If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I'd have never believed it. My former neighborhood--Streeterville--which had once felt to me like a giant backyard (albeit, with a myriad tourists weaving in and out of it)--was now filled with people who felt like strangers. Hostile. Some in cars--bumping the bass. Others, the majority, on foot. In droves. Filling Oak Street Beach in particular--cramming the "boardwalk" area. Disregarding the path's intended use--as a bike or walking trail. Well, they were walking on the trail alright, but obviously not for exercise. They were strolling just a bit north or south of the beach, where they congregated to apparently send some sort of message. That Oak Street Beach/Streeterville/Gold Coast/Downtown, even--are not just for the "others."
Recently, I wrote about the issue. Just days before visiting.
My last trip had been in February. But in the four months since, the articles I'd read in the Tribune had been extremely troubling. They told of a man being mugged on the Red Line in front of his pregnant wife. Of a Northwestern doctor being assaulted on his walk home from work--and how he'd have to cab it home from now on (a mere 4-block trip--but too unsafe to walk now). And how some of these youth had not stolen anything from their victims. As if they were attacking people just for the heck of it. Just to show that they could. That their presence in the area meant something. That they had significance.
That's what we all want, right? To be significant. My pastor told us recently at church that as humans, we want two things. To be known and to be accepted. To be fully known and yet not be accepted--is devastating. And to be accepted without being fully known--is just disingenuous. And equally as devastating.
These youth are attempting to make a statement, I imagine. Needing to matter so badly that they will take recognition any way they can get it. Recognition--as tainted as it may be.
I imagine that they just want to matter as much as the family of tourists, perusing the shops on Michigan Avenue, seemingly without a care in the world. Or the young blonde yuppies who congregate at Oak Street Beach to play Saturday volleyball. Or anyone else who appears to traverse downtown--seemingly unencumbered. Free.
Again, I'm no psychologist. But if you read my Part 1, you'll know that I've spent a lot of time caring about youngsters from single-parent/crime-ridden environments. Once you've been a schoolteacher, you're always one at heart. You see even adults as the children that they might have been. You're angered by the violence that people inflict on say, unsuspecting Northwestern doctors walking home from work. But you're equally angered because of the conditions that were the catalyst for this behavior. Of course, the conditions don't excuse the behavior--but they certainly explain it.
Me--well, I can't believe that more isn't being made of the issue. I emailed a friend of mine--a respected Chicago news producer--and he responded, "Yeah, I’ve seen it. We all know what’s going on. But nobody can do nothin’ because it would be racial profiling. As a Chicagoan, I’m upset about the conditions down there and want to see some law and order. "
So, what to do about this? I imagine this is why there's not much talk of it in the Tribune? The mass congregating. The bumping of the bass. The blocking of the walking/biking path. The total disregard for the Chicago PD at the beach. Is it just too racial?
While sitting at Oak Street Beach with my sister and 6-year old nephew (after we'd woven our way through the masses-- and miraculously found an empty bench away from some of the chaos--and thankfully, near a small contingent of Chicago PD), I made my way over to one of the officers. I told him I'd lived in the neighborhood and how I'd frequented the beach and the area so often. I told him how I was in shock. And I asked him, basically, "Is this the new norm?" And he responded, "This is it." He said that they "come from the ghetto, stay all day, then leave at night and beat people up." So my sister and I had had reason to feel tentative about even walking through the tunnel to get to the beach. The officer said that within the past month, there had been a gun in that very tunnel.
As we speak, a dear friend of mine from Los Angeles is visiting Indianapolis/Chicago. She's an artist. Went on an art-related trip to see places like the Art Institute. She's been around big cities before. She's a Parsons (NYC) grad and has traversed the world for her faith and for her art. But still, how could I not warn her? After recommending the best parking garage for her and her rented car and giving her the requisite Chicago First Timer recommendations, I laid it out for her. But I don't think she fully understood. She responded by saying that she's pretty good about not standing out as a tourist, so I added that locals and tourists alike were being targeted. She remained unfazed. When I visited with my sister this past month, I'd also been hesitant to mention anything. But when we made a short stop at Water Tower Place before heading over to Oak Street Beach, she noticed the unrest for herself.
I left the beach--and days later, Chicago, wondering what this will all mean for the locals. Especially the local locals, like my friend who happens to live right across the street in a Lake Shore Drive condo. I thought about what Chicago First Timers must feel when they encounter what I encountered--and yet have no other point of reference with which to form an opinion. How terribly skewed. How horribly devastating.
I texted a dear friend of mine, Laura, a lifelong Chicagoan, who'd recently moved to Arizona for work. Laura had lived right off of Division just a few miles west and would walk east and through the tunnel to visit Oak Street Beach. It was for her as well, a regular local hangout. All she could do was express with a handful of Blackberry face icons--her heartache over what was transpiring. She felt my pain.
The next day, Sunday, from the bus on my way to the zoo with said family members, Oak Street Beach appeared to have been "normal" for the time being. I thought back to the police officer's comments the day prior, when he'd told me that he was working overtime. I understood that even more on Sunday. Because I realized that it's likely anyone's guess as to when the youth will invade again. So the police have to be on guard. I imagine that someone sends a text and then it spreads and the message is sent that "Today's the day" to make the statement again.
I have to borrow a quote from my sister. She said that if she were a Chicago police officer, having to be at the beach and the surrounding area "just in case", would be terribly frustrating for her. As if she were wasting valuable time. It would be like..."babysitting a volcano that's about to erupt." The "babysitting" being the frustrating part. The "volcano that's about to erupt" being the terrifying part.
That Saturday at the beach, in an instant, I re-evaluated my love affair with Chicago. I re-evaluated what this all meant for me. Because I'd always dreamed of returning to Streeterville in particular--and maybe heading a bit north to the Gold Coast.
And as if that police officer were reading my mind, he said to me,
"I hope this doesn't change your mind about moving back."
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