Blog Archive

Monday, March 31, 2008

Principal Valerie Brown Wins Neighborhood Leadership Award

Well, it wasn't the Hyatt, and Bill Daley wasn't there, but five Neighborhood Housing Services local advisory board members had dinner with Principal Valerie Brown of Hamline Elementary to honor her with the 2008 NHS Neighborhood Leadership Award for Back of the Yards/Garfield Boulevard.

Oscar Contreras invited the guys who play basketball in the Hamline gym on Tuesday nights to join us. About eight or 10 young men came up to the former kindergarten room where Principal Brown was once a teacher for steak fajitas, rice and beans and pork in a red sauce from Nuevo Leon. Two of the young men are recent graduates of Second Chance Alternative High School.

Before dinner, Oscar presented Ms. Brown with the official award plaque and she said a few words. "God put us on this earth for a reason, and it wasn't to serve ourselves. It's to serve others," she said. "Just the way a priest opens his church, so should principals open their doors to the community."

Especially in an area like East of Ashland, where community gathering places are few and far between. "I know that without Hamline, there's nothing here," Brown said. She's pretty much right. "I know this community better than I know where I live, because I spend all my time over here," she added. She's been doing that for about 30 years now. She even learned Spanish so she could communicate better with parents and community members.

Over dinner, I heard there's some interest in the NHS board's effort to jumpstart block clubs around the neighborhood. We'll see what comes of that.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Secrets of a Successful Beat Meeting

On Thursday night, less than two hours after the announcement that that a suspect had been arrested in the murder of Leticia Barrera, about 20 people from the beat where she lived and died were sitting down in St. Michael's school cafeteria with their local police officers.

"When somebody does something, you guys follow through. Thanks for providing that confidence," said beat facilitator Marina Alonso, who doubles as Hedges Elementary School's parent coordinator.

Unlike every other beat meeting I have attended in Back of the Yards so far, this one has a steady facilitator who has developed strong relationships with the people who live in the beat. Alonso also draws up each month's agenda and stays in contact with the police between meetings to make sure that community needs are being addressed.

This month the community also thanked the police for retaking control of St. Michael's gym, which had been overrun by gang members openly representing and trying to recruit. We could hear the excited shouts and dribbling coming from the gym while the meeting went on.

The feel of the meeting was very different from others I have attended. The police were engaged in the conversation, not just sitting there talking among themselves or looking anywhere but at the residents. There seemed to be real dialog between residents and officers, not just residents making requests or giving their complaints.

The police also seemed much less defensive and more interested in residents' perspective here than elsewhere. For example, near the end of the meeting a female officer present said, "The mothers I've dealt with are helpless. They don't know what their kids are doing. Ninety-nine percent of them are lovely people, but their kids are lost." She wanted to know what is being done to help and educate parents so they can better monitor their children's activities. "These kids are someone's kids. Is there any way someone can educate the parents?"

Oscar Contreras, who works with youth and with parents to prevent gang violence, told her about a parents' group now meeting at St. John of God, 51st & Elizabeth, every other Saturday. Mothers there support each other in their efforts to help their children stay out of trouble and leave gangs if they have already become involved.

"That's great," the officer responded.

After the meeting, Alonso told me that the attendance Thursday was lower than usual because they had parent workshops at Hedges. Many of those who did attend had been at school most of the day already. Their stamina was rewarded with a stack of Little Caesar's pizzas afterwards. During pizza time, Alonso carried her granddaughter over her shoulder and chatted with other moms and grandmoms present. She always makes herself informally after the meeting to pick up sensitive information people might not want to give out in public.

Both she and Contreras credited residents for their courage in stepping forward with information that led to the arrest in the Barrera murder.

"The community came together," Contreras noted. Apparently, someone at the press conference questioned the significance of one arrest in a city full of violent crime. To the naysayer, Contreras said, "It is a big deal. It brings closure."

It also increases the community's trust that the police will come through. During the winter, after the news reports about the killing had died down and before there was much evidence beyond what security cameras in the area had been able to capture, 9th district officer Eric Wier met with residents and told them he felt "ashamed" that the case had stalled, Contreras told me. Wier vowed to keep the case moving forward, and "he fulfilled his promise."

For more on Wier, see the Sun-Times article here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Tale of Two News Stories

Today's Trib has a long feature on the murder of Leticia Barrera and the efforts made to find her killers. So does the Sun Times. Of the two, the Sun-Times does a much better job of detailing the efforts the police and community made to work together.

Read it here.

I also appreciate this quote, in the Tribune story, from new police superintendent Jody Weis:

"This case would not have been solved as quickly without those witnesses and the support of the community," Weis said at a news conference at police headquarters. "When someone in the community knows something or sees something, their voice is more powerful than a gangbanger's gun."

I was privileged to attend the beat meeting in the Barrera family's beat last night and heard some of the story behind the story of how the community stepped up to work with police. It was also clearly the best organized beat meeting I've visited, ever.

Watch for a post in more detail tomorrow.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Suspect Arrrested in Halloween Murder

I was told earlier today that there would be a press conference at 4:30 this afternoon to announce that someone had been arrested in connection with the murder of Leticia Barrera on Halloween. If you forgot the details of the murder on Halloween at 48th and Seeley, see the Channel 2 story here.

Congratulations to Commander Eugene Roy and the police officers of the 9th district, who I am told did most of the legwork to find the suspect. I would also offer my congratulations to everyone in the community who helped the police with information and tips. At last week's Peace and Education Coalition meeting, the word was that they were close to a suspect and there was a pitch for contributions to increase the reward for information. I don't know if that did the trick or what, but whatever and whoever helped identify a legitimate suspect in the case deserves thanks.

