It’s been months now since that warm night in June, when Eddie, the local gangbanger spokesman came over to have a word with us, the new neighbors; and 20 years roughly since I returned to my hometown. Always rough-and-tumble, with mobsters, criminals and grifters mixing uneasily with working class rednecks who came north a generation ago; and in-turn mixing with working class and inner-city blacks who came for the same factory jobs.
Those jobs are gone and the city, Rockford, Ill., not only has the honor of the state’s highest unemployment rate — but has now been labeled “The 9th Most Dangerous City in America” by a recent and highly publicized US Dept. of Justice report. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 152,222 people lived in Rockford in 2011.
Home again, a divorced father, ex-newspaperman and freelance writer, I had spent most of the day, tinkering in the yard, moving furniture … thinking about bringing my kids to our lovely old bungalow in a historical but sketchy east-side neighborhood once full of families. Swedes mostly, some Italians — all working class and mostly white.
We regarded returning “home” as something of a new start. Yet the workings of an obvious crack house and the proliferation of abandoned houses on our block — 100 year floods in 2007 and 2009 devastated the community — have laid bare the challenge before us and communities like Rockford amid the Great Recession that Never Seems To End.
After those floods, where the whites saw opportunity in moving out as the fetid waters receded — they already feared the approaching crime and were in the midst of the housing collapse — several, mostly black gangs with Chicago ties saw opportunity. Territory. Far away from the police “Weed and Seed” operation going on “across the tracks,” perhaps?
So, in the end, the families who could get them took their checks and ran, leaving unsold houses everywhere. We saw opportunity too, in renting this bungalow from dear friends.
And this is where our friend “Eddie” comes in.
We had just returned home on the second weekend in the new house and after seeing the obvious patterns of a crack house, I was pushed a little too far. They had been hooting at women and passersby all day, constant open-air dealing of hard drugs, and throughout the neighborhood, echoed the sounds of random gunfire …
And, night-and-day, children yelling: Recruited to “raise up” and scream “5-0” or “Whoa” or some other chosen word to represent approaching police, they patrolled the back alleys and streets with abandon and seemed sadly integral to the running of drugs, money and threats down to the nearby park. It was the hard currency of street crime, and not to be taken lightly with a 100-pound woman and kids around every other weekend.
I even heard them use “your momma.”
All day. Screaming, “Your momma. Your momma.”
Who says that?
Eddie’s boy wanted to fight that night. Right there in the street. They weren’t going to turn down their music or show respect, or any of that. “Watchyou gon’ do ‘bout it?” yelled the loudest one, swinging his shirt around as he entered the light of the streetlamp on our shared corner.
Eddie tries to back the crazy one down and despite my warnings not to “come around that fence,” the big boss nonetheless raises his hands and proceeds to describe how he’s from the South Side of Chicago (Englewood) via Haiti, has “40 niggas across the tracks” willing to straighten us out if we don’t like their operation, customers and taunts. They wore red and black. We think they are Vice Lords of some sort.
With a thick accent and the cordial air of a businessman, he tells us he’s got cops on the payroll, which, alas, suggests to us he’s not only somewhat of an amateur, but extremely reckless and not in control of his set.
I say something animated about growing up here, being the son of a cop, a crime reporter, and that I wasn’t having it. WE weren’t having it. The noise. The clientele. The thugs posted up 24/7 facing the house.
Creeping through the alleys at all hours.
But what to make NOW of our meeting on the porch, three months hence?
“Better watch your boy,” yelled Eddie to my rattled fiance, as he retreated to his crackhouse and clique, us having, apparently, merely agreed to disagree on that early summer night.
And here it is August, and as the cicadas of late summer rise and fall, we still watch each other and wait.
Other day I heard them talkin’ about “reppin’ the block” as they peered through my back fence, encouraged to move on by some mysterious neighbors or other passersby through the alley. “Not here,” said the unknown voice. They turned and left.
Business goes on. And We wait.
But for what? The Harvest Moon?