Quick Personal Update:
I’ve started my blog again and redesigned my website. Thanks for checking it out! I hope to be posting regularly so keep your eyes out for it.
In case you don’t know, I graduated from Wheaton College last May, backpacked around Europe with my brother for 7 weeks in the summer, and then came back and have been doing “real life” for seven months. I’m working for Slalom Consulting in the Loop and living in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. Those are very different contexts, but I love them both.
You Live Where?
When someone asks where I live and I tell them I’m living in North Lawndale, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) They’ve never heard of it and don’t know where it is in Chicago or 2) They know it’s a low income rough neighborhood and they give me the crazy eyes because I, a 23 year old white male working for a management consulting firm, am actually living there, a 92% black community with a reputation for extensive poverty and violence. If I get reaction #1, I tell them it’s on the West Side and near the CTA Pink Line and don’t go into explaining more. If I get reaction #2, people almost always ask why I’m living there and what it’s like.
Why I’m Living in North Lawndale
The short answer is I felt led by God to live here. There is a really great church, Lawndale Christian Community Church, that cares about its neighbors in very tangible ways, and I wanted to get involved in the church and its ministries. This church takes very seriously Jesus’ words to love God and love your neighbor and they’re doing so in very real ways through the church as well as its ministries. They have a legal center that takes a restorative justice approach to help youth who come in contact with the criminal justice system, they a have a program for previously incarcerated and/or substance abuse individuals to get their life on track which has helped 2,500 men, a community arts center, a development corporation to help provide affordable housing, a health center that gets over 150,000 visits annually, a fitness center that has almost 200,000 visits annually, a café that receives more than 75,000 visits annually, and more – all of these are church-based and from a Christian perspective.
One of my housemates, explains another reason very poignantly:
“I feel I get ‘front row seats’ to God’s show being here. In various other places where I have or could live, sometimes it feels like people live perfectly fine without God, and everything’s Pleasantville. But then you read the news and realize things aren’t perfect and you can’t just isolate and ignore it. When people are getting sick at very high rates or dying at 16 by a gunshot wound or inducted into a gang at 12, you need God to act. And He does daily. But it’s hard to see that if you don’t live by it.”
What It’s Like Living in North Lawndale
I’ve found there are two discourses to talk about North Lawndale. One highlights the negatives and portrays it as a terrible place to live and the other discourse expresses it as a place that is hospitable and with great community.
North Lawndale takes on many names: the ghetto, the inner city, the hood, a place you don’t want to drive through and especially not ever get out of your car. North Lawndale has the 3rd worst violent crime in Chicago. Just in 2015 alone, there were 34 murders. That happened in a neighborhood of 3.2 square miles and about 36,000 people. 34 – does that register with you? Think about and compare that to other shootings that make the news. Why aren’t 34 murders, in just one Chicago neighborhood (not even looking city-wide), making the news and creating an outrage to instigate systemic change? Just this past month (as of writing) in North Lawndale, there were 92 violent crime reports, 125 property crime reports, and 159 quality-of-life crime reports [link]. 43% of people are below the poverty line. Per capita income is just over $12,000. Over 27% of people aged 25+ do not have a high school diploma. Here are some data visualizations I created (using Microsoft Power BI, woo!) to show more statistics on the neighborhood as of September 2015 [from the City of Chicago Data Portal]: (click on the pictures to enlarge if necessary)
I could go on but by now you probably understand why it’s ‘earned’ its name as the ghetto or the hood. It’s a much more dangerous place to live than most places.
There’s another way to narrate my experience that is much more elevating to the neighborhood and is also true. The community I’ve found has been great – my housemates are great, I’ve met other young people, I’m going to Lawndale Christian Community Church every Sunday and its Sunday school service, the Kingdom Men’s Bible Study every Thursday morning, I play basketball every Sunday night at the Fitness Center with guys from church, I mentor a youth with the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, and many of these folks are becoming good friends. The neighborhood is filled with beautiful Greystone brick buildings – it actually has the most Greystones per square mile anywhere in the US.
When it was still warm out, I walked around the neighborhood every evening and most people were friendly and would say hi. There is a greater sense of community here than in most neighborhoods – family ties are strong, multiple generations live together, extended families go to church together, people walk to friends’ houses, and there are block associations and block parties with cookouts. People really know each other rather being strangers who happen to live near each other. I live within 100 feet of the state-of-the-art Lawndale Christian Health Center and Fitness Center, and I can walk to my church in less than three minutes. As I mentioned before, my church and its ministries are doing a lot to help the neighborhood as well as other businesses and nonprofits. Chicago’s crime is very block by block and my block is a much safer one. I enjoy living here and I’m learning so much from those around me.
Both narratives about North Lawndale are true. Living in the tension and the reality of both is my daily life. Not to mention the other reality of working downtown which almost feels like another world sometimes. Yet my daily walk to and from the CTA Pink Line station for working downtown forces me to live in the tension and bring the narratives and worlds together. As I look ahead, I’m excited for more opportunities to converge these worlds in greater ways, especially through business and economic development efforts. Lawndale is a very different context than I’ve ever lived in before, but it is so worth it.