I don't see any news on this yet, but will keep an eye out and link to any reports. Also, I really hope Mayor Daley makes as much noise to thank the community for bringing this information to light as he made critical noises in the immediate wake of the shooting. It takes a great deal of courage and faith to make information like this available to the police and the fact that someone did should not pass without notice.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hey, Kids--Get a Summer Job!

It's that time again--time to start thinking about summer jobs. The city's summer jobs program for young people, now known as Kidstart, is taking applications. Here's what I heard from my pal on 49th and Hermitage:

Here is a link for all CPS students, ages 14-21 for an opportunity to get a summer job. I know that all our neighborhood children are always on the look out for a job.

I think that being level headed and always having some type of responsibility (job) is the key to getting ahead especially when you live in a neighborhood like ours. Well maybe i can just speak for myself but that was actually the key factor for me to have stayed away from trouble and all the negative influences that were actually more visible in the past. Anyway hopefully we can help out as many kids stay level headed and hopefully make something of themselves.

For more information, you can call the summer jobs hotline at 773-553-JOBS. Some of the kinds of jobs available are coach, tutor, nutrition aide and even journalist.
Applications are due April 25, so get on it now--don't wait!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Back of the Yards Entrepreneurs in Trib

Check out Jesse IƱiguez and Rolando Santoyo's t-shirt business, No Manches, which got a mention in Sunday's Chicago Tribune Style section. To read the story, click here.

You can order their hilarious t-shirts online at their website (linked above) or head over to Pilsen and buy them in real life at OMD, the hip new clothing store on 18th Street. Or, for more virtual reality, check out OMD Chicago's web site, where the home page features Jesse and Rolando (seated, bottom row) with a bunch of other people, showing off the t-shirts.

I got Junior and his brother and their dad some No Manches t-shirts for Christmas. His dad is a landscaper, so of course he got the "Mow Your Own Lawn" shirt. The boys got "Juan Deere" and "The United States of Mexico" with the now U.S. Southwest included. Check them out for yourself!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Vigil

My dearest friends
Standing with me in this holy light
Join me in asking God for mercy...

I stood next to Joey, then Angel, then their mom in a pew tonight while Fr. Ed sang those words in St. Joe's, by candlelight, for Easter Vigil.

If you're a liturgical junkie like me, Easter Vigil is the coolest Mass of the year. First, you get to stand outside and light a fire. Then you get to see the priest light a five-foot tall candle from the fire, then everybody else passes that light from the big Paschal candle to each person's little candle, from one to another until everyone has a light. Then you all walk into the pitch-black church and sing, "Christ our Light" a few times. Then you hold the candles and let them flicker while Fr. Ed sings the Exsultet in his fine tenor. Then everyone in the pews blows their little candles out, leaving only the big Paschal candle up front.

"Now we're going to sit in the dark and hear stories," I whispered to Joey.

"Oh, cool," he whispered back. (Note to self--let's take a trip to the Dunes this summer and stay late enough to build a fire and tell ghost stories. He'd love that.)

Tonight we had Creation. Exodus. More. Beats me what happened after Exodus.

The full Easter Vigil has seven readings, often cut down to three or four, especially when there are people to be baptized, confirmed or given first Communion, as we had tonight. I know we cut back, and some were only read in Polish. Plus, I was babysitting Angelito so his mom could pray in peace for a few minutes. God knows she could use that.

Dawn put in an appearance about halfway through, but just to get keys so she could change clothes and go out to a party. At the time I thought she was changing clothes to come back to church. Silly me. Joey bailed out somewhere along the way, too.

I had Angel more or less up until the point when we sang "Alleluia" and all the lights come on at once. It's gorgeous. St. Joe's does it better than any place I've been since college. I know Joey was there for that part. His mom took Angel back after that and went back to the baptismal font with him, so she was in good position to watch the baptism and get soggy herself. Angel likes the font; he kept wanting to stick his hand in there, so we did that a few times while I was keeping him out of his mother's hair.

Ed does baptisms brilliantly. This was his last Easter Vigil at St. Joe's. We will miss him sorely here in the neighborhood, and I will miss his liturgies, his voice and his homilies.

Tonight he preached very simply on the resurrection. The resurrection is one of the hardest things to preach about, I think. The way he put it tonight was through a variation on Humpty Dumpty--let me see if I get it right:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Only God had the ?????
To put Humpty Dumpty together again

Well, you get the point. Ed was very clear that as Christians, we believe Humpty will get put together again. Some days I can hang on to that idea, but tonight in that beautiful church with Julian in prison, Dawn just there to pick up keys, and Joey almost not coming and then bailing, I have to say I do wonder how even God could put that family back together. But hey, their mom made it to church and even got five minutes to pray on her own. I'd be the last one to knock that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Museum of Science and Industry Trip

Well, the best part is we didn't lose anybody. The parts people said they liked best afterwards were the Earth Revealed demonstration, the U-505 sub and I think the baby chicks. The kids asked a ton of questions at Earth Revealed and our docent, Oscar, answered them all very patiently. We even got to see some galaxy and solar system images on the TV screens that he sometimes forgets to show. Thanks, Oscar!

We had 22 kids and five chaperones. Many Bradys came, including the second youngest Brady boy, who is only in kindergarten or first grade, but his second-grade sister didn't want to go so we let him come instead. His big brothers looked out for him. School Lady's younger two daughters came. The three kids whose dad I met at soccer came. Jay-Z and Joey came. Danny & Junior and Oscar made it, just barely. Peter Pan and his two younger brothers came. The only one who caused a serious problem was a boy from up on the next block who had not come to bowling and pizza. I was worried he might be trouble, and I was right. I may not invite him again, or only in a much smaller group setting. Unfortunately, the two kids from Su Casa missed it, but we were still able to use their van, which made the whole expedition possible.

