Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nitty-Gritty Midterm Exam for Local Aldermen

This week's print edition of the Chicago Reader has hit the streets. Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke review the city's nine freshmen aldermen, three of whose wards contain slices of Back of the Yards. Their yardstick was pretty straightforward: "Are our representatives up to the task of telling the mayor 'no' once in a while?" The answer is a resounding no.

I'm not surprised that that's what Ben and Mick care about, but I can tell you very few people, especially in the South Side wards that have long been neglected and lack basic city services, give a good gol dang about that yardstick. In fact, I suspect most voters here would prefer their aldermen have a good relationship with City Hall (even a bootlicking one), if it means they can get city services to work and get access to dollars for ward improvements. They also care about whether they ever see their aldermen and whether they feel like their aldermen are paying any attention to local needs. It all comes down to "who will get me a garbage can?"

By that standard, here's my take on the freshmen aldermen I've had contact with since the were elected, starting with the one who runs my ward.

Joann Thompson, 16th Ward--Ben and Mick lump her together with Toni Foulkes of the 15th Ward, noting the similarities in how they were elected--both were backed by organized labor, SEIU to be specific--and as the gentlemen put it, "both have had their hands full just trying to set up an office and confront some of the problems in their long-neglected communities." Both, the guys tell us, have been quiet, reliable yes votes.

What this doesn't tell us is the important difference between them on the ground. I've only seen Foulkes in action once, but last summer she got herself out to an NHS block beautification event, clearly knew the block club members, and spent a good half hour or more talking with them about safety and street improvements that could be done on their block. I don't know the extent to which she followed through, but she was out there.

As for Thompson, she has sent out one newsletter, which I grant had the dates of her monthly ward meetings. I haven't been present at any yet but I have heard back from others who've been there. They weren't very impressed. A while back some of our local leading lights, including Rep. Esther Golar, went out with petitions for street resurfacing here on Marshfield Avenue. I heard a rumor that the street will be resurfaced from 51st to 47th, which includes parts of both Thompson's and Willie Cochran's ward. My guess is that it's Cochran and Golar who are really making this happen. My impression thus far in Thompson's term is that she concentrates very hard on the Englewood portion of the ward, leaving Back of the Yards and Gage Park to their own devices. My impression of Foulkes is that she has made broader and more effective outreach across her ward as a whole, but if any readers know more than I do about this, please fill us in.

In short, if I were Jimmy the Greek, I put money on Foulkes getting re-elected and not on Thompson. Stay tuned.

Willie Cochran 20th, and Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward. Ben and Mick discuss them separately and at length, giving Dowell credit both for her presence in the community and for thoughtful and occasionally-gasp-independent votes. However, they give Cochran short shrift: "He's not exactly a disappointment, since we never expected him to stand up to the mayor anyway." By contrast, the view from the ground here would lump them much more closely together because of their strong commitment to constituent service. To me, Cochran gets extra points because it would be easy for him to concentrate on Woodlawn redevelopment, especially amid the Olympic furor. Yet I saw 48th Street get plowed this winter and we've seen the long-awaited sidewalk improvements on the 4800 block of South Marshfield. There's almost always a 20th ward staffer at the local CAPS beat meeting; I think the 16th ward superintendent came once.

Just as a side note Ben and Mick join the chorus of critics who've ripped the Olympics community benefits agreement for being toothless. For reasons I won't go into here, I can say just getting the words publicly on the table in the face of City Hall opposition is not an achievement to be sneezed at. For a couple of aldermen whose wards heavily depend on city services to pull this off is worthy of a lot more respect than they're getting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More Good Admissions News

Sarah got into Orozco! I happened to run into the principal at a meeting today, which prompted me to ditch out for a moment and call her mother to find out whether she got in or not. Her mom told me she is going over there tomorrow to register her for next year. That's the best news I've had in quite a while. I think it will make a real difference in her chances of going to a good high school.

Arturo Velasquez Dies

Arturo Velasquez, whose jukebox business in on Ashland Avenue here in Back of the Yards, died Friday at home. He was 93 years old. The Tribune obituary on him recounts his work with the Peace and Education Coalition of Back of the Yards, as well as his service on the board of the City Colleges of Chicago. The West Side Technical Institute was formally renamed the Arturo Velasquez West Side Technical Institute in his honor in 2007.

Velasquez was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco and grew up in Chinatown, where he first put a jukebox in a taco shop. Thus was born the business that made him a wealthy and well-known member of the Latino community for many decades. He was still going to his office this year, according to the obituary.

