Bittersweet: Welcome to Englewood
Just a couple months ago Forbes published an article citing that more Americans have been killed in Chicago since 2001 than in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The murder rate is at a 20-year high, with the victims predominately young black men and boys from just a couple of neighborhoods—Englewood consistently at the top of the list.
In the 24 hours surrounding my first visit, nine people died and thirteen were wounded by gun violence across the city.1 I spent my adolescence just thirty miles from this place—straight west, in a suburb called Naperville. In July 2016, Naperville was named one of the safest cities in America.
It was an oppressively hot August 8th in Chicago. I flew into O’Hare and headed downtown on the L, transferred to the green line at Clark/Lake and rode it to the end, Ashland/63rd. A short zigzag walk and I was where I wanted to be—Beautiful Zion Baptist Church at the northwest corner of Ogden Park.
But I wasn’t there for the church; I was there for the boxing. And I wasn’t the only one.
As I climbed heavily through 1000% humidity to the third floor, a swarm of young boys came barreling up the stairs. They ducked Ms. Sally’s greetings with hellos and laughter, eager to start in on the bags. A little later a group of older boys entered slowly, quietly; each clocking in and respectfully saying hello. Ms. Sally calls them her ‘justice boys’—there to satisfy probation requirements.
The gym is full of life at this point with the pop and smack of gloves on pads and the thud of heavy ropes. A clock buzzes every sixty seconds, rudely prompting the boys to change exercises. With no air conditioning and few fans, it’s a sweat box, but the boys are proud of it nonetheless: I can tell by the bright orange, blue, and purple walls, hand-painted signs and huge grins.
The boys named this place Crushers Club—it’s a refuge for a whole lot of kids growing up in the most violent neighborhood in the most segregated city in the country.
The weekend before my visit was especially bad: 26 people shot within 20 hours—one every 43 minutes.2
I remember standing at the top of the stairs, at the entryway of Crushers Club as Ms. Sally—the founder—explained the weekend to me. Taped to the windows on my left were sheets of paper with names and addresses listed in black and red ink. I asked what they were and why she hung them up:
“On every Monday I print off a list of the weekend’s shootings so the kids know where the hot blocks are—where to avoid. The names in black are those wounded, the ones in red are kills.”
Later I asked a couple of the boys about the list: What is this? What does it mean to you? “Oh that’s a list of everyone who got shot this weekend.” … “It makes me grateful to have a place I can come, you know, like Crushers Club, cause otherwise I’d be out there, you know, yeah.”