Before we left, I had them all line up along my fence and introduce themselves to one of Medicine Man's buddies. This was a bit of a job. I wanted to make sure I knew them all, too, and get a count at the very beginning, of course. We had to squish in the van to make room for everybody, but we did it. Medicine Man and his friend both had cars, which helped.

The Su Casa van had about a quarter tank in it, and it doesn't accelerate well. We chugged down Garfield Boulevard to 57th Street. One of the oldest Brady girls sat up front with me and told me about how she's learning to drive over at Wells High School. She already has her learner's permit. We talked about college, too. She's thinking someplace warmer and far away. I told her a little about Rollins College in Florida and the University of California at Davis. She spent a month last summer at Georgetown and had a great time.

She also helped me think through what to go see. From talking with her younger siblings and cousins over the weekend, it seemed like the Fairy Castle, the submarine, the train and the science demonstration were all popular ideas. So I figured we'd split up by interest and then meet up at the Earth Revealed! demo at 3 p.m.

The van made it the few hundred feet on Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Science Drive. There was plenty of room to park, also good when driving a 15-passenger van.

Pam Barry from the museum's education department met us at the entrance with enough tickets for everybody, even though I had underestimated the count. Thanks, Pam!

When we got inside, the game plan changed slightly. All the guys wanted to see the submarine and all the girls wanted to see the fairy castle. Though I would normally try to resist such blatant gender stereotyping, I thought this would work out with our chaperonage pretty well. Medicine Man and I could do the boys and our new person could go with the girls, who would really be kept in line by the very responsible high school girls we had with us.

The boys were already getting antsy while this was being worked out. I parked them inside the space shuttle exhibit and told them they couldn't come out of there until we knew where we were going. Medicine Man got a call that a couple more of his contacts were coming to meet us. I drafted them to come with us to the sub--I could already see that our 13 boys were not going to be successfully tracked by just two adults. I tried really hard to get some male chaperones from the neighborhood but it didn't work out. These two extra people were some help, but not as much help as I had hoped.

Anyway, off the girls went to the Fairy Castle and off we went to the sub. The guys liked the movie about the bombing of the German sub by American warplanes--when the bombs fell the floor shook. They were transfixed watching it. Of course they never stopped to read any of the little placards next to anything. When I had a minute I would stop with a couple of them and paraphrase it before they ran off to the next thing in a case.

They also really liked a simulation where a two-person team went on a "training mission" and drove a submarine. They waited very patiently in line and teamed up nicely to do it. This, however, is where trouble struck. Once the first pair finished, I went off with them to look at some things, and then realized we were going to need a chaperone at the end of the hallway to keep them from getting too far ahead. So I went to the end of the hall and told everybody they could only come to that point. I thought they would be fine within that few hundred foot space, but I was wrong. There was an argument about someone taking too long at the periscope station (or whatever it was) and the new guy started cussing out some kid's mother. I'm sure I should have made him go apologize, but I only got their version (which was they had barely started when the mom tried to boot him--her version was he had been on for "eight minutes"- who knows?), and even middle class kids were having problems with each other and their parents over it (I guess it was interesting enough to keep one person on it a long time, and there were only two of them), so I asked him to explain, let him off with a warning and went to apologize to the mom myself.

However, they all had fun pretending to drive a submarine. Unfortunately, the tour inside the sub costs $5 extra and for 17 people that was a little much for me. They peeked inside and checked out the surrounding displays. Then we saw the baby chicks and some other stuff on the way to the Earth demonstration. The girls may actually have seen more of the museum than we did--they saw the baby chicks and the airplane.

I was really proud of them for all the questions they asked at Earth Revealed and how much they all knew. They didn't get too bored or antsy, even toward the end. Oscar was very patient, answered all their questions and showed us an extra demonstration about global warming. Afterwards we went back to Marshfield Avenue and I ordered pizza. There was pizza and soccer out back and pizza and photos in the kitchen. I did spring for the group photo for the guys at U-505 (they gave us the school discount).

What I learned on this trip:

1. If you want kids to digest substantive information at a museum, go in groups with no more than three children to one adult unless you have some exceptionally strong relationships among the children. I barely figured out how that U-boat got captured and learned even less about how it got to the museum. (The boys may know more about that last bit--they were watching the time lapse movie about building the hall while I was counting heads and checking who was coming out of the bathroom.)

I could almost imagine taking six Bradys and making it work, but only if at least one of the oldest girls came along, too.

2. Elementary school teachers are geniuses. I can't imagine facing a crowd bigger than that single-handed in a museum, and I used to teach high school.

From Our Readers

The Marshfield Tattler received its first fan letter recently, from a former Back of the Yards resident now living in Florida. Here's an excerpt:

Although I've lived in FL since the early 70's, I still consider myself a Chicagoan. I happened to have the good fortune to run across your Marshfield Tattler blog. I grew up Back Of The Yards; originally we lived on 47th and Throop and I attended St. John of God's parochial school. As I grew to a teenager, in the mid-1960's, I "branched out" into other areas of BOTY with a large portion of my teen years being spent on the northeast corners of 49th and Hermitage and 49th and Marshfield.

Those years I spent in BOTY were the best of my life; I always seem to find myself going back there in my mind whenever I can muster a few spare moments in my now too-busy life. Therefore, it's quite interesting to me to compare my recollections of those times with the snapshots of the neighborhood that you present on your blog. You seem to love your neighborhood as much as I do. Please continue your writings, and we'll keep reading. Many thanks for the slices of life in BOTY!

Also, a neighbor over on 49th and Hermitage sent this sad item:

I am attaching a link about a 24 year old man [from] 48th and Wood who was tasered and died because of the shock. I always drive by that street and it is so sad that this keeps on happening in our neighborhood.