I was unable to attend his funeral, but others I know who went told me it was quite a send-off. Seventeen priests concelebrated the funeral Mass at St. Rita of Cascia, led by Fr. Bruce Wellems of Holy Cross/IHM. Mayor Daley attended, along with a full house in a very large church.

One of his children, Carmen Velasquez, is also an especially well-known force in the community. She founded the Alivio Medical Center, which provides culturally sensitive health services to the Latino community.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Marshfield Avenue High School Admissions Report

Well, all three of the guys I helped with applications this year are going to Noble Network schools. Peter Pan is going to Noble Street HS; Oldest Brady Boy is going to Rauner; I'm not sure which one of those Peter Pan's brother is going to, but he's in at one of them. Peter Pan was saying at the barbecue Saturday that he got into Rauner first, then they called and said he had gotten into Noble from the wait list. He switched, but he's having second thoughts. He had wanted to go to Noble Street all along--someone in his family knew about it; they used to live up that way--but with his best bud (Oldest Brady Boy) going to Rauner, that probably has some pull, too.

However, he can't diddle around about it. "Pick and stick," I told him.

I get the feeling Peter Pan's older sister is in a jam about school. Her grades have never been the greatest, and much as I'm reluctant to say it, she may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. She started off liking Perspectives, but when I ask her about it now, she kind of shrugs. She had said back in January she wanted to transfer. When I asked her what was up about school on Saturday, I got another shrug. I'm afraid she may be at Richards in the fall, which wouldn't do much for her chances of graduating, I don't think.

Shooting Last Thursday Night

Sorry, I'm behind the times. Just spotted this story from the Chicago Sun Times. The link will stop working by Friday April 24, so the gist of it is below.

Juan Cazares, 14, was shot and killed Thursday night at the corner of 50th and Wood, near Cornell Square Park, where he had just finished playing a basketball game. I appreciate reporter Annie Sweeney's pains to make clear that this kid was a human being and that this neighborhood is working hard to reduce violence. She's done a lot of reporting on this neighborhood and it shows.

However, I do have to make a comment based on my experience with kids who have left school for one reason or another. Juan was a student at Richard Milburn Alternative High School. Last I knew it was primarily serving students who had been expelled from Chicago Public Schools, so although the piece portrays Juan as a nice kid, I'm sure he was a complicated kid, too. Don't get me wrong; that doesn't mean he should have been killed. Nobody, especially nobody 14 years old, deserves to die. But if there's one thing I've learned from living her for nearly five years, everything is a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface.

My prayers go out to Juan and his family. I'm sure he was a lot like Joey and the other boys I know over here on our block, which isn't very far away from his home or from the corner where he died. It's stories like this that make me really nervous about raising a kid, especially a boy, here. It's so easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's also easy for teenage hijinks to get out of hand with terrible, even fatal consequences.

That last point is what it turns out the pushup showdown on Saturday was all about. After the pushup contest ended, I went to the barbecue next door and Peter Pan's uncle told me how it all got started. The older men in the crowd, Yup-yup included, were trying to make a point to the young boys about staying out of trouble--that tagging and gangbanging are not how you prove your manhood. "It's not like I'm a saint--I did my little things when I was their age, too, but somebody has to show them right from wrong," Peter Pan's uncle said.

A woman sitting by the grill told me she has a seven-year-old son. She said, "I already told him, if I see you trying to join a gang, I'm going to take a baseball bat to you myself. If anybody's going to hurt you like that, it's going to be me, not some little gangbanger." She was referring to the gang initiation rite known as "violation in," where to join you have to endure a beating from the gang. It's like frat hazing on steroids.

I'm just fascinated that Yup-yup got in on the "don't do it" message. It's too bad most of those young boys probably aren't connecting the dots between what they're up to now and guys like Yup-yup and even Tony. Those thugs who live to be old thugs never die, they just end up hustling and washing cars and doing other people's yard work, when they aren't locked up.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Yup-yup's Pushup Showdown

So I'm not sure how all this got started, but I was sitting with Ines and her mother on their stoop and suddenly we heard Yup-yup hollering. We looked up and there he was in the middle of the street, surrounded by at least a dozen of the boys from the block. He seemed really mad about something. I never could figure out what.

A couple of dads came out and stood with their sons while he went on and on, but nobody stopped him. So I'm thinking the boys did something wrong and Yup-yup was giving them what for.

Anyway, Yup-yup challenged them to a pushup contest. At first he wanted to challenge them to 50 pushups, but he brought it down to 30 when there were clearly no takers. He took off his shirt (he could have spared us that but I guess he didn't want to get sweaty, or he just wanted to show off his muscles,) then borrowed La Chismosas front step as the site of Pushup Showdown.

