The recent shooting death of Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Elijah Sims, 16, has put in stark relief the contrast between the West Side of Chicago, where Sims was raised and grew up, and Oak Park, where the teenager’s family moved two years ago.
During numerous interviews held in the wake of Sims’ murder, many community leaders and elected officials on both sides of Austin Boulevard spoke of a tale of two communities and a divide that they say is reinforced by persistent racial inequalities.
“I live in Austin, a few blocks from here,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in East Garfield Park, during a Sept. 1 press conference convened by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st District) inside of the Quincy Community Center in Austin.
“Four blocks west is Oak Park, [where they’re] literally undergoing a construction boom in condos,” said Hatch before a throng of local journalists and TV camera crews. “It’s amazing. If [Sims] had been standing four blocks from here, he would be alive, and that’s what’s so alarming about what geography means. The only people saying money and resources don’t matter are people with resources.”
Sims had been standing outside with friends last Monday night on the corner of Quincy Street and South Lotus Avenue in Austin when he was shot by an unidentified assailant. He died a day later on Aug. 30. A 15-year-old who was also shot is reportedly in stable condition.
On Aug. 31, hundreds of people converged in Scoville Park, flanked east and west by those cranes and new condos Hatch referenced, for a candlelight vigil for Sims on what would have been the teenager’s 17th birthday.
The Austin preacher could’ve pointed out more development to deepen the contrast. Half a mile east lies the Ridgeland Common Recreational Complex bathed in light, two years removed from a roughly $23 million makeover. It features an outdoor aquatic center, an NHL regulation-size ice rink and synthetic turf fields.
The Quincy Community Center, by comparison, is operated out of Mary Brown’s backyard, inside of her garage, which is down the street from where Sims was shot. Brown said she established the center in 2010 to provide area young people with a safe space, a literal refuge from the violence of a community where economic development is more often described in terms of loss.
According to numerous reports, August was the deadliest month in Chicago in two decades — 76 people killed and more than 370 wounded. This year, at least 2,700 people have been shot in Chicago — the overwhelming majority of them African Americans on the West and South sides.
“In a world-class city like Chicago, there is no reason to have Third World conditions where unemployment rivals that of the Great Depression,” said Boykin, who lives in Oak Park and represents a significant portion of the West Side and the western suburbs, adding that there has been a dearth of economic development on the West Side for 50 years.
Boykin and other speakers checked off numerous businesses that have closed, including a Nabisco plant on the Southwest Side that once employed hundreds of people in communities like Austin in jobs that paid livable wages. More than 270 workers at the plant were laid off in March. Some of those jobs will end up in Mexico.
“The victims of this violence disproportionately come from communities that face crushing economic and social challenges,” said Boykin, who announced that he would be co-hosting, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH and other organizations, a series of town halls on the violence throughout the West and South sides.
“For example, in West Garfield Park, per capita income is $10,951 and 40.3 percent of residents are living below the poverty line,” Boykin noted. “The unemployment rate in West Garfield Park is 25.2 percent.”
“Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction,” said Jackson, who attended the Sept. 1 press conference. “There’s not enough food and access to health care. Worse than the crisis is that there’s no apparent plan to stop it. There’s no apparent plan for reconstruction.”
Numerous Oak Park residents who were interviewed also pointed out the invisible divide separating their community and that of their neighbors to the east.
“Oak Parkers live in a community that has a metaphorical wall built around it,” said OPRF teacher Anthony Clark, who, like Sims, moved with his family to Oak Park when he was younger. He now heads up the Suburban Unity Alliance, a nonprofit he formed to help root out various forms of discrimination in the suburbs.
“This community has operated for too long under the notion that we are immune to the plight of our urban neighbors,” said Clark, whose niece was fatally shot in Austin last August.
“Oak Parkers shouldn’t feel guilty for having the ability to live in such a community; however, I believe living in such a community should come with a philanthropic desire to help those within our community as well as [outside of it] to have better experiences,” he said.