To see the story in today's Tribune, click here.

Little Village Boxing Video

If you want to see what the place where my neighbors have been boxing looks like, check out the Community Beat blog and the great two-minute video on Chicago Youth Boxing at La Villita Community Church.

The video was made long before I started driving the Boxing Bus, but you get a great feel for the really wide age range of young men involved. They are wanting to work with girls and women, too, so if you're a female aspiring boxer, don't be shy--go see it live for yourself.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chavez History Fair II

Let's go back in time to last Saturday morning for the Chavez History Fair. This was the first time Chavez has had all its 8th-graders take on a History Fair project. The school's theme was World War II, and every student or team of students sliced off a small subtopic related to the war and researched it.

My favorite presentation was about women spies of World War II. School Lady's second-oldest daughter was part of a four-girl team. They read about Julia McWilliams Child and her work for the OSS. They also discovered that Hedy Lamarr had helped invent an early version of frequency-hopping and tried to convince the U.S. government to use the technology to protect radio-guided torpedoes from enemy attempts to jam their guide signals.

The one I noticed that had a real thesis attached was a young man named Emannuel's argument that the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unjustified. Though he agreed with the U.S. military's assessment at the time, that Japan would not surrender without either a nuclear attack or a prolonged ground war, he argued that the nuclear option harmed such large numbers of civilians and created so much long-term environmental damage that even a bloody ground war would have been better. I asked him where he was going and he said "probably Kelly." If you're a Kelly staff member reading this, he might be a good candidate for your IB program, or a replacement when somebody you already admitted wipes out.

One of the Brady girls worked with a partner on a presentation about the invasion of Poland as the beginning of World War II. She knew that Germany had conceded territory to Poland after World War I, but she didn't know the argument that the harsh reprisals against Germany and the high cost of reparations were factors in German popular support for Hitler's warmongering.

And Junior, who came over a while ago to work on his project about Latino heroes of World War II, had his board, photos and a popsicle-stick model of the little concrete structure in which a sniper would sit. Now I can't remember the name of it. Though his project was no great shakes as a piece of historical research, his photos were all from the right time period. And he worked hard on it--yay, Junior.

Some other kid's board actually had a Civil War battle scene with Abe Lincoln's face superimposed up in the top right corner. Ouch. Hope we don't see any anachronistic wonders like that next year. On the bright side, they had enough judges they didn't even ask me to do it.

On the even brighter side, Joey's whole 6th-grade teacher team wants to come out to his exhibit next week. That is really cool of them to make time for him over their own spring break (Chavez has two weeks since it is year-round).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Chavez HIstory Fair I

Chavez had its first-ever History Fair this morning. It ended about two hours ago. Now a bunch of Bradys are playing my Serpentiles game while I wrap up some email and get ready to get them to help me plan our Museum of Science and Industry trip next week.

I heard them outside. I had locked the gate without realizing it. I went to the door and Brady Boy told me, "We're bored. We want to play your game."

They're bored two hours after a big fun experience with lots of tacos. I didn't even get my nap. Oh, to be young.

Nap, schmap, anyway. We've got a trip to plan.

Alternative High School Registration Still Open

This just in from Brigette Swenson, director of the Peace and Education Coalition's alternative high schools:

Registration is still open at both schools, Irene Dugan at 46th and Wood (Holy Cross) and Second Chance at 52nd and Elizabeth (St. John of God). All out-of-school youth aged 17 to 21 are encouraged to apply.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Suspect Arrested in Cop Shooting

...and yes, I know the suspect. It's Julian.

He and a second person are accused of shooting the officer. I still can't find a news story about this but I've heard from enough people, some of whom I consider reliable, to believe such a shooting took place. And I know his mom was at his hearing at 26th today, she told me herself.

When the cops showed up looking for him and they told her what he was accused of, "she looked like a ghost," one of my neighbors told me. She doesn't believe he did it, of course. Sadly, I'm afraid I do. Or at least I recognize it's possible, maybe even likely at this stage of the game. But I'm not the daughter of a public defender for nothing, I guess.

However, I'm way more interested in trying to keep Joey out of trouble now than in helping Julian. When Julian got out of Cook County before, we talked some. "You make me think about things differently," he told me. Not differently enough. It was very clear that even though jail had scared him, it hadn't scared him into giving up his gangbanger buddies.

In the car on Wednesday, Joey was talking about how he and Peter Pan used to box with Julian and a friend of his. They even had hand wraps. Joey got knocked flat once, but then he started to get it. "Remember, Peter?"


I remember when Julian was bugging me about where to get boxing gloves and how much they cost. Then it was stereo speakers and DJ equipment. Then it was lawyers.

If there's anything to be done to keep Joey from going down that road, I hope to God we figure out what it is and do it.

Boxing Fever!

For months, Joey has been bugging me about boxing. I kept trying to get him interested in karate instead, but he wasn't buying. He and his buddy Peter Pan went and checked out boxing at Davis Square Park, but they came back unimpressed.

"It's small, and kinda dirty," Joey told me. "And it was full of gangbangers. Me and [Peter] got scared."

Back in January, we heard the Chicago Youth Boxing Club had opened a gym over in Little Village. He and his dad sort of tried to go check it out, but I don't think they ever got there. Once Joey's class ended at Marwen, I was willing to borrow Medicine Man's car to check it out. (Marwen plus boxing seemed like a lot to ask out of somebody else's car.)

The boxing place is nice. They built a brand-new boxing ring in the middle of a church basement and set up circuit training stations all around it--fast bags, heavy bags, a couple of more bags I don't even know the names for, and a station for situps and so forth. It's spotless. I went Wednesday and tonight--I even worked out a little tonight, from the sidelines. The kids are focused and don't mess with each other. They help each other out with taping their hands, showing each other how to use the bags, stuff like that.

