October 14, 2020 by Niema Dancy
Dear Chicago: It’s Complicated
I am thrilled to be a part of the ConTextos team now as the Director of Communications and Development. Writing has always been such an important part of my life, from journaling to news writing it has allowed me to find my voice and tell stories in my words. This summer, prior to joining ConTextos, I had the opportunity to join a special Authors Circle with other amazingly talented Authors who work in Chicago’s communities across the city that have historically been impacted by disinvestment, poverty, strife and harmful law enforcement policies. We shared, learned and deepened our connections to one another and the sometimes difficult work that we do each day to help transform the world around us. During Circle, I personally took time to explore and reflect upon my complicated love/hate relationship with the city I was born and raised in. I was forced to confront the harsh realities that break my heart, and embrace the ugly truths and beautiful memories of growing up in a “world-class” city with big shoulders that so desperately needs love now more than ever. I have so much hope that we will rise again as a city, and even with all of its complexities and the challenges we are facing and have yet to, Chicago will always have my heart. Read my love/hate letter Dear Chicago: It’s Complicated.
I remember I used to look forward to our summers together. Little girl me, playing on the playground in the middle of Old Town on Orleans street. The sun beaming, the temperature rising. Heading back into a dark classroom where the teacher had cut the lights off to keep it cool and we’d put our heads down on the desk and beg for the fans to be turned on…counting down the days left of school. WE HAD FANS. We had fans in EVERY classroom. I mean you had to know that as a student in your broken school system I’d learn with time that we had fans when there were students who barely had textbooks on the other side of town, let alone a mechanism to help diffuse the hot, thick, stale air smothering them inside of old classrooms. They were cheated…looked over…afterthoughts. I won’t forget, you won’t let me forget. That was over 20 years ago and it’s still true today. Two whole decades, and quality education and a positive learning environment is still somehow a luxury and not a necessity.
Summer breaks, summertime meant basking in your beauty as I knew it. I’d kiss Sedgwick Street and the horses inside of the small stable directly across from my living room window goodbye, and head to the Southside. You know what they call ‘em now the wild hunnids…though they never seemed all that wild to me. My sisters and I were safe back then to hop the redline to 95th, from 95th, a bus to 125th and Halsted. I knew when I saw the sea of flowers, the deer and the eternal flame past the large iron gate, and the giant black letters that read “Cedar Park Cemetery” we’d made it to our destination. We were safe to walk a block to granny’s house, or sometimes cut across the lot of St. Peter & Paul Church. To us it was more than just a lot. It was a place where the kids on the block could be kids, ride bikes, play softball once the sun had set where you could easily be found when curfew kicked in. And we were safe. Bullets didn’t fly there. It was one of my favorite parts of you and I loved it.
I hate that these days, these summers that that young Northside girl who has grown into a Southside woman knows just like you know…the bullets are flying way too much, shattering way too many lives, ending futures, tainting that innocent summer fun. We used to look forward to the fireworks on that lot after the family fourth of July picnic. I hate fireworks now. They kept us all on edge this summer, mostly because we were playing everybody’s not-so favorite guessing game, gunshots or fireworks? Turning on the news would answer that. We traded in basketball playoff scores, series standings and baseball games on the sports ticker to scroll the daily body count across the screen.
I think I’ve lost count, and I think you’ve lost control. It seems your nasty pandemic is claiming more lives than COVID. Your blocks are infected, your communities are crippled and hurting. And slowly but surely all your zip codes are starting to see it and recognize it because it’s infecting their blocks too. We’re crying collective tears, our voices, our angst filling your streets, strengthening the calls that you keep ignoring. The looting and rioting looks a lot different from the days of those Bulls championship celebrations gone wrong. Shit is just going wrong.
They say you have a violence problem, but we know your issues run deeper than just one word. This sickness, this hate running rampant, these disparities, this discord, your abandonment, your recklessness, your racism and crooked, troubled ways have been handed down from generation to generation. But generational curses are meant to be broken, and gen X,Y,Z…they’re showing up with pretty strong muscles.
You’re notorious for your cold and wicked winters, but even with 90 degree temperatures this somehow felt like one of the coldest summers ever. Dark too. There’s this growing gray cloud hovering over you making it hard to decipher if I’m in Chi city or Gotham. If I put up the signal
who will come? We can’t call the police but I do recall a time when we posted signs in our windows that said “we call the police”. Those words have become null and void… at least on my side of town. Your finest are failing us. They have a history. Your leaders are failing us. We’ve been too trusting. Maybe even too committed.
I have tried breaking up with you a few times now. Atlanta, Charlotte, D.C. have all crossed my mind and I know not one place is perfect. Grass is greener where you water it. You should also know that suburbia’s been calling me a lot lately. I mean have you seen how green the lawns are there? And with every life tragically lost, every dishonest elected official, every ticket…boot, every rent increase, disinvested community, shuttered school or mental health clinic, every tent city, every unjust police interaction or shooting, and every voice that has gone unheard, triggers a little voice inside urging me to turn my back & walk away.
Summer trips to granny’s house look different these days, I’ve watched the decline over the years. There’s a gate around the parking lot now, and across the street weeds have replaced the sea of flowers, the deer are ghosts, the big black letters have disappeared, and the eternal flame, now extinguished. Still I want to go there. I’ve also watched you decline tremendously, and despite your despair, your flaws, your brokenness and the faded memories, still I want to be here.
I want this to work. I want you to shine far beyond a stunning city skyline. I want to fall in love with summer again, and maybe start to love winters…although that might be a stretch. I want you to rise again, I want you to heal, I want you safe, I want you to celebrate and uplift every
part of you from Old Town to Roseland, Englewood to Austin, the Mag Mile to Little Village. And I want…I hope that this forgiving, patient, understanding, tough and unrelenting love sustains you.
Watch the full Dear Chicago: Love Letters event
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