By Scott Jacobs

Where the Dan Ryan Expressway divides at 95th Street into the Bishop Ford Expressway and the I-57 route to Memphis, there’s a little piece of Chicago no one seems to know exists. It’s called Roseland, one of those forgotten neighborhoods that has sunk so low on the city’s social-economic map it can be called, literally, the place where dreams go to die.

The upper edge starts roughly at 103rd street and the lower boundary extends to 130th. You know you are there when you see the abandoned factories, vacant lots, foreclosed houses and, most conspicuously, teenagers idly passing the time on the street corners along South Michigan Avenue.

There are four public high schools serving Roseland: Fenger, Julian, Harlan and Corliss High Schools. Fenger is three steps away from being the worst high school in Illinois. Out of 750 high schools ranked for academic achievement, it ranks 747th. Julian, Harlan and Corliss join it in the bottom 30. By the time students there reach the 11th grade, only 4 percent are performing up to the state standards in math and 12 percent in reading.

On any given day, one of every three students doesn’t even bother to attend. And if you think they are going into the work force, think again. The official unemployment rate in Roseland is 29 percent – three times higher than the Chicago metropolitan average. But that only measures people seeking employment. A more telling calculation of residents without jobs is closer to 55 percent.

Senseless Murders

If Roseland is known at all in Chicago, it is for the spectacularly senseless way its teenagers are killing each other off. Roseland made it onto the media radar in 2007 when a teenager climbed on board a school bus and began randomly shooting at Julian High School students. Sixteen-year-old Blair Holt died in the incident covering the body of a small girl.

In 2009, Roseland found its way to the national stage again when a home video surfaced on Fox-TV showing 17-year-old Darrien Albert getting clubbed to death in a melee outside Fenger High School. Then last July, 13-year-old Robert Freeman was found outside his house with 13 bullet holes in his body. By then, the violence was so customary nobody even noticed the shooter.

Shanell Owens is a 17-year-old girl who has already been caught in two shootouts. When she was 15, she was walking with her 14-year-old cousin when shots rang out. “We just dropped,” she said. “We crawled into a store to get away from it, but the owner tried to kick us out because he thought it was our fault.”

A year later, she witnessed another shooting in a local park; two months after that, she attended the funeral of a 16-year-old cousin shot dead while visiting relatives. “He was only here two weeks,” she said. “He didn’t know what was going on.” Then four weeks ago, in the same park, she saw a group of boys tossing a gun around. “They were just playing with it, like it was a toy, because they had nothing else to do.”

Kids Off The Block

I found myself in Roseland several times last month because I was going to visit a remarkable woman named Diane Latiker. Seven years ago, Latiker quit her job in a beauty parlor to start the Kids Off The Block Club. She had lived in the community 22 years, raised eight children, but when her youngest, then 13, started cutting classes and hanging out on the street corners, she decided she had to do something.

She opened her home to the neighborhood kids –– ten at first, but ultimately 75 -–– as a way to fill the after school hours. “We staged plays, wrote corny rap songs, went skating, swimming –– anything to get them off the corners,” she said. “And we did it with what little money we had.” The more the teenagers crowded into her house, the more she saw the problem wasn’t just that they had too much time on their hands.

“I started realizing they had other needs,” she said. “They couldn’t read, they had trouble writing, they had trouble in school, they had trouble at home. So we started getting involved in their personal lives, and helping them with those areas so they could stay in school, so they could do right, and get jobs as they grow older. It took on a life of it’s own.”

I went down to Roseland to visit a new Kids Off The Block youth center Latiker opened in September with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, among others. To be accurate, I should say she tried to open.

The first time I went, police cars were gathered outside because there had been a shooting across the street an hour before. All programs were canceled for the day. When I returned again the next day, the center was again closed. The night before, four youths shot up a gas station across the street vowing to wreak vengeance on four former members of Kids Off The Block they now considered rivals.

Empty Lots, Scared People

Latiker was hardly in a celebratory mood. She walked down side streets filled with boarded-up buildings and empty lots. “Look around,” she said. “What do you see? Normally, this time of day you’d have kids out on the streets after school, riding their bikes, playing. Look now. It’s empty. People are afraid to go out. They’re scared.”

She turned the corner onto another quiet block. Five neighbors were gathered on a front porch. Latiker filled them in on the shooting the night before. This only prompted a larger discussion of other shootings in the neighborhood. A month ago, a teenager said, she took a .22 bullet in her thigh from two boys running through their gangway. “We had another one right after that,” her mother added. “The police showed up and, even after they were here, they was still shooting. Now that’s bold!”

Not Gangs, But Cliques

One of the things Latiker emphasized to me is that violence often attributed to gangs more often comes from the even more hard-to-control “cliques.” In the 1990’s, The Black Gangster Disciples ruled Roseland with an iron hand. The gang crimes unit of the State’s Attorney office effectively split the gang into two groups ––the Gangster Disciples (“GD’s”) and Black Disciples (“BD’s”) -–– and found ways to incarcerate the leaders of both. But that didn’t get rid of the guns, the drugs or the lack of productive alternatives. It only created smaller units of gangbangers, “the cliques”, organized around protecting their own little piece of turf.

“You might have two or three different gang members on one block,” Latiker said. “But, because it’s their block, they band together to make sure everyone pays tribute to them, We have kids on 113th street who can’t come down to the center here on 116th because they can’t get past the 114th street clique. They can’t go around because then they run into another clique. It’s all about turf, showing you own something.”

The Memorial

Across the street from Latiker’s house is a memorial she built to the teenage victims of street violence. “I happened to be in Home Depot one day and I saw these stones. They looked like headstones. I bought 30 of them,” she recalled, “and I had the guy who does our T-shirts write the names, ages and time of death of all the victims we knew.”

Blair Holt was the first stone in 2007. “We had 30 then. Now we are up to 220. All in Chicago. All dead. We’ve rebuilt that memorial six times –– but we are always six or seven stones behind.”

The Community Trust

Last week, Diane Latiker told her story on the stage of the Harris Theatre in Chicago (with a little video assist from myself) at the 95th anniversary of The Chicago Community Trust. The Mayor of Chicago was there, as was David Brooks, the esteemed columnist of the New York Times, and most of the movers and shakers in the city. Diane had to share the stage with three penguins, a drill team, 20 dance groups, and other equally compelling stories of grant recipients who have also made a difference in their communities. But somehow her words cut through. Three days after the event, a police tactical squad moved into Roseland to deal with the street violence.

But that only reminded me of something else Latiker told me:

“When it comes to where the money goes, it always seems to go into law enforcement and jails. It doesn’t go into the human side of it: to strengthen the communities that we live in. Those young boys that are out there now, if we have the resources, we can pull them in. But once we pull them in, we have nothing to offer them to keep them from selling drugs and hanging out on the corners.

“We do what we can. But there is so much more that can be done.”

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