Joey and Peter Pan went with me on Wednesday. It seemed better organized that night. The director was there and he took them around for a tour and spent a lot of time talking to them. They came away really fired up. I went with Joey to his house afterwards and had a plate of enchiladas with green sauce and really good refried beans. We talked to his mom and she was OK with him signing up. He went back the next night with Peter's granddad and had a form and a check to get started.

Then they talked it up to their friends. Tonight I took them, plus two other guys from the block, Jay-Z and one of the Bradys. When Jay-Z said he wanted to do it I was all over it. Jay-Z might even beat Joey in the Marshfield Avenue "needs an outlet and some responsible men in his life now" sweepstakes. When Jay-Z's dad and a buddy came back from the store (I'd lay money it was the liquor store on 51st, with a 12-pack each--I'm only guessing from the direction they were walking and the outline of what was in their black plastic bags) his dad said OK, he could check it out.

At first I couldn't tell if Jay-Z and Brady Boy liked it or not. Like Joey and Peter on their first night, they hung by the doorway when we first got there. Plus, the director wasn't there and at first the manager was busy in the office. Later he did give Brady Boy and Jay-Z a welcome speech and explained the rules.

(I'll fess up and say after the speech, when they started checking things out, I went down to 26th street for a chile relleno. When I came back, the guys wanted to know where their food was. "At home," I said. "If you eat now, you'll get sick.")

It seemed like there was less coaching tonight than the other nights, but hey, it was Friday. I was afraid the guys were bored because it seemed like they stood around just watching a lot, but they said they were fine, and then they started jumping rope and working on the bags.

Later, the coach tonight had all the little guys get in the ring and do exercises together. I'm not sure if they went all around the circle and each kid picked an exercise to do or if just the veteran kids picked, but they did a variety and it was kids leading kids. They did jumping jacks, crunches, situps, pushups and a lot of arm circles.

I followed along from the sidelines. The coach invited me into the ring but I declined, figuring I could bail out more gracefully from the side. I wiped out on the pushups, but I could do a lot more arm circles than some of the guys.

It ended early, too, about 7:30. I made them wait for me while I stretched out afterwards. They all said they liked it and Jay-Z said he was going to ask his dad if he could sign up. When we got back, Joey's mom was in the street with School Lady--they just went grocery shopping. School Lady asked me about it, because one of her daughters wants to box. There's another girl on the block who might want to box, too.

We were all joking about my new career as a bus driver. Although apparently School Lady has a functioning car again, and Joey's dad was there working on their van, I'm still pretty skeptical about how successful the Marshfield Avenue car pool will be. It will be an interesting test of the social capital and social efficacy of this block, not to mention the material capital in terms of cars. However, after all these years, I might have to break down and get a car if these guys get serious about boxing over there. We'll see.

Man of the House

Earlier this week--maybe Monday or Tuesday--I was fixing myself a late lunch, just before two o'clock, when I heard a big racket coming from between my house and Dawn's house. It sounded like somebody was dropping rocks.

Maybe it's someone trying to break in over there, I thought, and went outside in my socks to investigate. I poked my head around the corner, and there was Joey, stacking bricks up along the basement window.

"Joey," I called, not too loudly.

He still jumped. "You scared me."

"You scared me, too. That's why I came out here."


"What are you doing?"

"Somebody's been trying to break in our house." He looked at me sideways, and said even more quietly, "I think it's Yup-yup." He's seen Yup-yup watching when people go in and out of his house.

"Well, the first thing you guys need to do is lock that front gate at night before you go to bed."

"We do!"

"No, somebody isn't," I told him. "Because people ring my doorbell at all kinds of hours and I lock my front gate at night. Since your dad took the fence down, they cut through your yard and come over here. It's driving me crazy. Could you tell your mom she has to be really super-careful about that, especially now?"

"OK," he said. He went back to stacking bricks against the basement window, and I went back to lunch.

I guess he has to take on the security detail. He's 11 years old, but he's the man of the house now.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Man, I remember when I introduced Dawn and Julian to Alfredo Nambo at Big Picture. They were having an open house for 8th-graders and I really wanted them to go there. I knew Julian wouldn't last a hot minute at Richards, and I didn't think Dawn would make it much longer than her brother.

So I pulled out my naggy inner Oak Park mom and made them go up and introduce themselves to Alfredo. Not knowing how many people would be in the lottery, I wanted to make sure he knew who they were.

He said, "They seem like nice kids."

And I said, "They are nice kids."

They still are nice kids. But they're both nice kids in a heap of trouble, each in their own ways. Dawn is hanging by a thread at Big Picture for all the school she has missed with her escapades. Julian hasn't been back since he got out of jail. He didn't go to Indianapolis like we hoped. I hear he's hustling and using cocaine.

I just wish I knew how we got from there to here and how to change the trajectory.

Police Officer Shot?

Following the journalist's two-source rule, I can say with some confidence that the police were out in force on Marshfield Avenue this afternoon, looking for a suspect in the shooting of a police officer.

The scary part is the suspect is someone I know. He's not currently living on the block, though.

I can't find any news stories about a shooting of a police officer today. Rumor has it the officer was shot in his own house, but I don't know where.

When there's more to say, you'll find it here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

News Next Door

So there's still plenty going on next door. I feel like every single person in that house needs their own private social worker (or early childhood educator, for Angel). Dawn's mom's car is still not running, so I borrowed Medicine Man's car and drove her to Telpochcalli because I know some people there who hooked her up with a family therapist who is good.

Joey got suspended from school today for carrying a knife. I found this out when we got to Telpochcalli and somebody could translate what his mom was telling me. Joey was in the car--I promised we'd go to boxing while his mom was talking. Once I knew what was going on, it didn't work that way. I babysat Angel.

