From Learn and Earn to Slam and Jam

“There’s no time to get in trouble.”

If the Near North Unity Project needed a motto this summer, Shelby Tharpe surely nailed it.

It was a sticky-hot Friday afternoon and the 13-year-old was conferring with his buddy, Leon Wilbut, near basketball court No. 1 in Seward Park at the corner of Sedgewick and Orleans streets.

Two of the team captains flank Patrick “Shane” Steward, founder and president of Chicago Men in Action, or M.I.A., which runs the basketball league with support from LISC/Chicago and its Near North Unity Project (NNUP).

John McCarron

Shelby goes to Franklin Elementary, which is north of Division Street. Leon goes to Salazar Elementary, south of Division.

Ordinarily that might be a problem. Neither belong to a street gang, but in the brave new world emerging on Chicago’s Near North Side following removal of the Cabrini-Green high-rises, old “affiliation” boundaries have been slower to go away.  One side of Division is Vice Lord turf; the other Gangster Disciple country. Wise mothers tell their children not to cross.

Yet here they were, captains respectively of the Celtics and Knicks, two teams in the 12-14 age division of the Bridge the Gap basketball program, talking over ground-rules for their upcoming game.

This pleases Patrick “Shane” Steward, founder and president of Chicago Men in Action, or M.I.A., which runs the basketball league with support from LISC/Chicago and its Near North Unity Project (NNUP).

“Sometimes kids come to me with [team] rosters already made up,” Shane said. “We don’t go for that. We mix ’em up. Kids gotta learn how to get along.”

Referee Johnny Payton tosses a jump ball during a game at Seward Park, which brought together young people from both sides of Division Street in "violation" of gang boundaries.

John McCarron

And get along they do, all summer, every Friday afternoon on the courts behind the Seward Park field house.  On the sidelines Shane is in charge, making sure the “shorties” show manners as they line up for free hot dogs and soft drinks; making sure the right teams get the right color tee shirts; making sure the boom box is pulsing and the announcer at the scorer’s table credits players for selfless passes as well as three-point bombs.

“We’re always looking for leaders,” said Shane, nodding toward Shelby and Leon.

Leadership is at a premium in this neighborhood, where hundreds of high-rise families have been uprooted and resettled in townhouses and mid-rises that look like a big improvement …  but test a kid’s coping skills every day. Shelby and Leon grew up in the high-rises but now are adjusting to new expectations—and aggravations—of mixed-income housing where old forms of “hangin’ out” are frowned upon.

Monday through Thursday the two are downtown, at Harold Washington College, in the “Learn and Earn” program run by the city and CHA. There they brush up on academic skills, learn about various career paths and best of all, they say, collect a small stipend for six weeks.

But Fridays are best. Fridays they get to slam-and-jam with their homies at Seward Park. There’s no time to get in trouble.

Kids need options 

With one weekend to go in the month of July, Chicago police already had recorded 230 murders during 2011, a majority of the victims being minorities in their teens and 20s.

Gangs don't mess around with the aptly named Justice Stamps, director of the Marion Stamps Youth Center.

John McCarron

It is true that FBI-index crimes—murders, assaults, rapes, etc.—have been trending down in recent years, both in Chicago and nationwide. But as the economic non-recovery grinds on, police and community leaders are seeing a new brazenness among gang bangers who can see no other future for themselves.

As of late July Chicago police had shot more than 40 people this year, most of them young and all of them, police say, brandishing a weapon. A total of 25 were shot by police in all of 2010.

“Respect is missing. They are not scared of anything,” said Charles Price, who monitors gang activity for the Local Advisory Council representing public housing tenants in the Near North neighborhood.

Price was among 30 community leaders who huddled July 26 in the community room of the 18thDistrict police station for a mid-summer reality check on the first few months of the Near North Unity Project. On one matter there was strong consensus:  Positive youth activity and personal safety are not only interlocked … they are key to the neighborhood’s success.

“Kids just need options,” said attendee Duwain Bailey, chief of operations for the Chicago Housing Authority. “Not every kid is going to gravitate toward sports. For some it’s music. For others cooking or baking. Or maybe they’d just as soon get a job and work. As an organization, we’ve got to help create those opportunities."

Especially concerned about youth behavior and personal safety were seniors at the conference table.

“My community is everything but safe,” said Willie B. Jones, representing seniors living in CHA apartments on the 1300-block of North Cleveland Avenue. “We don’t feel comfortable walking a square block, not with young gentlemen standing there on the corners by the eights and tens. We feel intimidated. We feel vulnerable. But we need our exercise.”

Youth served first

Much of what was said at the meeting confirmed NNUP organizers’ early decision to start the effort by immediately providing support for summertime youth activities, such as Bridge the Gap basketball. 

The drum line prepares to march forth.

John McCarron

Elsewhere in the city, LISC/Chicago has first identified an existing community organization with which to partner as part of NCP; then, a lot of early effort has gone into helping neighbors produce a comprehensive Quality-of-Life plan to guide subsequent activity.

Keri Blackwell, senior program officer for LISC/Chicago, said NNUP does need to identify or create a lead local organization, one that will eventually produce a comprehensive neighborhood plan. But by moving first to support highly visible summer programs, she said, a grassroots constituency is coalescing that can tackle those more detailed chores beginning this fall … after kids go back to school.

“So we’ve got Friday night jazz in Seward Park; we’ve got crews of kids working clean-and-green Saturday mornings; we had about a hundred youths at Community of Peace working on environmental issues; we’ve got the basketball. … It all takes manpower, … and the kind of buy-in that makes people stick around.”

“This is not a science,” seconded Stanley Merriwether, the LISC consultant who coordinated the effort locally. “Different communities have different personalities, different complexities. There’s not a formula that says you do this and then you do that.”

The two handed out forms detailing what LISC looks for in a local partner and asking for names of community groups that might fill the bill. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) also will have a strong say.

Flag of hope

A Tae Kwan Do demonstration unfolds during halftime of one of the basketball games.

John McCarron

But it was youth problems and solutions that dominated the meeting, and two youngsters from the city’s After School Matters (ASM) program at Seward Park were asked to speak. Jeremy Dossie and Crystal Herron both raved about their daily drum line and flag corps practices at Seward Park … but complained other kids not in the program come by “to make fun and try to start fights.”

Then again, troublemakers don’t come around when Justice Stamps is at the park making sure her ASM campers are on task and not being harassed. She’s director of the Marion Stamps Youth Center, an activity named in memory of her mother, a legendary organizer in the Cabrini-Green area.

“All of my kids graduate high school and plan to go to college,” Stamps said of her Youth Center regulars. Her summer’s big breakthrough, she said, was getting kids living north of Division to come down to Seward Park for ASM camp.

“It’s been a task-and-a-half ” keeping the gang-bangers away, she said, and there have been incidents. “But we’ve seen progress. We’re pulling the teens in because now they know there’s a whole group of people working to keep them safe.”

The Division Street boundary is artificial—but very real in the lives of Cabrini-area young people.

John McCarron

Later that day at the park, during a practice break, instructor Sasha Rashidee, once a flag team member at the University of Illinois, explained what it is that the Near North kids really need.

“They crave personal instruction, personal attention,” she said while untangling the hair of 16-year-old Ikayla Gregory. “So we break it down, make it easy. One, two, three, four on the gok block,” a small red plastic box struck with a drumstick.

Ikayla said she was scared to try out for her high school’s flag team last year. But this fall, after a summer a Seward Park, she may give it a try. “I think I’m good enough now,” she said.

More information:
Stanley Merriwether (312) 504-4706 or smerriwether@gmail.com