“This section of the West Side is just beyond Garfield Park, a major tourist destination. I think it’s always surprising to people when they first get a sense of what happened in the immediately adjacent areas and how much depopulation has happened around it. Being just south of Madison Street, it’s a block from a key commercial corridor on the West Side, but you’d never know that from looking at the building. That variability from block to block is really startling.” PHOTO: DAVID SCHALLIOL
A COVID-19 SUMMER
On July 1, 2020, myself and my family left New York to move in to the top of a two-flat in Oak Park, Illinois for 2 months. Our lives were in upheaval since both my husband and I were working full-time and we had a 16-year old son with autism to take care of. In New York, he had not left our home for almost 4 months. We determined he could not stand a full summer locked indoors, taking Zoom calls. Luckily, we have two adult children living in Chicago and one of them offered to provide respite care. The West Suburban Special Recreation Association had in-person classes for art, gaming and athletics. Special Olympics had bowling, fishing and mini-golf. And the Chicago Park District provided a 2-week camp for three hours a day. It was a certain sort of Nirvana in light of the lockdowns and constant under-currents of anxiety.
Being back in Chicago, where I’m originally from, was very different after living in New York for three plus years. Chicago has a relatively new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who although she is black and gay (which would lead one to think she was progressive) is built in the same mold as every mayor since Richard J. Daley. Remnants of the Chicago Democratic Machine are still very active behind the scenes and the Black Lives Matter protests only brought that more thoroughly into bas relief. There is still an invisible line that demarcates gentrified neighborhoods and those considered black or brown: garbage accrues on the streets on the south and west sides, buildings that were once grand are in a decades-long slumber with no investment to open them with. Grocery stores are sparse and storefront churches plug the holes where a once-thriving business district used to be.
I found myself in conversation with journalist, John Fountain of the Chicago Sun-Times (https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/2020/2/21/21147953/murder-accountability-project-unsolved-murder-homicide-john-w-fountain) regarding the murder of 51 black women. All of these cases are unsolved and we noted together there was an element of victim-blaming that seemed to further de-humanize these violent and tragic deaths. “If these were 51 cats who were killed, there’d be an uproar”, John said. I’d dare you to disagree.
John and his students at Roosevelt University have been interviewing the families and finding out their back stories. He will continue to publish these but the whole scenario begs the question: at what point will these neighborhoods get investment they so dearly need? At what point will Chicago stop being so segregated? When will Chicagoans stop seeing the corruption of their city as somehow normal or even joke-worthy? When do the property tax refund scams in Chicago - that put so much into the pockets of so few power players – get discontinued and taxes are spread more evenly? And a more personal gripe: when do the majority of journalists in Chicago stop being an extension of the government? Don't get me wrong - journalists like John Fountain are fighting the good fight. But many I speak with let me know about "no-go" topics: ones that will prevent them any further access to government agencies if they say the wrong thing.
The other reason I was in Chicago was to continue producing the documentary series (6 hour-long programs) I’ve been researching and assembling since 2011 that includes John Wayne Gacy. It was great to regroup with my partner on the project, former Chicago Reader editor, Alison True, and meet others who were just as interested in finding puzzle pieces. I say the documentary includes Gacy, but the real story is about corruption - with Gacy being an example of the cost of that corruption. So much of the time we think about corruption as somewhat victimless and financially-based. But what if the cost of corruption is the livelihoods or, literally, the lives of your children? Would you want to fight it tooth and nail to prevent that?
I think about the 51 murdered black women – called prostitutes, drug users and wayward – and those exact stigma were assigned to Gacy’s victims. But after getting my hands on photos of the 33 victims the prosecutors used to remember each one, on the back were names of their colleges, their ranks in the US military, their hobbies, their girlfriends and their children. Even so, during several interviews – 42 years after Gacy’s prosecution – many felt it was still appropriate to refer to Gacy’s victims as somehow culpable for their own deaths: male hustlers, homosexuals and addicts.
These are people in authority for whom it must be advantageous to speak this way. But why haven’t all of these victims been referred to as being cut down in the prime of their lives, dearly missed by their families and dispatched with no regard for the value they brought? How would you like it if the most vulnerable and least shining moments of your life were irrevocably etched in public memory? We as a society need to take on these values and change the way we operate. We can do it, but we have to recognize what’s wrong with the spoon-fed narrative and bravely call it out.
I know this all seems like a lot of work during the midst of a spirit-crushing pandemic. In the words of former mayor, Rahm Emanual – who used this phrase much more cynically to exploit his opposition during his tenure – “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
The Gacy documentary was commissioned and should be complete by Spring 2021. I know Alison True is busy writing the book that will tell the whole story of what we found based upon hundreds of FOIAd documents, dozens of hours of never heard before audio and video and the private collections that were opened to us.
Now that I’m back in New York, it will be good to chart the progress of schools re-opening, of socially-distant backyard get-togethers and drives into the vast beauty of the Hudson Valley. It will also be a thoughtful period of volunteerism, social activism, hard work and sharing empathy so that I can be a part of the change I desire. I hope you will join me.