First his mom got to talk to the therapist lady while I walked around with Angel. We went back out to the car to talk to Joey. Joey told me that about three months ago he went to get pizza over on Ashland and some guy started hassling him, asking, "who you run with?" and stuff like that. This happened again three days ago. That's when Joey started carrying the knife, "for protection." I've heard this from kids before.

So we went inside and he and his mom and the therapist lady all talked while Angel and I walked around and watched some kids paint a mural in the hallway.

Afterwards we went to check out Chicago Youth Boxing, but we got there so early nobody was there. Joey decided he liked the look of the place and he wanted to bring Peter Pan, so we went home and came back again later. Another post for that story tomorrow.

Oakley Soccer League

It's quite a contrast from Chicago Indoor Soccer, but I had the luck to check out the Oakley Soccer League facility at 62nd and Oakley tonight. From the outside, it looks like just another abandoned warehouse across the street from the barbed wire keeping people away from some train tracks.

But inside, there's a whole little indoor soccer space, with a nice surface (I didn't step on it, but it looked comfy) nets all over to keep the ball on the field, and even some room for bleachers. A yuppie like me enjoyed the exposed brick and high ceilings while laughing at the visible insulation falling apart way up there and hoping there wasn't any asbestos.

Back down on the ground, plenty of dads and tios were cheering for their favorite little guys on the field. "Victor, arriba!" one dad kept yelling. Peter Pan's little brothers were playing--I saw one of them score. There was a kid in Gunsaulus sweat pants and I thought even a couple of white boys in the crowd.

Peter Pan's neighbor had brought them over. He lives on the south end of the block in a house that looks pretty crappy from the outside, but he tells me he's fixed it up on the inside. He really stays on the down-low: his kids are never outside, the house is nothing to look at, etc. But he owns his own trucking business, his oldest daughter just got into Bronzeville Military (score another decent high school for an 8th grader on the block) and his younger kids all go to Saucedo in Little Village. He had one of them in Chavez for a few months, but decided it wasn't challenging enough for his kids.

He looks out for Peter Pan and his brothers and sisters, too. You never know what dividends you'll get from being an honorary soccer mom.

By the way, if you're looking for a place to play soccer, they have youth leagues and adult leagues. The youth leagues go from 6 and under to 16 and under. Call Hector at 773-629-2498 or Fernando at 773-983-4895. On the way home, Peter Pan suggested they get a bunch of kids and parents together and rent the place out to play soccer sometime. Sounds like a good idea to me, but maybe when it's a little warmer. There's no heat, and even in a down jacket and long johns, I was freezing after a while. The little kids seemed just fine running around in their soccer shorts, though.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Catching Up

There's been a lot of news lately, so this post probably won't be very organized or well-plotted. Danny got into Curie! Yay! So that's three kids I know are in decent high schools out of six or eight. I am only responsible for one of them, which is proof there are responsible and savvy parents on this block. School Lady is responsible but perhaps not so savvy--we have to figure out what is happening with her daughter, who applied to Young but did not get in, like 90 percent of the world. Hmmm...

Three Brady kids have made student of the month at Chavez recently--two this month and one ealier.

Lots of bad news a couple of doors up, where someone we'll call Jay-Z lives. He's a friend of Joey's. His daddy's walking around the neighborhood with a bottle in his hand.I'm pretty sure Daddy was standing out slanging (dealing) tonight. Jay'Z's mama is in jail. "He's not learning anything," his aunt tells me. No wonder.

He's been suspended twice in the last month and his dad's afraid he won't pass sixth grade, even though he's already been ID'd special ed. "He's going to become a criminal," his aunt declared. I'm afraid she's right, if something good doesn't happen for him, and quick. Apparently school people said they didn't think changing schools would help matters. I disagree, and gave his aunt a number to call. I know a charter school that is still looking for 6th and 7th graders. At least he might get real social work service there, although they probably have their own struggles with special ed.

He's come by twice lately telling me he's hungry. I feed him. I don't call DCFS because their policy is relative foster care first and he's living with relatives now, so what's the point? Besides, I have to live with these people, and don't think they wouldn't figure out in five seconds who made that call. I went to Mass at St. Joe's this morning and prayed for Jay-Z's daddy.

Even daddy asked me about counseling. For Jay-Z, not for him. I'll keep on praying, maybe for the nerve to say a few things to Dad about what he need to do to help Jay-Z get it together, like put that bottle down.

Auntie tells me she's tried to talk to her brother, but he's not hearing her, at least not yet. I told her my dad quit drinking when he was 58, so you never know.

If you're the praying kind, please keep Jay-Z and his daddy in your prayers.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Lenten Special

Last night Dawn's mom made nopalitos con camarones/cactus with shrimp. It's a traditional Mexican dish for Lent. She likes it better than chiles rellenos, which is also traditional but I think more work. Maybe it's a wash.

With chiles rellenos, you have to beat egg whites to make the coating in which you dip the chile. With nopalitos, if you buy the freshest cactus pads, you have to cut off the spines yourself. On Thursday night we were sitting at her kitchen table. I was eating the Subway sandwich I had just bought with Joey while she was peeling the spines off the cactus with a knife. She got pricked by a spine. I winced. She grimaced a little, but she pulled it out and went on. "It's worth it to have the fresh ones," she told me.

When I came back last night to try the final product, School Lady and three of her four daughters were over to visit. The nopalitos were all cut up into bite-size chunks and had been simmered in a red sauce with the shrimp. The shrimp was dried ground shrimp, which reconstitutes into a little patty.

