by Suzanne Hanney
It’s small consolation to Englewood activist and lifelong resident Sonya Harper that a director of Spike Lee’s caliber is setting a movie called “Chiraq” in her neighborhood.
“Overall, I think I have more of a problem with the name ‘Chiraq’ than the movie being set in Englewood,” Harper said.
“Not knowing the intent and focus of the movie, the name alone puts me in mind of those black violent gang banging/hard life-explaining movies from the ’90s, which were set in media-depicted, poor, violence-torn cities like Compton and Englewood, CA,” she said in reference to the films Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993).
“Did any good come from those movies being set there or did it just lead to more negative perceptions and reinforced stereotypes of black people and especially those living in neglected and violence-ridden communities made famous by media reports and gross neglect on every level?” Harper asked.
Harper concedes that she has respected every film Lee has ever done. “I would have to say Spike Lee would be someone I could trust in making that movie,” with a relevant story line and an important message, she said.
“But at the same time, being an Englewood resident, I don’t want it to be called ‘Chiraq,’” she said of the title, which combines “Chicago” and “Iraq” and which was developed by South Side rap musicians to compare gang shooting body counts with that of the war in the Mideast.
“I don’t want that image to come up in their minds. People are going to be able to look back until the end of time and say, ‘Oh, if there is a war in Englewood, who’s fighting who?’
Harper is a former television journalist who went into that profession to try to tell true, positive stories about her community and to change perceptions. Now, she runs the coalitions of Grow Greater Englewood and Englewood Vote and is a member of the leadership team of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.). She previously worked for Growing Home Inc., an urban farming workforce development program.
The violence in Englewood, she said, is related to the lack of economic opportunity. There are no jobs for youth, nor for their parents and grandparents.
The reason is not just a lack of education in the community or that factory jobs have gone overseas, Harper says. Negative perceptions by outsiders hurt Englewood because it makes business shun the community.
Negative external perceptions fuel internal views, she said. People give up on their neighbors and move away, adding to the stock of abandoned homes.
Geri Harston is chief operating officer of the community center Imagine Englewood If and says she has no problem with the name of the movie. Still, she said she understands the wounded sensibilities among neighborhood residents.
“A lot of us feel the media already highlight all the negative in our community. There’s always someone being shot, stabbed, a victim of sexual assault, what have you.” Harston said. “They don’t talk about the good things: young people graduating and going to Ivy League schools, or all the organization such as ours, Imagine Englewood If and Teamwork Englewood, all the organizations that have mobilized and are doing good things in the community.”
Harston agreed with Harper that Englewood residents cannot improve their community alone. They need outside help, from both the private and the public sector.
“We need people to care and to step up, not just people in the community but the government: we need to take care at home first,” Harston said. “It’s necessary for those same people who want to send a lot of money to Iraq to resolve their violence [to know] that if they spent that same level of resources – if they spent that money on education and job development — in our communities, we would not be in quite as bad a situation.”
Many kids come through their center trying to make it out of poverty, yet finding themselves dragged down. Harston is optimistic that Lee will tell their story.
“I think that is what Spike Lee is going to do: put a real face to Englewood, make people understand what these young people go through on a daily basis. I think when you humanize it, people may step up.”
Sally Hazelgrove, who is executive director of Restoring The Path: Crushers Club, which works to get neighborhood youth of out gangs by providing boxing, mentoring and intern opportunities, (StreetWise, April 27-May 3, 2015) calls the name Chiraq a “hope sucker” at a time when the community needs hope.
Hazelgrove doesn’t agree with the label but admits she has used it when a lot of kids have been killed. “But our youth are not terrorists and we are not radicalized. We are living in poverty, gang-infested blocks, drug addiction everywhere and little to no opportunities that provide some dignity. This is not a religious war nor are there mass weapons of destruction. This is economics: real estate gentrification and the negative effects of segregation.”
What about the positives in Englewood?
Imagine Englewood If’s mission is to strengthen the community through teaching youth and their families healthy living, environmental awareness and positive communication skills. It offers programs in youth leadership, including workshops in poetry, spoken word and journalism, as well as tutoring and mentorship, field trips to local museums and camping trips, violence prevention, community gardening and arts and crafts.
Just this past April 18, community residents gathered at Imagine Englewood If for a Unity Day barbeque after participating in Chicago’s annual Clean and Green volunteer sweep of local streets and vacant lots.
Grow Greater Englewood, meanwhile, is an urban agriculture task force that came together in fall 2012 just before the City adopted a land use plan that created the urban agriculture districts in the neighborhood, Harper said. The idea was that its large amounts of vacant land could be put to use to minimize the neighborhood’s status as a food desert.
Starting June 20, R.A.G.E. will host monthly “So Fresh Saturdays” in conjunction with the Chicago Park District. Residents will take over local parks to make them peaceful spaces, with music, art workshops and space for local nonprofits to offer their resources.
