When Bill Lowry learned that 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton had been shot to death near his home, he was working in his corner office at a law firm in Chicago’s financial district.
The high school honors student was caught in gang crossfire on Jan. 29, 2013 in a playground behind Lowry’s home. Pendleton had recently performed at a presidential inauguration event in Washington, D.C., celebrating Lowry’s friends—Barack and Michelle.
Her death, steps from the Lowry family’s elegant two-story home – not far from the Obama’s house – would have been unthinkable in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s North Side neighborhood of Ravenswood. But it is not in Kenwood, a predominantly African-American community on the city’s South Side that is a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.
Here, in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, well-off residents like Lowry, a managing shareholder at his law firm, live with the trappings of the haves and the have nots: take-out joints and tony sit-down restaurants, check cashing businesses and branches of major banks, public housing units and million-dollar homes.
Lowry and his wife Cheryl, a dentist, could afford to live elsewhere in the Chicago area. They chose a double lot in North Kenwood, where they built a 4,600-square-foot home in 1999 and settled in to raise their three children. Their resources, like those of other middle-class families, can help improve the community.
While some middle-class African-Americans like the Lowrys benefit from living in neighborhoods like Kenwood, with its tree-lined streets, striking architecture, short commute to downtown, less costly housing and a connection to the history and cultural legacy of the Great Migration, they also pay a price. Their homes have less value than those in comparable white neighborhoods. They live in close proximity to poverty. They sometimes go home to gunfire.
Middle-class whites are more likely to reside in communities insulated from high concentrations of poverty, says Derek Hyra, associate professor and director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University. “The black middle-class is more vulnerable,” he said.
This is especially true in Chicago, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation. Most black Chicagoans live in a neighborhood that is more than 50 percent African-American, compared to 42 percent of blacks in other metro areas, according to research by Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African-American Studies at Northwestern University.
The Kenwood community area is 68 percent African-American. One in three residents has an advanced degree, and one in six lives below the federal poverty line.
“The black middle-class is more susceptible to feeling the impact of some of the legacy of violence that remains in [gentrified] communities,” said Hyra, who conducted research on urban renewal in the nearby neighborhoods of Douglas and Grand Boulevard.
When Pendleton was shot about 10 feet from the Lowrys’ property line, Bill Lowry’s commitment to the neighborhood was tested.
His middle child, Evan, 17 at the time, asked him what he was going to do about the shooting.
The senior Lowry invited clergy, educators, former gang members and public officials, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, to his house for a breakfast meeting to talk about possible solutions.
“It’s time for us to stop hiding behind our alarm systems and safety glass,” he recalls telling the group. “We need to step up and play a role in our community.”
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Isaac Monroe, who lives two blocks from the Lowrys, had a similar moment when another teenager was fatally shot in the neighborhood nearly three years after Pendleton.
Monroe purchased his vintage 1888 home 20 years ago. He spent three years gut rehabbing it.
“Liked the area. Liked the transition that I saw. Liked the history. Liked being close to the lake. And I could just see the potential,” he said.
The 64-year-old legislative consultant saw another side of the neighborhood too. Drug dealers carried out transactions from two abandoned cars on the vacant lot next door “like it was an open-air vegetable market,” he said.
Even so, he was optimistic. He liked his neighbors. He had never been personally touched by crime.
“We always boasted that we never had anything happen on our little block here,” he said.
That changed on Sept. 19 of last year. Monroe was attending his next-door neighbor’s birthday party when the early evening tranquility was shattered by gunfire. The party guests, gathered in the dining room, hit the floor. When they finally went outside they saw two teenagers lying on Monroe’s lawn. The teens had run through his open gate to escape the gunfire.
“One kid was shot and he was trying to get up and a couple of friends were trying to help him,” Monroe recalled. “A couple feet over another kid was lying face down.”
Tyjuan Poindexter, 14, had been shot in the head. Gang members had mistaken him and his friends for a group of boys they had fought with earlier in the day. He died in Monroe’s backyard. His body rested there for five hours as police investigated the shooting. The sight of the boy’s lifeless body and the sounds of his sobbing mother are seared into his memory, Monroe said.
