As gang violence and gun-related deaths continue to occur at an alarming rate in a community on the West Side of Chicago, residents are finding constructive ways to end the bloodshed that has plagued their neighborhood for years.
Austin, the largest of Chicago’s 77 communities with a population of roughly 117,527, is part of Chicago’s West Side, which also consists of West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Near West Side. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show the area to be predominantly African-American.
Ralph Johnson, a Social Service Agency Senior Employment Program volunteer, said the Austin community has slowly been in decline since he moved there 30 years ago. “Austin’s pretty much the same. The crime elements have become a little more brazen as of late. The economic conditions have contributed to their boldness,” said Johnson.
A lack of education coupled with a weak job market have contributed to the increasing number of gang members in the community. “Violence spreads across all ages,” said Terrayne Ellis, a program coordinator at the Austin YMCA. “It starts out as bullying in elementary school. Kids get into fights to established position. These kids grow up to be teenagers and, true enough, through peer pressure, become involved in gang-related activities.”
Pastor Anthony Hall, who has worked with reforming gang members and has mediated gang-related disputes as part of the New Birth Christian Center for the last six years, believes depressed communities like Austin continue to be challenged because residents live with challenging situations all their lives.
“When all you’re exposed to are beauty shops, fast food restaurants and auto shops, that is all you aspire for. The lack of motivation, the lack of drive, is what leads to people taking things that are not theirs. This type of criminal behavior will continue to become a recurrent fact unless there is major community involvement,” said Hall. “We must teach kids to aspire for more.”
Danette King started Young Creative Minds, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that provides mentorship programs to at-risk youth, in 2007. Through her work, King has given troubled teenagers an environment where they can learn the value of self-respect, motivation, integrity, leadership and education. “Kids are able to express themselves here, and with that release comes a decrease in violent behavior,” said King. “These kids need to know someone is listening, someone cares for them.”
Caroline Edwards, a long-time Austin resident, agreed that change in the community would be a result of a collaborative effort between the local police and community workers to find productive ways with which to occupy the youth of Austin. “Job shadowing with police officers will give young adults a first-hand account of the demands and responsibilities of the job. The experience leaves them with greater respect for the hard work these police officers put into their work everyday,” said Edwards.
Despite constant policing efforts via blue-light surveillance cameras and strict curfew laws (persons 17 and under must be in their homes by 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) in the neighborhood, many Austin residents still feel police presence is not enough to curb the increasing incidents of violence in the community.
In April, State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) encouraged Gov. Pat Quinn to work with Mayor Richard M. Daley in bringing the Illinois National Guard to at-risk neighborhoods in the South and West Sides of Chicago. Many residents opposed the controversial move.
“There is no need for the National Guard. We are not a war zone,” said Ald. Ed H. Smith, of Chicago’s 28th Ward. “Bringing in an outside resource implies the police is not effective. It is a poor reflection of city and local government. It suggests we are not doing the job we are paid to do.”
For Ellis, the Austin YMCA program coordinator, getting violence under control is an effort that requires the work of the whole community.
“The police can’t solve these problems on their own. Parents need to take responsibility in rearing their children,” Ellis said. “It takes a village to raise these kids.”