“As a former journalist, I see the problem as lack of communication on positive issues,” Harper said. “Information is not getting to people on the block. If parents knew where to get their kids involved, if people knew where to get jobs, where to get their records expunged.”
R.A.G.E. further works to spread these messages through its show on CAN-TV.
Rashanah Baldwin is a co-founder of R.A.G.E., a multimedia consultant who manages the Englewood Portal, a community news website, through Teamwork Englewood. She also does a show called “What’s Good in Englewood” every Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. on WKKC 89.3 FM, the Kennedy-King College station.
Like Harper, Baldwin is a lifelong neighborhood resident who is dismayed that media preface their reports on Englewood with bad news.
“Yeah, there’s violence but to paint the entire community as violent and uneducated is not accurate,” she said. “There are people who are homeowners, educators.”
Baldwin points to positives such as Englewood’s stock of greystone and Victorian housing, “beautiful homes with manicured lawns, you’d think you were in Hyde Park, Beverly Hills, Lincoln Park.”
Technology has also taken off, thanks to a LISC Chicago grant that made Englewood one of Chicago’s five SMART communities. Englewood Portal was part of that grant and so was training to minimize the digital divide among community residents, who learned how to use the CTA bus tracker or pay bills online.
A separate program, Englewood Codes, was funded with $10,000 from a Kickstarter campaign (but a nucleus of Englewood residents), Baldwin said. The 10-week program trained more than 25 youth how to build websites.
“It was really amazing stuff that college kids would pay to learn,” Baldwin said. “Not everybody can be a singer or a rapper or a basketball player but it was actually giving the youth a skill they can put on their resumes.”
Englewood also has developed a bit of a foodie destination, thanks to the Dream Café, a sit-down restaurant at 61st and Halsted. Two blocks further south at 63rd Street, Kennedy King College has been rebuilt from its location further south. The new building is adjacent to Washburne Culinary School and Whole Foods. The supermarket has promised to deliver quality at Englewood price points and to offer classes, Baldwin said.
And on April 30, Teamwork Englewood honored individuals who had helped with its Quality of Life Plan, developed in 2005 with LISC Chicago. The plan encompasses 10 strategies, from promoting healthy lifestyles through a farmers market and attracting a grocery store that would sell fresh produce to creating the community news network; training residents for living-wage jobs in health care, automotive services, construction and urban agriculture; attracting new retail (particularly at key transit points along the CTA Green Line) and bringing new resources to schools and to special-needs populations: people returning from prison, aging out of foster care or grandparent-headed families.
City of Chicago officials are just as concerned as Englewood is about maintaining a positive public image. Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with Lee April 13 in City Hall and told him he was unhappy with the film’s title, several days after word got out that Lee was in talks with Amazon Studios. Lee was also reportedly consulting with Samuel L. Jackson and Chicago-area natives Jeremy Piven, Common and Kanye West for the ensemble cast.
Emanuel told chicagotribune.com that Lee said the movie would deal with black-on-black violence between males. Lee also allowed that Chicago is not the only violent city in America. “It’s happening in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, where he’s from,” Emanuel said.
A “Chiraq” movie might be polarizing at first, as Menace II Society and the other 1990s movies were initially, “but the message has to get out,” said Harry McGraw, employment specialist at the Chicago Urban League.
“We’ve just had too many killings. Last Fourth of July we had so many shootings and murders over the weekend it was a state of emergency as far as the streets were concerned.” There were 82 shootings in Chicago, 16 of them fatal.
McGraw deals with youth who cannot find jobs because of lack of education, a changing job market, and criminal backgrounds. For example, he counseled a couple of young men who wanted to work a major construction job at O’Hare. Their offenses happened more than seven years ago but because jobs at the airport require a Homeland Security check, they were afraid their records would be searched all the way back.
“There’s psychological damage, some individuals coming out of jail just don’t feel they belong anymore,” he said. “They don’t reach high, they just take the low-hanging fruit. When you talk to them about what to do, their minds are programmed into ex-offender rehabilitation programs, any kind of government subsidy for ex-offenders. Some of them have the mental cage of being locked up even though they are out of jail.”
But lack of employment, black-on-black killings, police shootings of blacks and disproportionate housing foreclosures are not unique to Englewood or Chicago as a whole, McGraw said. These issues are consistent in big cities across the U.S.: Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles.
Lee has heard the word on the street repeatedly and has seized the opportunity to take it nationwide, he said.
“If you were to look at the news right now you would think it looks like Iraq,” McGraw said of the unrest in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died in April after sustaining a spinal injury while in police custody. The six officers involved in Gray’s death have since been charged with murder and manslaughter.
“It looks like a war zone,” McGraw said. “This is why kids were saying ‘Chiraq.’ They know if it ever gets to that point it is going to be really serious on these streets. It’s going to be a war zone with the body count. Unless government officials listen and be proactive instead of reactive you’re going to see a lot more stuff like what’s happening in Baltimore going on around the country.”