John Colucci, an Oak Park middle school teacher and River Forest native, echoed some of Clark’s points.
“It’s sobering to say our students can hang out at block parties and not worry about being shot or losing their best friends from senseless acts,” Colucci said. “It’s a privilege we have and we need to recognize that privilege.”
Jeffrey Leef, a River Forest radiologist and Republican nominee for the 7th District Congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, cited Chicago’s highly segregated nature as a contributing factor to the gun violence, which he noted shouldn’t be considered an isolated phenomenon to residents living west of Austin Blvd.
“There has to be somebody to start a conversation of not just getting guns off the street,” Leef said. “You have to go to the core of the problem and ask why is there this anger in the impoverished communities? Chicago is so unique with the number of segregated towns and communities that are all-white and all-black. What’s led to this? I don’t view [Chicago’s gun violence crisis] as something coming closer and closer to me. It’s just wrong [wherever it is].”
Last year, in the wake of the mass shooting of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, numerous Oak Park clergy members sought to create formal alliances with their counterparts on the West Side.
Rev. Lindsey Long Joyce, pastor of United Methodist Church in Oak Park and a member of Oak Park’s Community of Congregations, said later this month, the religious organization will host a meeting with West Side clergy to address some of Austin’s systemic problems.
“We’re just going to ask what we can do as a community of faith to address issues like homelessness, violence and racial inequality,” said Joyce, who attended the Sept. 1 press conference in Austin. “We also just show up (on the West Side) as often as we can. We’re just trying to say, ‘We’re here and we want to be part of the transformation of this city and the surrounding areas.'”
Rev. Marti Scott, lead pastor of Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park, said she produced a sermon series called, “Creating a New West Side Story.”
“It was a way of talking about, and encouraging people to buy, on the other side of Austin Boulevard,” Scott said. “We have some members who live in Austin and we have a sister church on the West Side, so we were and so it was a way of establishing some deeper connections.”
To some OPRF parents and students, Sims’ murder made Chicago’s violence resonate on an almost visceral level, making real what some people may only perceive as headlines on the nightly news.
“[Sims’s death] just hit me,” said Amy Renzulli, owner of the performing arts organization School of Rock Oak Park.
“I’m around teenagers all day long, so I kind of feel like a mother to all of them,” she said. “My parents were activists for equality and desegregation when I was a child, so I’ve always cared about these issues. I think Oak Park is a wonderful place, always has been, but we can’t rest. We have to participate in fighting for things that are fair for everyone.”
“I have a lot of friends who cried when they heard [about Sims’ death] and they’d never met him,” said OPRF junior Lauren Flowers, 16, who attended Sims’ vigil.
“Everybody’s just really upset,” said Flowers, adding that her uncle was shot to death on Chicago’s South Side. “I think in Oak Park, we’re very sheltered and a lot of people don’t realize what’s happening right across Austin, but now, since more people are coming from the West Side, it’s happening closer to home.”
For Charles Donaldson, an OPRF student who was friends with Sims, the problem involves more than geography; it’s also a problem of being an African American male — on either side of Austin Boulevard.
“This city, this state, this country is still a walking war zone for black boys and if they can’t make you a soldier, they’ll have no problem turning you into a casualty,” Donaldson said during a spoken word performance at his friend’s vigil.
“They’ll have no problem turning your name into a hashtag,” he said at a soulful, sing-song staccato pace. “And we’re tired of being told not to be upset, to cheer up, to not be mad. We’re not black and angry; we’re hunted and scared.”
Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, was tapped to eulogize Sims at the teenager’s Sept. 7 funeral, which will take place at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 Washington Blvd., at 11 a.m. The pastor said he met with Galloway as she was making funeral arrangements.
“I’ve sat too many times with family members and mothers who have had to bury their children,” Acree said. “This must stop. We will not become immune to this madness. We will not adjust to it. It’s horrific and terrible, but what’s worse than the violence we’re facing is if we ever adjust to it.”