It was the second 24 hours of the Independence Day weekend, a hot Friday night when anything can happen. We caught up with Mayor Lori Lightfoot on a periodic appointment during her first seven weeks — visiting violence-plagued communities after dark, seeking insight on Chicago violence from those wrestling with it.
It’s a hot summer night in the inner city, a holiday weekend when anything can happen.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s black SUV is cruising through the Southwest Side Back of the Yards neighborhood. It’s Friday, just before dusk on the day after Independence Day.
Back of the Yards, in the New City community, is an area that once boasted plenty of jobs within ample stockyards that were largest in the nation.
Today, nearly 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty level.
And last year, it ranked no. 20 among the city’s 77 communities for most murders per capita.
Lightfoot’s SUV pulls up outside a community center on the corner at 1954 W. 48th St.
Opened October 2017, it belongs to San Miguel School, run by Christian Brothers of the Midwest, which had long struggled to raise monies to rehab what had been a vacant space.
Partnering with St. Michael the Archangel Church, they rehabbed the space into a much-needed activity center for school and neighborhood youth as the city contended in 2016 with record violence that hit poorest neighborhoods hardest.
This has become a periodic outreach during Lightfoot’s first seven weeks — to visit violence-plagued communities after dark at the invitation of one community group or another, meeting with police on the beat.
Her mission: seeking insight on Chicago’s seemingly intractable gun violence.
Fourth of July, of course, brought another bloody holiday weekend: 6 killed, 66 injured.
Out front of the community center, a teen twirls on his head in mind-boggling break dance.
Families line up for hot dogs from steaming aluminum pans on long tables against the bright-hued, muraled walls. Other tables offer info on community help for various needs.
Inside, Lightfoot is escorted by youth leaders of Increase the Peace, formed in response to an Oct. 1, 2016, gang shooting that claimed the life of college-bound Curie High School senior Naome Zuber — by a stray bullet — as she rode in the back seat of a car.
Backed by groups like The Resurrection Project, the youth hold anti-violence marches and camp-outs like this one in the summer — with games, music and food that goes all night, their effort to reclaim the potentially perilous night hours that can bring gang terror.
Wedged into middle school cafeteria benches, Lightfoot gets her insight talking with about a dozen teens.
So why do you think youths pick up guns, become shooters, she asks them.
What follows is poignant and raw conversation.
To feel powerful. Lack of support from family. No one cares. Nothing else to do. Bullying. Lack of safety. Protection from other gangs. Lack of jobs. Lure of money or the good life. What else is there in this neighborhood?
It’s all taken in. Lightfoot promises to do better by them.
Moving through the community center, she is mobbed in the gym. It’s not kids so much seeking to chat and take photos. It’s their parents.
Back of the Yards is predominantly Hispanic, 66 percent; 27 percent African American.
Nearly half the population lacks a high school diploma.
And about 80 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds here are jobless; as well as half of the 20- to 24-year-old age group.
Families said it is rare to see the mayor out in their ‘hood at night.
Lightfoot tells them hard-working families shouldn’t be held hostage to gang violence, talks efforts to reclaim the streets, get guns out of their neighborhood, create more safe spaces like this.
She is in line with others, grabbing a hot dog, mustard — her preference; grabs a Coke with it.
She strolls and chats with the families, who show her the mural created in an initiative that is helping the youth see themselves as agents of change.
Change, at least, has come in the form of a new 20th Ward alderman.
Former Ald. Willie Cochran was sentenced last month in wire fraud for stealing from a charitable fund set up to help youths and families in the ward, spending it on a gambling habit and personal expenses.
Three of the last four aldermen of the ward that includes parts of Canaryville, Washington Park and Englewood have been imprisoned.
Clutching her hot dog and Coke, the mayor bids adieu, climbs back into the black SUV.
Cruising past the vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, small businesses protected by thick iron bars, lovingly tended, decade-old homes, and an abundance of liquor stores and storefront churches, she is heading further south.
Lightfoot arrives at the police station at 1438 W. 63rd St. — the Englewood District, the neighboring community that ranked 3rd last year for murders — no. 1 was West Garfield Park, no. 2, North Lawndale.
Her first destination here: roll call with beat officers.
The mayor ensured over 1,500 additional officers were scheduled to work overtime or on adjusted schedules last weekend — as did former Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year.
The result? Nearly the same: 2018 saw 10 killed and 58 wounded.
Lightfoot heads upstairs, escorted by CPD Patrol Bureau Chief Fred Waller and Englewood District Commander Roderick Robinson, then down the hall, to where officers have gathered.
Robinson gives the night’s pep talk. There are congratulations for the 13 guns recovered the day before — many confiscated at Fourth of July parties.
Waller follows with another pep talk.
Now it is Lightfoot’s turn to address them. It’s a tough crowd, serious and attentive, faces purposely blank, unreadable.
The mayor thanks the men and women about to put their lives on the line on this, one of the most dangerous weekends of the year in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.
She ends as Robinson and Waller did: “Be safe out there.”
The mayor leaves. It’s back down the hall with the commander and bureau chief.
Behind her, officers file out, in hushed voices. There are knowing looks. They return to routine, signing out stun guns, radios.
Partners pair off, and a sea of blue files out of the building into squad cars, SUVs, prisoner transport vehicles.
The mayor is outside now, at her SUV. But she isn’t getting in. She’s retrieving her things from inside.
A police SUV sits parallell, idling.
A couple of African American officers approach. There are smiles, whispered encouragement. One takes a photo with her.
Jacket and bottled water in hand, Lightfoot wipes the sweat from a furrowed brow, turns and walks away.
Wedged into the rear of a police SUV, Lightfoot this time will get her insight from the police taking her on a ride-along of their beat this night.
The police SUV lights flash blue, and it pulls off, taking the mayor deep into the night.
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July 9, 2019 at 06:05AM