He put his feet on a middle step and his hands on the ground and did 30 in very rapid succession--Army-style, I'd call it. (Not karate-style, which I used to be able to do.) Then everybody stood around and looked at each other for which boy would go first. Some people were calling for Peter Pan--'You're the leader of the Marshfield Boys, aren't you?'--but Yup-yup called for Joey. He turned red, but he decided his pride was on the line, so he went for it. He did 30, too. Secretly I was kinda proud of him.

Picasso was up next. He almost pooped out around pushup 26, but he got through it.

Then everybody leaned on Peter Pan, who gave it a try and pretty much failed miserably. Busted! One of the moms on the sidewalk with me joked, "And he's the leader??"

Then La Chismosa came out and told them to get off the step, just in time to save Oldest Brady Boy from going next.

There's a party next door--maybe a baby shower for Sarah's niece. I wasn't sure I was invited, but Peter Pan's mom said I should just come, so I'm going over there now.

Oh, and I had a minute to tell Joey and Picasso about the new round of art classes in Pilsen through Pros Arts Studios. Picasso sounds interested in street art on Tuesdays, but he'd be getting there late because he leaves Curie late (freshmen get out last). I told him to go anyway and explain. Hope he takes Joey with him. Joey remembers the Marwen instructor who's teaching the Monday night class. One way or another I'm hoping they'll get there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Vigil

On Saturday night I went to Easter Vigil at Holy Cross/IHM for the first time. The three oldest Brady Girls were getting confirmed. Before Mass started, I was sitting toward the back when their youngest sister walked past me and asked, "Would you like to sit with us?"

"Sure," I said. "Is there room?" There was, although the Brady relatives filled up nearly three pews. Two of the girls had aunts serving as sponsors, so the aunts were there with their husbands and kids. I think one of them had seven kids, though it was hard to tell the brothers and sisters from the cousins. The youngest of the bunch was probably about a year old, maybe a little less, and he got passed around among all the kids and a few of the grownups. I even got a turn holding him for a few minutes. Easter Vigil is tough on kids--this one went for two-and-a-half hours--so the innumerable Brady cousins got a little squirrelly.

The confirmation came in the middle and that gave everyone a chance to move around to get a better view. They always say "don't take pictures during Mass, wait until afterwards" but people always ignore them, and this night was no exception. Then we all took even more pictures after it was over.

Afterwards, the family invited me back to their house for a party. Mrs. Brady is a great cook--she bakes bread and sells it around the block every so often. I always buy some. On Saturday night they had tamales and two kinds of atole--the regular kind (kind of chocolatey) and atole blanco--it's a thick white drink without much flavor. I like the regular kind, also known as champurrado, better.

The Bradys downstairs didn't come to church, but they were all there for the party, and one of them even brought one of the chickens upstairs to show her cousins. Oldest Brady Boy told me he doesn't know where he's going to high school yet. That worries me a little. I'll have to check in and find out what is going on--if we need to do a last-minute push to get him somewhere or what. I thought the Nobles would have given out answers by now, so I'm worried he may be on a waiting list.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Housing Resource Fair Next Saturday

On Saturday April 18, Rep. Esther Golar and Neighborhood Housing Services will host a Housing Resource Fair at John Hope College Prep, 5515 S. Lowe. Registration starts at 9 a.m. and the event runs from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Aid for homeowners facing foreclosure and public safety responses to the growing number of vacant houses in the neighborhood will be discussed.

I heard recently that over 500 homes were lost to foreclosure in Back of the Yards in 2008.

To RSVP for the event, call Rep. Golar's district office at 773-925-6580.

Good Friday Via Crucis

Our neighborhood puts a lot of effort into Good Friday, partly because it's such a big deal in Catholicism, especially Latin American Catholicism, partly because the spirituality of suffering is so important in a neighborhood like ours.

Holy Cross/IHM held a via crucis (way of the cross) in the morning up at the north end of the neighborhood, then the folks from Port Ministries held one from noon to 3 p.m. in the southern part of the area. The photo above was taken at the corner of 51st and Ashland, where they held the second station.

The photo below was taken later, along 50th Street west of Ashland:

Monday, April 06, 2009

Junior's Latest Grades

I talked to Junior on Friday. He got his grades for third quarter at Golder. No Ds!! Both civics and physics are up to Cs, and everything else was an A or a B.

"I'm really proud of you," I told him. He looked a little embarrassed. It was cute.

Oh, and he told me it wasn't that his mom told him not to call me, he was just understanding his homework better and didn't need help. Yay!

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