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Phantom Gunfight

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The noise of the traffic and the voices of playing children bounce off the barred windows and dull red bricks of 2417 W. Adams, the first building on the east end of the Rockwell Gardens housing project. A half dozen brothers stand against the wall in front of the security entrance, talking quietly among themselves.

Mildred Wortham and Brenda Stephenson, social-service counselors whose office is on the first floor, tell me they know all the boys hanging around the front of the building, as well as many of the 11,000 other Rockwell residents.

Suddenly Stephenson points to the playground across the street. A woman is running from one of the swing sets, a baby in one arm and another scrambling behind. A boy races away from the parallel bars and jumps a fence. An Illinois Bell utility truck and a private car pull away from their parking spots, their wheels spinning.

Within seconds the playground is empty. It's quiet except for the noise from the cars that pass with each change of the traffic light.

"They usually say, 'It's gonna pop, it's gonna pop,'" says Stephenson. Apparently the teenagers who are about to start a gunfight sometimes warn people who happen to be in the vicinity. Stephenson says no one warned her daughter several years ago when she was on the playground. She was shot in the back of the head, though she didn't die. After he was caught, the shooter said his target was on the other side of the playground.

A CHA electrician told me that one recent Saturday morning he saw five shootings while working in Rockwell Gardens. No police ever showed up.

Wortham moves so that the wall and the desk are in front of her, but she can still see the building's entrance. Several minutes ooze by as we watch the motionless playground.

A boy in sweatpants and a red head rag runs from the entrance of our building toward the swings, taking long strides. Bending down but not stopping, he scoops up an empty baby stroller and heads back.

The light changes, and more cars rush past, including a police car. It doesn't slow or stop.

More waiting. I'm well back from the window, but I feel as if my face were pressed against it. A figure flashes past the window, a foot from the glass. I jump.

By the time the traffic light changes again people are filtering back into the playground. The utility truck returns. The young men are back hanging around in front of the building, talking quietly among themselves.

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