Riding the Red Line

So I'm always encouraged when there's real attention to Chicago's homicide rate.  It means that people stop for a minute and pay attention to what's happening with black youth (and sometimes Latino youth) in Chicago.  Some of the attention feels honest - This American Life just completed a 2-part broadcast on Harper High School, a rich slice-of-life picture of a school dealing with heartbreaking violence.  Other attention seems disingenuous, such as Newt Gingrich's piece about gun violence recently in the Chicago Tribune, which talks extensively about the young people of color who are by-and-large it's victims. While I wish his concern was real, Newt Gingrich isn't exactly known for his attention to young people of color when there's not political hay to be made.  All I'm saying is I've never seen him on the South Side.

Which is the tip of the iceberg of a larger problem - outside of my Beverly neighborhood and the fortress of Hyde Park, I don't see white people spending time on the South Side much at all.  The collateral damage of all the media attention to violence is that it makes white people think of black neighborhoods as dangerous places to go.  The reality is very different.  Most of black Chicago is ordinary people going about the day-to-day business of their lives, the same as any other neighborhood in this city.

The dirty little secret of being white in a black neighborhood is that white privilege protects you here, too.  For me, it doesn't hurt that I'm male and 6'4", but there’s something more to it.  Most people assume that I'm either a teacher or a cop, which tend to be the white men most commonly found in an otherwise all-black neighborhood.  Mess with either one, and your whole world crashes down around you.  So in visiting, I find myself in a bubble of near-invulnerability that any 16-year-old black male growing up in the neighborhood would give his right arm for.

And so I travel through the South Side.  On this Sunday afternoon I'm taking the red line from 95th Street to Chinatown, where I'm meeting friends for dinner before heading to Midway airport for an evening flight.  

The 95th Street red line terminal is one of the most interesting el stops in the city.  It's statistically the busiest stop in Chicago, and there are about a dozen buses that feed in and out of it.  Most people don't realize that there's still about 5 miles of city south of 95th street, and a lot of people need a train and a bus just to get home.

On my way into the station, I see a man in the crowd in a security guard uniform.  I realize he is not CTA security, but just a guy taking the train going to or coming from his job, like most people there.  The terminal is busy but quiet, empty of the smiling Jehova's Witnesses that line the skywalk over the Dan Ryan expressway during morning rush hour.  Even the Dunkin Donuts is empty today.

I stumble down to the platform with a large suitcase, which might be routine on one of the airport trains, but is out of place on the south end of the red line.  I assume the weirdness of it probably protects me – an indicator of someone to avoid rather than an easy mark for thieves.  

The train is relatively empty.  I'm the only white person on the train, which is a feeling you get used to after a while.  Being a Sunday, there's not the usual parade of beggars, rappers, and fruit candy vendors that you'll see at other times during the week.  So I take out my iPhone and check my e-mail.  At one point I look up so as to "be aware of my surroundings," as the signs on the train advise me to do.  The other passengers nearby are texting or e-mailing on their cell phones, too.  At no point do I feel anything but safe.

And this is just the train.  There are amazing sites to see on the South Side if you take the time to visit.  A million people live there, each with a story to tell.  And if you feel called to do something about the violence afflicting this city, developing a familiarity with the neighborhoods and the people who live there isn't a bad place to start.