School Lady's youngest, Miss Opinionated, did not like the shrimp. (Truth be told, neither did I, but Dawn's mom doesn't have to know.) "It's rubbery!" she said in English, assuming the grownups wouldn't understand except for me.

Her mom understands English well, though, and tried to shush her.

Miss Opinionated, however, was not to be silenced. "I put my spoon on it and it bounced back!" Fortunately, everyone else was talking in English and Spanish, and Dawn's mom was busy with her youngest, so I don't think it mattered.

Miss Opinionated's next oldest sister is my favorite of all four. Usually she is very quiet, but she wanted to tell jokes last night. First, she asked me if I had any, but I didn't (except probably dirty jokes) so I just said no. She told one that was a little risque--"It has a word I can't say in it," she explained. But she thought of a substitute. "Can I say 'butt'?"

I said that was OK. So here's the joke: three men have been captured by cannibals. The cannibals decide to torture them by putting various kinds of fruit up their butts. If they make any noise, the cannibals will eat them, but if they can endure it stoically, they will win their freedom. The first one has to take ten apples--he only gets to the third one before he screams and is eaten. The next one only has to take ten blueberries. He gets to nine, but then he starts laughing.

"Why did you do that? You almost won!" one of the cannibals asks.

"Look at the next guy," guy number two tells him. "He's getting pineapples."

There was a pineapple among the fruit in a bowl on the kitchen table, and for the rest of the night we all kept eyeing it and making jokes about it. That, and the two potatoes in the shape of hearts--really!--they were potatoes that hadn't quite split in two, and they both were truly heart-shaped. Angelito kept picking them up, marching around with them and sometimes handing them off to one of the many females keeping an eye on him. School Lady's oldest is good with him--she got him to fall asleep for a few minutes, anyway. Then he wanted back in the party, so out he came, stumbling across the dining room floor and wiping the sleep out of his eyes most determinedly.

Apparently some guy at the store was teasing Dawn's mom about love and extra hearts. That got all us hardened old ladies joking about how Dawn's mom doesn't need any love or extra hearts right now. I suggested she could give those potato hearts away and let someone else suffer.

Dawn's mother's personality is starting to reveal itself to me a little more. I have always found her hard to get to know. Some of it is language--she has the least English of anyone in the family. But some of it may be she's starting to spread her wings a little now that the mister is out of the house.

She cracked me up on Thursday night. Shortly after we got back from Subway, Joey asked me, "Does my mom look different to you?"

I really wasn't sure what I was supposed to see different at first. Still the same long dark hair in a loose ponytail down her back, still the same face. Then I noticed her shape. She had more of a waist than usual. I was trying to figure out how to say this nicely when she smiled and pulled up the side of her sweater to show the corset underneath. We all laughed.

"That would have been a lot of sit-ups," I said.

Last night she didn't bother--she was explaining our laugh from Thursday night to School Lady, so she pulled her shirt up a little to show no corset this time.

It was quite a hen party--three grown women, three girls and Angelito soaking up all that female attention. Joey hid out--he wrestled with School Lady's oldest when they first arrived but then he went back in his room with his music. Dawn was out--I didn't quite follow where, but her mom seemed to know where she was and didn't seem worried about her. So I just enjoyed my nopalitos con camaron with rice and tortillas.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Things Joey Wanted

So Joey talked a blue streak tonight. He wanted to know if the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier had ever broken. He wanted to know what it was like to look out from the top of a tall building. (We'll have to go to the Hancock or the Sears Tower sometime this summer.) He thought he'd like to live in a downtown condo someday. He wanted to know how old my mom is. He wanted to know if aliens really landed on Earth in spaceships that look like the new top of Soldier Field.

We talked more about aliens. He says he heard something about an alien sighting.

"I saw it on the news," he said.

I teased him about that. "Are you sure it was the news, or was it just Ver Para Creer?"

He wanted to know about driving, if it's hard to drive or easy. We agreed the hardest part of driving is knowing where you're going. He thought it would be fun to have a TV in the car for a driver to look at at stoplights and stop signs. I told him I thought that would be a very bad idea.

We talked about when you can get a driver's license and whether you can get one if you don't have papers. Maybe you can, but I thought you couldn't. There was a bill in the House to let people get licenses regardless of immigration status, but it didn't go anywhere. But Joey thought his brother at least got a learner's permit. Hunh.

Then we talked about GPS systems and how they work, how much they cost. I tried one on my road trip back in November, but I didn't like it talking to me, so I skipped it on the road trips in January.

Joey wanted to know why cops always hang out at Dunkin Donuts. I wonder why they do that, too. Then we talked about how surprisingly fast old fat guys can run if they have to. Joey said his dad can run fast, but it hurts his heart.

"Your dad is like thisclose to having a heart attack. He better not run," I said.


By then we were at the Subway at 47th and Damen. Joey likes Subway. We went in and ordered the two footlongs for 9.99. Then the guy came out from the back with a big bag of cookies.

"Do you want these?" he asked. "They're too dark. We can't sell them, so I'd have to throw them away." There must have been at least a dozen cookies in there, probably more like 20.

Joey's eyes lit up and he took them. When we got out to the parking lot, he told me,
"You know, I was thinking I wanted some cookies. I was even going to ask you if we could get some."

"You had a genie today," I said. "You got all those cookies and you didn't even have to ask."

We got back to his house and we each took a cookie and gave cookies to his mom, sister and little brother. We all ate them together. Then he and I ate our sandwiches.

Marwen Report

So, tonight was Joey's last class of the quarter at Marwen. I borrowed Medicine Man's car and drove him up there. When I came back at 7 to pick him up, he was the last one still working on an illustration. (He told me later he and a friend spent a half hour in class playing a video game or something, so he was catching up.)

