by Steve Bogira
In her early years, Latoya, who's now 24, lived in her grandmother's two-flat down the block from Marillac. One May morning in 1997, when Latoya was eight, a fire swept through the first floor of the building where she and most of her eight siblings and some of her cousins lived. Latoya escaped, but two of her sisters, ages six and ten, didn't.
Imagine the impact on an eight-year-old.
Such tragedies aren't unusual in East Garfield Park, and in Chicago's many other poor black neighborhoods. That was true in 1997, it was true decades earlier, and it's still true today.
In 1988, I wrote a Reader story about another young woman from East Garfield Park—19-year-old Laverne Williams, who perished in a fire in her apartment on west Flournoy. Laverne died heroically: she managed to hand her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter out a first-floor window to her brother before she succumbed to the smoke.
At Laverne's funeral, the preacher told Laverne's friends and family:
"I came to warn you that you don't know for whom the bell tolls. It may be her today and you tomorrow. . . . Don't think that you're invincible. Death will catch you somewhere and at some time. Death does not discriminate against any of us."
I wasn't so sure about that last assertion, I said in the story:
Maybe death doesn't discriminate, but it's impatient in certain neighborhoods: the bell tolls early and without warning more frequently in Garfield Park than it does in Norwood Park or West Lawn. Blacks in Chicago are burned, beaten, stabbed, and shot to death at much higher rates than are whites; and the racial differences in the rates of sudden, violent deaths are greatest among the young. . . . The reverend needn't worry about these people fancying themselves invincible; from early in their lives, there's too much evidence to the contrary.
In 1966, Martin Luther King lived briefly in an apartment in North Lawndale, the neighborhood just south of East Garfield Park. "We have come to end the slums," he said when he arrived. He came to Chicago to pressure Mayor Richard J. Daley "for an end to city policies that hemmed blacks within slums like Lawndale and Garfield Park," I wrote in my story about Laverne. Only after King was killed in 1968, and west-side residents rioted, did the City Council pass an open housing ordinance—but it was a token measure that never threatened to change the city's segregation. It went into effect on July 30, 1968—the day Laverne was born. As I noted in the story, Garfield Park was almost entirely black and largely poor when she was born, and that remained the case when she died almost two decades later. According to recent census data, the neighborhood is still 93 percent black, and still beleaguered by poverty.
Laverne had four brothers and three sisters. One of the sisters, Lavette, was an identical twin. Laverne and Lavette were inseparable as kids, and they remained close through their teens. Lavette told me Laverne had worried about dying violently.
The two children whom Laverne saved were disfigured by the fire. The one-year-old, Delenna, also lost parts of several fingers. On a March evening five years later, Delenna and her aunt and great-aunt were in a gangway in another poor black neighborhood, at 54th and Marshfield. They were apartment hunting, but one drug dealer mistook them for customers of another drug dealer, and fired several shots into the gangway. Six-year-old Delenna was shot in the chest and wrist, and another bullet grazed her forehead. She survived that as well. I saw her recently at a holiday party; she's now 26 and has two young kids of her own.
For the story about Laverne's death, I interviewed a friend of hers in a red-brick two-flat on the 700 block of south California. All of the other homes on the block have since been demolished, but the home I interviewed the friend in is still standing, and two years ago it was in the news. A 17-year-old who lived there had discovered a gun in the alley, and he'd brought it into the home. He hid it under a pile of toys and clothes in the room shared by his nephews, five-year-old identical twins. A few days later—the evening before the twins were going to start kindergarten—one of them found the gun, thought it was a toy, and, while playing cops and robbers, shot his brother fatally in the stomach. The twins had been "inseparable," family members said. Their uncle was sentenced to 30 months in prison for endangering the life of a child.
The neighborhood's been endangering the lives of children for decades, and continues to. "I've lost a lot of people to violence over the years," Latoya Winters told me. "But in the last few years, it seems like the age is just going down. When I was growing up it was drug dealers killing other drug dealers over territory. Now younger kids are getting killed in broad daylight. It hit close to home last year when it happened to my little cousin. He was 17, and he was shot right around the corner from Marillac. He lost his life to something he didn't even know about."