Walter Payton College Prep and Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep are two of the best, most prestigious high schools in Illinois. That's not my opinion; that's the verdict of the current U.S. News & World Report rankings. Payton checks in at #2, Brooks at #13. These are both Chicago Public Schools (indeed, seven of the top 20 in the state are CPS schools -- most of them, Payton and Brooks included, highly selective "magnet" schools).
Payton is located not far from the Loop, at 1034 N. Wells, in an area the Realtors call the Near North neighborhood, close to both the Gold Coast and River North neighborhoods. Brooks, on the other hand, is located at 250 E. 111th Street, about two miles east of I-57, in the Roseland neighborhood.
Roseland is increasingly in the news these days, and not in a good way. It is wracked by gang violence, shootings, drugs, and all manner of crime. You can get mugged near Payton on a Saturday night, too. Cabrini Green used to be just a couple of blocks away -- but that neighborhood is, objectively, far safer these days than Roseland.
The Brooks baseball team plays on its own field, on the school grounds. According to one account I saw, the field is literally locked away from its surrounding environs. Ninth Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, who happens to be an assistant coach on the Brooks team, says that Brooks has the nicest high school field in the City. Even if he is a Chicago alderman, on this point at least, I take him at his word. It looked pretty sweet on TV.
The story broke this way: Sunday morning it was reported that Payton forfeited its scheduled night game at Brooks because 'team parents' refused to let their kids venture into the Roseland neighborhood. The Payton coach was embarrassed. The Brooks coach was embarrassed -- and angry. Furious backtracking has been underway since.
We will probably never know exactly what happened. It seems, however, that a bus was supposed to take the team to and from the game -- which may or may not have been hastily arranged. It's been an awful spring around here, folks. Coaches can't reschedule all the rain-outs and freeze-outs and they are grasping at any opportunities they can to get their kids some playing time. It's quite possible that last-second bus arrangements might have fallen through.
Unless you've had kids who've played high school baseball you may not know what that means.
Let me tell you: Some parents would have been able to take their own kids and maybe a couple of others. But, on a Saturday night, in families with more than one kid, there may have been -- would likely have been -- conflicts. Who knows? Maybe some of the moms and dads had plans of their own. So that means that kids would be expected to get themselves there. To carpool. To drive to an unfamiliar, and dangerous, neighborhood, where kids can, and do, get killed because they looked like someone else. Or maybe just because they looked like they didn't belong.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, an African-American, wasn't happy about the situation, but, she wrote, "Given the steady stream of shootings and killings occurring on the South Side, I really can’t blame any parent for having concerns about a night game." She added:
I’m not proud to admit it, but I don’t travel certain streets at night when I have my grandson in the car.Mitchell writes that there were 13 shootings in Chicago this weekend, one resulting in a fatality, and most on the South and West Sides. "Although none of the shootings occurred in Roseland," she writes, "the entire South Side has been stigmatized by the gun violence."
Crime can happen anywhere. But by now, I have a good idea where I run the greatest risk.
Obviously, this is not something parents should have to worry about, but they do — especially when they are not familiar with the area.
Unfortunately, because of the increase in homicides that we experienced last year on the South Side, the entire area must seem like one big shooting gallery.
I agree with Ms. Mitchell about the stigma that attaches to the entire South Side -- but the fact that none of this weekend's shootings were in Roseland is no more than a happy coincidence.
But at least Ms. Mitchell is trying not to see this controversy in terms of black and white. Simply calling this a black and white issue is overly simplistic, of course, and (although perhaps not just because it is the simplest) it is the the one adopted by the media generally: Brooks is in an African-American community, therefore Payton parents must be bigots for refusing to let their kids go play. A picture of the Payton team, gathered around their coach during a game Monday at Taft (in a largely white neighborhood on the Northwest Side), on page 10 of this morning's Sun-Times, subtly reinforces this view. The kids sure look white, at least from a distance. I'll bet some of them are.
But there is no such thing as a lily-white Chicago Public High School, and certainly not a magnet school. Every race and nationality is represented at Payton. If Brooks is predominantly African-American, it is a function of its location in such an overwhelmingly African-American area -- but I'd bet there are white kids there from Mt. Greenwood and Beverly, too. That makes it a little harder to just cry bigotry.
|Image from this morning's Chicago Sun-Times|
Moreover, although I'm sure Payton students are drawn from all over Chicago, I'd guess that the majority may be native to the North Side. It is a fact of Chicago life that North Siders are cheerfully ignorant of anything south of Roosevelt -- Soldier Field and McCormick Place occasionally excepted -- just as many South Siders, white and black alike, are ignorant of anything north of Oak Street (North Avenue, perhaps, for the adventurous). I am a rarity among my fellow Chicagoans. I was born on the South Side and I've lived on the North and Northwest Sides. There aren't that many of us. So it's neither surprising nor conclusive evidence of racism if Payton parents plead unfamiliarity with the far South Side.
Sixty-six years after Jackie Robinson, white Payton parents weren't refusing to let their kids play against African-Americans. Parents, white and Hispanic alike, weren't comfortable allowing their kids to go to an unfamiliar, dangerous neighborhood on a Saturday night. Especially when they'd have to drive themselves. Is that really racism? Or is it prudence?
(Those who think that having a bus available would have solved everything need to consult the very politically incorrect police blog, Second City Cop. In SCC's coverage of this story, in NEWSFLASH! South Side Isn't Safe and in today's post, More Payton vs. Brooks Controversy, it is noted that school buses are sometimes targeted by gangbangers with guns.)
However, as the linked Sun-Times story notes, the game will finally be played this Saturday night, weather permitting. We can assume that the 5th and 22nd Police Districts will be employing surge tactics along 111th Street: Mayor Emanuel will insist that there be no incidents. The kids will be happy to play, as kids are. It'll take some time, though, for the alleged grown-ups to work through all this.