We came off the Dan Ryan at 31st street in the height of the afternoon. There was plenty of space in this neighborhood—too much space.
As we drove, my new friend pointed to a vacant lot, commenting that the emptiness had once been filled by tall “project” buildings.
We turned a corner from his street: there was his brother’s church. Next to it: more empty lots. One, two, three plots that once held “projects.” Now, gone.
When the projects existed, not many of the residents attended the church next door. My friend had tried explaining to the church leadership that the church needed to begin reaching out to their own neighbors. Instead, they built a fence, literally. To keep the violence out.
He tried explaining that if the church would bless the neighborhood they wouldn’t need a fence, they wouldn’t have to worry about any violence.
Instead, the fence was built and the people carried on. And the surrounding homes were demolished.
So, what happened to the people?
Displaced, many of them. “Section 8” they call it, referencing vouchers and so-called benefits that were granted in hopes of easing the blow of displacement. But there are limitations to the vouchers and benefits, a pathetic attempt at appeasement, really--as if insult added to injury could make things turn out fine. As if meager dole-outs can bury the desperation. Numeric euphemisms do little to alleviate the trauma of usurpation.
We drove on, commenting on the boarded-up buildings. Too many of them. The prices were surprisingly high for these vacant spaces. Developers are holding out in case the Olympics come to town. Waiting. Waiting. For Godot.
Get on with despair, already.
One half-mile stretch of street had vacant lots on the west with abandoned businesses on the east. Those businesses had once been profitable, but when the projects across the way had been torn down, the businesses floundered.
Some of the projects have since been replaced with row houses, some nicer than others. Some of those who had been displaced were now re-placed only to find their sense of “place” was now gone for good. On the outside things seemed nicer on certain streets, but what of the past relational fabric? Torn, not at the seams.
We passed an out-of-service bank on a prime corner. Cracks gave way to weeds in the parking lot.
I pulled into a gas station to refuel. Even the pump wanted to give out as fuel just trickled out the nozzle. A local resident and I joked about it. Humor and hope are cousins, I guess.
Now on 47th street, east of Drexel. We turned right. South of 47th and there it was: wealth you could scarcely imagine. Mansions. Million dollar homes and more. Color and lush extravagance.
A block or two further down Wonderneverland. We wanted to turn right but couldn’t. The street was blocked off. Obama was in town. Extra protection.
Along the way, my friend, an African American, shared his dream for a better America. A place where help comes to the streets, rather than expecting the streets to get to the help. His dreams included education, community development, jazz clubs, enriching people’s lives. And, perhaps, the resurrection of an old boarded-up church building.
We will pray over these streets together and I believe one day these dreams will be made reality.
But tonight I drove towards the lake shore and headed north toward home, passing downtown, lit up with affluence, as the afternoon wilted in the ‘hood.