One of my most vivid memories (for good reason, you’ll see) is of a cool fall morning in 2006. I was a seventh grader, going to school at West Side Junior High School in East Chicago, Indiana. I had recently moved in with my mom following a dispute with kids in my former school (a story for another time). She had custody of my two youngest siblings; one of which I would walk to the bus stop with every morning.
Before I can get into the meat of the story, or even the location of the bus stop, I have to explain the area I lived in. Within East Chicago, I lived in a neighborhood call Marktown. It was built for the families of the factories it was nestled in between—literally. And it was the damnedest place.
Marktown was, and what remains of it still is, a ghetto. It’s an incredibly small, isolated community built for the working class to live in. It’s also marked on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architect, world renowned Howard Van Doren Shaw. But its real claim to fame, complete with a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not accolade, is that it is designed so that the people walk in the streets, and the cars park on the sidewalks.
That purple house? That house was the house I lived in for a good chunk of my childhood. I lived there until my parents divorced in 2002, and then I moved with my dad (to return for a year in 2006, as mentioned before). That house wasn’t purple when I lived in it, and the fence wasn’t broken out. There was also always activity in the streets, even in the winter. That house across the street wasn’t boarded up. In fact, a lot has changed since I left in 2007.
My memories of this town are very contradictory; I had an active childhood, running around the streets all day. Playing in the park. Swinging from the Weeping Willow across the street. Drawing chalk American flags the width of the street that a car once drove around instead of on top of.
But then, there’s the reality of that cool fall morning.
At one time, our bus stop used to be in front of the community center, which is that brown building in the background of the above photo. That year, it’d been moved to the front of the pavilion. My earliest memory of this space is having a party for my grandmother, who was battling breast cancer, lung cancer, and a tumor in her brain, all at once. It was probably the last time I remember her vivid and active, despite having lost all of her hair to chemotherapy.
I walked my brother to the bus stop, located here, every morning. My youngest sibling didn’t attend school yet, she was roughly four. And I took care of the two while my mom worked.
Usually, the walks to school in the mornings are fairly uneventful, especially at only two blocks away. But this morning, there was something a bit out of the norm, especially considering the geography of the neighborhood.
As I’m standing waiting for the school bus with other elementary and middle schoolers, my brother in tow, two older men start walking down the street, coming from the main road out near the steel mills. Remember, we’re surrounded by them, so they would have either had to pull over just out of town to get out of their car to go for this leisurely 7:30 AM stroll, or they would have had to walk miles through streets lined by the mills.
I was the type of 5'2" 120 lb girl with her nine-year-old brother at her side who was just going to mind her own business, aware, but nothing more. That’s when the boys in my grade had other ideas.
It’s ironic to me, looking back on this time, how different I was than these kids. They lived and fought for their pride, their name. I didn’t give a sh*t about what people thought of me, so long as I was living truthfully. As a teenager, I had my moments, of course. But, ultimately, I was a weirdo until it challenged my well-being (reading an entire book a day doesn’t bode well for your street cred in a highly trafficked gang culture).
Two boys, in my seventh grade class, approached those two random men walking down the street. I’m not kidding when I say boys—they were 12–14 years old, looking for a fight with two grown men, who were probably in their late 20s, early 30s.
And they got one.
It’s incredible, to me, to watch the absence of reasoning and fear in these kinds of situations.
The four men continued to fight, and we were slowly creeping backward toward our house, watching it unfold. Then, a family member of one of the kids in the fight came running out from one of the side streets.
Shooting a gun.
We, obviously, went back home for the day.
And the buses that serve East Chicago schools, from that day on, have had security guards stationed on them.
It’s the kind of violence that impedes your childhood. And it’s not the only one I’d experienced—unfortunately, I’d say things like this happened rather frequently while I lived in East Chicago. I knew multiple teens who died to gun violence, gang-related and wrong-place-wrong-time. I mean, sometimes they’re two in the same.
In my adult life, I look back on these experiences, the ones that overpower the good memories, and think of them as the anti-community. And, unfortunately, it’s often the people that need community the most that are herded into these unsafe places.
Today, less than 20 percent of Marktown is still standing. People are fighting for it every day, battling as the BP Refinery continues to buy it up, and tear it down.
I see their names in the newspapers, and they’re the same families whose kids I grew up with, those same families whose kids fought random people walking through town at 7:30 AM. And they’re fighting to protect their name, and their pride.
I only wish they saw that the anchor, their “home,” should exist beyond the walls. It’s, in my opinion, a transient way to live your life, when your community—your sense of belonging—is tied to a physical space. Nostalgia is transient, and community is emotionally tactile. We should value our people more than our places.
After all, the places are for people to gather; community is what happens when we’re there together.
I’m fortunate that I found community, and support beyond my family, even if it took me 20 years to figure it out. Every day, I hope and aim that young people have better access to it today, and when they’re able to, they can build it for themselves.
I don’t know the answer, or really what the question is. There’s so many. Mostly, I just wonder, What and how can I do better—myself removed?
I try to answer it every day.