“This isn't a neighborhood!” The derisive comments came from one who may have earned the right to her cynicism through years of community engagement.
“A neighborhood has shops and restaurants and schools, good schools, and a person can feel safe walking down the sidewalk- even at night! There isn't even a grocery store around here that a person would want to walk into.”
Well, she had me at the grocery store. A full service Dominick's was an asset that provided assurance to our decision to move to South Shore. That building has been vacant for two years now, with no indication of an acceptable replacement in the foreseeable future. On the school issue, though, she is misinformed. The two elementary schools nearest the building where we both reside are rated as 1+ Chicago schools, and St. Philip's Elementary consistently turns out award-winning students.
“I want to support local businesses. I try to find someplace around here where I can spend some money, but it's not easy. And when you find a little business with items that you like to purchase, they'll be gone in a few months,” she elaborated on the topic of our undesirable neighborhood.
And here she struck a chord with me. When I first moved to South Shore, I found a small, but elegant boutique, with beautiful clothes that were extremely affordable. I could always find a perfect gift for my sister and daughter and nieces at Passions, and the dresses and costume jewelry that I purchased there remain favorites in my wardrobe. April Williams and her lovely shop has been gone from 71st Street for five years and nothing has replaced it. The space sits vacant except for the landlord's odds and ends visible through the grimy plate glass windows.
It puzzles me that the local activists who prevented the City of Chicago from tearing down the handsome, architecturally significant Club House of the South Shore Country Club and pressured the city to preserve it, renovate it and open it to the public as “the jewel in the crown” of Chicago's Park District, did little or nothing effective to prevent a retail district famous throughout the city for excellent, top-of-the-line shops and restaurants from becoming a boarded-up haven for pimps and drug sellers.
So, yes, attractive thoroughfares featuring the conveniences and amenities of a Lincoln Park or a River North urban scene devolved into moribund walkways that can be perceived as threatening: a process set into motion forty years ago and since has experienced scant economic and political energy toward reversal.
But, yesterday, a day following my friend's exasperated dismissal of our neighborhood, as I approached the local Post Office at Exchange Avenue, an entreaty from a dentally challenged fellow standing out there in the bitter cold elicited the only cash I was carrying- a meager two bucks. His face lit up as if he had received enough to sustain himself for a week and he asked my name so he could thank me properly. When I responded with my given name, my grandmother's name, his acknowledgment was loquacious, but unquestionably reverent.
“Mary. The Mother of Jesus!”
He couldn't have been more pleased had he encountered the holy Virgin herself on a gritty sidewalk in Chicago's southside, and although it would have been gratuitous in that case, as it actually was in the case of this product of Catholic education, he proceeded with a synopsis of Mary's son's life story.
It is humbling to encounter someone so on the edge of privation, begging a few pennies from a stranger to buy a sandwich, and yet so full of love. I meet people like this often around here, as I walk along the inauspicious avenues and work in the community gardens.
I campaign for capital improvements in South Shore. Like my friend, I'm tired of the crime. I'm sick of the mess on 71st and 75th Streets. I'm offended by the hawkers of “loose squares”, in many cases shills for stronger illicit materials, while I wait for the #14 bus. I hate having to go miles from home to purchase just about every necessity.
Because of where we are situated, without a doubt, change will come. This beautiful community along the lake will one day, in the not too distant future, attract residents seeking a vigorous neighborhood with charming shops and three-and-four-star restaurants like it did in the first half of the last century. It'll be delightful and we'll congratulate ourselves on our foresight in becoming stakeholders before the transformation.
And when that happens, I fear that something essential might get lost, providing the opportunity, perhaps, to reflect upon a truism in the psychology of human bonding, a verity that I believe my disenchanted friend in a less contentious mood would espouse: there is more to a neighborhood than an attractive street-scape.
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