Changing the Narrative in Englewood, Chicago

By Lena Kazer

Heading south on the Halsted bus, the left side of my face is beginning to get sunburned. I turn and lean my forehead against the glass, watching restaurants sweep by, then stockyards, then rectangular houses of pastel pink and cream.

At 96th I cross the street heading west, passing a barbershop and a library. The café I’m searching for is nowhere in sight – and my phone’s blinking blue dot tells me the reason. The cafe is on 69th street. I’ve gone almost thirty blocks out of the way, the farthest south I’ve ever been in the city.

I grew up in Oak Park, a western suburb that borders the west side of Chicago. Growing up near Harlem, I saw very little of the city across Austin Ave, and rarely ventured farther south than Roosevelt. When I moved into the city after college, I settled in West Town, and for the first year or so I rarely found myself south of Pilsen.

We tend to stay where we feel safe. We frequent the places we know and feel pride in our choice of parks and markets and bars. It’s easy to get comfortable knowing pieces of the city, and to feel no connection to the communities beyond that highway or past that train line. We create some borders on our own, and others are taught to us in words and chain link fences.

Sometimes it takes a push to travel somewhere that isn’t convenient to get to or that doesn’t have the best reputation.

My Block, My Hood, My City did just that April 23rd with Explore Englewood: an invitation for Chicagoans to visit the Englewood community on the south side, a neighborhood that many associate with violence, poverty, or ‘Chiraq,’ the nickname popularized by Spike Lee.

Most Chicagoans have never been to Englewood, or have much to say about it.  They can allude to a Tribune headline or Fox News story, but they can’t point out a particularly dangerous intersection or name a victim of violence. Sadly, it’s enough for many to know that it’s not their neighborhood.

MBMHMC aims to change that narrative, by highlighting the strength, vibrancy, and innovation in Englewood and other under-resourced parts of Chicago. By encouraging Chicagoans to visit neighborhoods beyond their comfort zones, they believe that the origin of this disconnect can be addressed and changed on a grassroots level – by the people.

MBMHMC coordinates their explorations with local businesses and community organizers to facilitate meet-ups, avoiding tours or guided trips that can isolate visitors rather than immerse them. These meet-ups are an open invitation, and a jump off point for independent discovery. From there, Chicagoans explore on their own.

After riding the Halsted bus back up to 69th street, I sat down at Kusanya Café for a well-earned coffee. The shop doubles as a non-profit, a gathering space and artistic outlet for the Englewood community. With twenty minutes until the meet up at a nearby church, I tucked my Vonnegut into the café’s book swap and surveyed the room.

A youth group of four teenage boys met in the back of the café with two leaders, gesturing animatedly. A suited woman carrying a car seat breezed in with her daughter, who broke into a run to greet the man behind the counter. A man in slacks and a flat brimmed hat walked in with his newspaper and chatted with the barista about church, swatting his paper around to make a point.

Minutes later, a familiar black hoodie with My Block, My Hood, My City printed on it enter the cafe. Setting down my freshly swapped Willard Motley, I went over to say hello. Aurore and Reuben, a couple from Ukrainian Village, were on their way to the meet up as well, and offered me a ride over to the church.

In the car we chatted about the organization – the rallies and events we had attended, and how we got involved. As we pulled to a stop on Harvard street, a man sitting on the stoop of his house waved, enjoying the sun. It seemed like every corner of 66th had a church, some as old as the city itself and some younger than me.

Inside , Jahmal and his team welcomed us in. Several Englewood organizations had tables set up with community information – maps of favorite restaurants and parks, community events, and upcoming volunteer opportunities. Organizations including R.A.G.E. Residents Association of Greater Englewood, Greater Englewood CDC, and Teamwork Englewood welcomed us to the neighborhood.

After sipping watermelon water and surveying the tables, Barbara Williams, a Eucharistic minister and member of the church choir, offered us a tour of the parish.

Just 25 years old, the church glowed with stained glass of Harriet Tubman and other African American icons. Moving through the foyer, natural light flooded through skylights and windows, opening to a garden circled in grey stones. The sanctuary was surrounded by trees and vines that reached up toward the ceiling, encircling a small alter of black walnut.

Most notable was the celebration of African American heritage – the church was filled with photographs, sketches, and sculptures of historical figures honored by the congregation. St. Benedicts is one of the few Catholic churches in Chicago that was built for an African American community, with symbols proudly and purposefully embedded in the design. The sheer size of the church was astounding, and Barbara affirmed that it requires much support from the community to keep it beautiful.

After the tour, it was lunchtime. Jahmal recommended hitting Dream Café on 61st street, where they serve up American and Caribbean inspired comfort food.

Managing partner for the café, Howard Bailey, rocked a My Block My Hood My City T-shirt, and took care of us like guests in his home. Between mouthfuls of collard green egg rolls and roasted jerk chicken, a few of us talked about our experience in Englewood, reflecting on why we hadn’t been down before.

There was a mix of answers: of not having a reason, of not knowing where to go, or of not hearing someone say the simple words, “you should go.”

I felt that the Explore Englewood meet up was successful, not just for getting people to come down but for facilitating real exchanges between attendees from the north, south, east, and west side. By bringing us together with members of the church, small business owners, organizers, and volunteers, we began the genuine conversations that make “I’m from Englewood” and “I’m from West Town” a lot less significant.

As I rode the Green Line back home, I watched people get on and off at Garfield, Bronzeville, Roosevelt, and Clinton. I watched the colors change and the fabric change, fingers scrolling through smartphones, a hand sneaking a French fry, a tiny mouth receiving a pacifier. The sun slid down the windows, drawing shapes on our faces and dropping off of our feet, and together we leaned and rocked with the starts and stops.

That too can be togetherness. There’s so much to be cherished in the moments that we share within a city that is all of ours, from Edgewater to Englewood.

No news article, Facebook post, or story can match venturing out and finding it for yourself. A few hours, one day, you always have the time. Now you have your invitation.

My Block My Hood My City will be exploring the South Shore on May 28th, 2016.

Featured image: Daniel X O’Neil via Flickr


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