He had made a three-dimensional head of a Joker-like creature and put it on a background with the word Joker in graffiti behind the head. The colors were weird and scary, and its teeth were semi-formed and terrifying. His teacher told me he had done a great job on its hair, which you couldn't see very well in the 2-D drawing. His teacher will be displaying them as 3-D animations for the Marwen student show at the end of the month, and they will spin around on the screen, so I'll be able to see the back of the Joker's head then.

"He had a number of exhibit-worthy animations," the teacher told me. I was very psyched.

I hope he decides to take another class next quarter. He tells me Peter Pan wants to go, too. We'll see if we can make this happen. As long as Medicine Man's car is around, we might as well get some use out of it.

New Books for the Hood

Thanks to Alexander Russo at District 299 for posting about a group called First Book, which gets brand-new books into kids' hands that they can take home and keep. Here's what Alexander had to say about them, via a tip from the Community Media Workshop:

"First Book recently established a Chicagoland advisory board, which is now reaching out to teachers and directors of early education and afterschool programs -- along with teen groups, tutoring programs, and ESL classes (some bilingual books are available) -- to participate in the program."

To reach their new Chicagoland advisory board, email
or call Peter Gray at 312-953-2894.

I just called and they are emailing me the application for a book grant. I'll see whether Chavez and Su Casa are interested. If you're interested, email me at and I'll forward you the application form. Established nonprofits are eligible to apply.

The tip from Community Media Workshop included a memorable statistic: while middle income neighborhoods have about 13 books for every child, poor neighborhoods may have only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.

If other neighborhood folks are reading, don't be shy about contacting them or me for the application. My recent experience giving away books around here indicates our kids are hungry for them. And just yesterday after school, one little boy from up the street told me he's been reading the book about basketball he picked out from the stack a couple of weeks ago.

This Just In

In case you missed the update to the March 4 post, two clarifications:

1) The young man being chased by the police early Sunday morning was captured by police but not killed. He was apparently driving a stolen car around 6:30 a.m. when police started chasing him westward from 47th & Halsted. The car crashed at 47th and Wood. After the cops fired three shots, the driver got out and appeared to be ready to turn himself in, but then he jumped back in the car and managed to restart it. Police gave chase to 43rd and Paulina, where they caught him. No one else was injured.

2) Some inside poop the papers didn't give about the death of 18-year-old Jose Ignacio Garcia Barrera. My sources say he was shot at 48th and Seeley, then driven to where the police found him. They also say he was caught in a trap over a girl, drugs, or both.

In happier news, yesterday I was able to arrange for free tickets for a group of 20 or so to go to the Museum of Science and Industry over Chicago Public Schools spring break. Medicine Man is asking his Americorps buddies if a couple of them will help us chaperone. We should have up to four or five young people from Su Casa and the rest from here on Marshfield.

It seems like such a small effort in the face of all the heavy stuff going down here, but better to do the small step than none at all.

Cut Your Property Taxes

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune ran this story about a special window later this month in which property owners can appeal their assessments. My block was reassessed two years ago (if memory serves) and I fought it then. When I got my bill recently it looked OK to me, not like a crazy increase, but I may double-check since we have an opportunity and home prices are falling here.

"According to data provided by the Chicago Association of Realtors in the last two years, the sales prices of single-family homes in the Englewood community have decreased by 13 percent or more, in the Belmont-Cragin area by 6 percent or more," Mayor Daley said at a press conference Wednesday.

The realtor data shows the largest declines in the city, 2 percent or more, in Englewood, New City (our neighborhood) and others: Belmont-Cragin, West Englewood,
Chicago Lawn; Auburn Gresham; West Pullman; Roseland; South Chicago; Garfield Ridge; Dunning; Calumet Heights; Gage Park; South Shore; Norwood Park; and Portage Park.

The special appeal period is from March 17-31. If you think your assessment is inaccurate, you can call 311 and someone from City Hall will get back to you. Or go straight to the Cook County Board of Review for an application.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"A Tough, Tough Weekend"

That's what Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan had to say about all the shooting going on last weekend, some of which took place here in Back of the Yards. This Chicago Tribune story mentioned three local victims:

Jose Garcia, 18, shot in the chest while sitting in a parked car on the 4900 block of South Hoyne on Saturday night.

Two other neighborhood young people who were wounded: a 14-year-old who goes to school at Hamline and a 16-year-old student at Richards.

I'm not sure about the ones that didn't make the news, but if I understood correctly, there was a collection at church on Sunday to send the body of another slain youngster back to Mexico. I thought this kid was killed by a speeding police car, but I'm not sure I understood everything correctly during announcements.

UPDATED March 6: The young man being chased by the police was captured but not killed. The collection at church was for Jose Garcia's body to be sent to Mexico for burial.

Someone I spoke with today counted five shootings here in the area in recent days, including his own very young cousin, who was injured by bullets going through a car window. It sounds like he will be OK.

Between conversations with NHS board members, folks at Holy Cross and staff at Big Picture, here's what I've learned about why this is happening. Essentially, one gang whose territory lies east of Ashland is feeling the heat from the three or four other gangs surrounding them. I heard today that four or five of the east of Ashland gang's members have been killed in the last five months or so.

"They're getting that 18th street mentality now--kill or be killed," said one of my sources. I am not sure the extent to which that is from networking or because guys from 18th Street are physically moving down here--we are getting folks who have been displaced by rising rents and property taxes in Pilsen. While I have raved in previous posts about the great new neighbors I'm getting thanks to displacement, perhaps others haven't been so lucky.

At any rate, the beleaguered gang is out for revenge. On Sunday night about 7 p.m., I walked past five or six police cars in about three blocks, starting at 48th and Ashland. The sirens went on for hours afterwards.

Some neighborhood observers are already betting it will be a long, deadly summer.

Windy Citizen Share