“To hear a mother wailing for five hours knowing that her son is lying just a few feet away,” said Monroe, his voice choking and then trailing off. “I can still hear the wailing.”
Days later, still in shock, he tried to hose down a patch of grass where Poindexter had collapsed. But the congealed blood and brain tissue would not wash away.
“I have gotten a heightened sense of awareness (about crime),” Monroe said, “but I’m still determined I’m not going to live in fear.”
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Pattillo, who has conducted research on black gentrification and public housing transformation in North Kenwood and neighboring Oakland, said many of the residents she interviewed were attracted to the area’s history and revitalization.
In two waves of migration between 1910 and 1970, countless African-Americans headed to Chicago’s Black Belt, trekking from the rural South to the North in search of jobs and a better way of life.
During its glory days, the area around 43rd and 47th streets was a lively cultural scene. Jazz and blues notables such as Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and Muddy Waters lived in the area at one time or the other. Muhammad Ali once owned a home in Kenwood near the imposing residence of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
Today, almost 18,000 people reside within the one-square-mile that makes up the Kenwood community area, which stretches from 43rd to 51st streets between Cottage Grove Avenue and the lake.
The area’s history isn’t its only appeal, Pattillo, author of the book “Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class,” said. “Many people also saw it as an excellent financial deal.”
A house that’s walking distance from the lake and a short commute from downtown costs less than one in many lakefront neighborhoods farther north. However, in the Kenwood neighborhood, property values are lower and homes don’t appreciate as much. In March 2016, the median value per square foot for a single family house in Kenwood was $264, compared to $315 in Ravenswood. Since 1997, the median value per square foot for a home in Ravenswood rose 154 percent, compared to 124 percent in Kenwood.
Home values in majority-black middle-class neighborhoods are lower, on average, than in majority-white middle-class areas, says Dorothy A. Brown, a law professor at Emory University School of Law, whose work focuses on race, class and tax policy. That’s because blacks tend to live in neighborhoods that are mostly black while many whites live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white, she says.
Historically, urban segregation has not been a matter of choice for blacks. Decades of policies and practices – blockbusting, racially restrictive covenants, racial steering by real estate agents and redlining by banks and other lenders – limited blacks’ housing choices and destabilized neighborhoods.
The continuing segregation of predominantly African-American community areas in Chicago led to concentrated pockets of poverty, where over 40 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level.
Brown says she understands why middle-income blacks choose neighborhoods where other African-Americans live. It’s more comfortable living in a community where “lots of people look like you.” But she said the decision to buy a home in a black neighborhood carries financial risks. Property values are lower in areas where the population is more than 10 percent African-American, she said. That’s true whether the homes are owned by blacks or whites in those neighborhoods.
“We’re being intentional in the neighborhoods we buy into—we want to see black people living next door—but we are not being intentional about the financial consequences,” said Brown, who is African-American.
Some African-American families with means debate the idea of moving to communities that are less black and less economically mixed in an effort to build wealth and protect their housing investment.
In 2013, the wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households.
A residence, however, means more than just dollars and cents.
“There’s no right or wrong answer about whether people should or should not stay,” said Pattillo, who is African-American and lives in North Kenwood. “It’s tied to very thorny, personal questions about integration versus segregation, and self-help versus policy changes, and notions of racial uplift. I don’t think there’s a right answer.”
Cheryl Lowry said the couple’s choice to live in Kenwood was based on “location, location, location,” which included proximity to friends, amenities and work.
Pendleton’s murder didn’t change the way she felt about the neighborhood.
“We built this home, and I’m not one to run. That’s what it would feel like, like someone was pushing us out of our home,” she said. “We want to try to change what’s going on and help some of these kids.”
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Though the violence in their neighborhood pressed them both into action, Bill Lowry and Isaac Monroe only recently met. The 53-year-old Lowry was part of a five-member committee appointed by Mayor Emanuel to select the interim alderman for the 4th Ward, which includes Kenwood. Monroe, driven by Poindexter’s death, was among the candidates for alderman.
