schools, and is facing 2,000 administration and teacher layoffs.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel inherited the debt and bad budget we have in the city. But he isn’t doing enough to help combat our issues. He speaks of not enough funds yet he just financed $5 million in a Vienna Beef subsidy and $33 million for a new basketball arena for the private Catholic institution Depaul University, which will come from public funds through tax-increment financing.
Who will explain to the children that are facing the brunt of Chicago politics that they are less important than hotdogs and a basketball court? Children are blank slates whose future is dependent on their environment. The community isn’t naive enough to think this is the only issue weighing youths down. Yet, school has and will always be the foundational part of an adolescents growth and when we don’t give students ample resources they become part of the never-ending gang cycle in the city. Something needs to change so kids won’t become the one pointing the guns or end up being pointed at.
As for current gang members, a summit is being planned for September. Rev. Gregory Tatum, who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing complex in the 1960s, will lead the meeting put in place to help reduce the number of killings.