Instead of erecting a for sale sign after the teenager’s murder, Monroe decided to intensify his longstanding involvement with several neighborhood groups. He became one of the founding members of the North Kenwood Oakland Neighborhood Association, which formed in response to Poindexter’s death.
He also reached out to neighborhood youth. He started by inviting Poindexter’s friends, including the boys who were with him at the time of the shooting, to his house for a Super Bowl party where he served chili and turkey sliders.
He wanted them to view his home as a safe place. He also wanted to help them process their feelings about the shooting. At one point, the group convened in Monroe’s basement where he facilitated a peace circle. At first, the young people struggled to access their emotions about the incident and how it affected them. Then the emotions came pouring out.
Finding jobs for young people would go a long way to help them and the overall community, said Monroe, who is considering a run for alderman in next year’s special election. But mentoring programs are equally important.
Lowry and Monroe agree on the importance of jobs for youth as a deterrent to crime and gangs.
The former founded The It’s Time Organization, or TITO, in 2013, after Pendleton’s death. Last summer, the organization teamed with local businesses to sponsor an internship program, giving about 20 students paid professional work experience. The group has also partnered with a nonprofit that works to reduce violence on the West Side and the Quad Communities Development Corporation, which supports economic development in the North Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods.
“The problems I’m seeing are so longstanding and so deep and penetrating so many different areas of society, there is no easy fix,” Lowry said. “That’s a little bit disconcerting, but ultimately I believe the answer lies in economic development.”
Monroe believes that young people in the community who have few resources need support from their better-off neighbors.
“I’m not one of the early pioneers who was all rah-rah let’s go run out all the [poor] residents and gentrify. That wasn’t my thing,” he said of why he moved to North Kenwood. “I liked the neighbors who were here. While I wanted to see the neighborhood grow, I certainly was not in favor of what I saw as an attempt to just clear the neighborhood out.”
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Economic classes have always mingled in black neighborhoods, Pattillo says. The black middle-class has always mixed with low-income African-Americans – whether relatives or neighbors.
“All of my work emphasizes the familiarity that black folks of various class backgrounds have with poverty,” Pattillo said. “The black middle-class is very new. Many folks might have grown up poor and are now middle-class, so it’s not completely foreign to move into a neighborhood with high-poverty rates. It’s kind of moving back to the neighborhood like the one they grew up in.”
Lowry grew up in Marynook, a 12-block enclave of single-family homes within the majority-black Avalon Park community on the South Side. To this day, its residents include nurses, hairdressers, doctors, teachers, barbers, lawyers, plumbers and bank managers.
“It was a time when kids were able to play outside in the park and ride their bikes,” said Lowry, “and you didn’t have the same concerns about random violence that unfortunately, my kids have had to live with.”
Monroe’s boyhood home was a subdivided apartment perched over a furniture store at 43rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, a busy intersection on a major thoroughfare. The kitchen and bathroom were shared with another family.
Lowry is not bothered by the low-income and subsidized housing near his home. He said it represents part of the diversity that drew him to the neighborhood.
He said giving back to the community is an important part of his role as someone who has had educational and professional opportunities. Lowry interacts with powerbrokers like the Obamas, Hillary Clinton and Emanuel—all of whom appear in the framed photos that decorate his spacious office.
Lowry doesn’t fixate on the fact that his peers living in largely white communities are not likely to encounter the problems he sees in his neighborhood.
When a high-profile crime occurs, he sometimes is asked if he’s thought about moving to a suburb like Lake Forest, where he serves as an officer on the board of trustees of Lake Forest College.
“At those times, it gives you pause,” he said. “You feel like: ‘Maybe we should move.’ But those thoughts are fleeting.”
He would rather focus on the here and now and what he can do to improve life in Kenwood.
Responsibility for addressing inequalities falls on the government, he said but also on the decisions and choices that individuals make.
“Are there opportunities for improvement? Sure,” Lowry said. “A lot of our friends in the so-called middle-class, we not only work hard and are raising our families, but we’re service-driven and we try to keep the ladder down, and I’m proud of that.”
Deborah L. Shelton is a resident of North Kenwood, where she has lived for 8 years.