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Neighborhood Unusual in Hadiya Case, Too

By Mark Konkol | February 7, 2013 8:55am | Updated on February 7, 2013 9:49am

Set aside your outrage over the heartbreaking murder of Hadiya Pendelton to consider this: She died in a “gang-related” shooting on the “South Side.” The shooter got away. Witnesses won’t talk.

That’s a scenario so common it’s become a Chicago cliché that, if we’re being completely honest, has made it easier to dismiss murder as the problem of “those people” from “that part of town.”

That way of thinking — and the pervasive apathy that goes with it —  continues to help prevent Chicago from solving its murder problem.

It's reminds me of that Steve Goodman song, "Somebody Else's Troubles."

"Ain't too hard to get along with somebody else's troubles/ They don't make you lose any sleep at night," the song goes. "Just as long as fate is out there burstin' somebody else's bubbles/ Everything is gonna be all right."

But Hadiya's murder was not all right. She didn't fit the stereotype of the typical Chicago murder victim— a gangbanger with a long rap sheet who garners little sympathy.

The reason for all our outrage — the reason Hadiya's death made national news — is she was the best of us. The 15-year-old King College Prep sophomore was an honor student with a promising future. Her mother and father were both part of her life. She performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, planned to visit Paris soon and attend college in 2015.

It was impossible to treat her murder as just another tragic statistic. 

Still, there are people out there — you know who you are — who ignorantly believe that every South Side corner is overrun by gangbanging drug dealers with guns.

The South Side park where Hadiya was killed doesn't fit that description.

Harsh Park is tiny tot lot at 45th an Oakenwald Avenue — a quiet, hard to find block in a North Kenwood historic district. I'll bet most people had not heard of Oakenwald before Hadiya's murder, and fewer people would be able to find it without searching Google Maps.

You couldn't really tell by the breaking news reports, but it's a rather secluded part of town tucked between the Metra tracks Lake Park Avenue — a place where neighbors say they never worried about shootings because there were none.

I guess that's why I headed there Tuesday, a week after the murder when the police tape was long gone and so were the throngs of reporters. When I arrived there wasn’t a soul on the street as snow started to fall and wind gusts pulled at the tattered memorial tied to the park gate.

If you like old Chicago homes, this particular stretch of Oakenwald — which was named by late U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas after his former lakefront estate —  is an unheralded gem.

The three-story greystone mansions — many converted into apartments — were built in the 1880s for a collection of prominent Chicagoans including a railroad executive, gravel company owner, Board of Trade founder and a Union League club member on land owned by the late state representative and Chicago Supreme Court Judge Van H. Higgins.

The original owners were drawn to the paved streets, stone sidewalks, boulevard lamps, shade trees, gas, water and sewer mains and the short walk to the 43rd Street train station, according to a report in the Dec. 11, 1887, edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Now, condo buildings and new single-family homes — some that sold for more than $700,000 before the real estate market crashed — fill in the spaces between the 120-year-old buildings.

While other parts of North Kenwood have crumbled, this stretch of Oakenwald remains solid. Lawyers, doctors, retired teachers, urban farmers and business owners live there.

The sparsely populated blocks surrounding Harsh Park are inhabited by quite a few well-educated professionals who make good wages. In fact, there were 17 families that earned more than $200,000 a year, according 2010 U.S. Census data. Neighbors say many of those families live near Harsh Park.

“This is an upper-middle class neighborhood. Everyone I know here has a college degree or a secondary degree. I have a master's degree,” said Tareema, a mother who asked me not to publish her last name. “It’s just a wonderful neighborhood. There’s easy access to the buses, the museums, the lake. We get all the access to Hyde Park without the congestion.”

And it’s a place where neighbors are friendly, but not always in your face. A respectful collection of professionals who watch out for each other, Desiree Sanders said.

“I moved here because people are friendly. We might not know each other’s name, but we know the faces. We say 'hello.' People always wave,” she said. “It’s not very anonymous.”

And the neighborhood is usually very safe. Last year, there were just three crimes — two burglaries and a theft — in the two blocks bookending Harsh Park, police said.

“Murder isn’t something that happens over here,” Sanders said. “Not to say we are immune, violence is everywhere. But it’s very shocking. Especially during the day.”

Bonita O’Bannion, a retired CPS teacher administrator, keeps tabs on what happens on her block.

She had just started to tell me about the day of the shooting — which happened while she picked her up grandson from school, a freshman at King who knew Hadiya — when she got distracted by a young boy walking a puppy down the sidewalk.

“Why are you not in school?” she asked.

“I’m visiting … from Hattiesburg,” the boy said.

The boy’s vacation alibi seemed to satisfy O’Bannion. But she kept an eye on him as he walked down the block anyway and got back to her point.

“My grandchildren always looked at our place as a safe haven,” she said. “But I know things happen. I pick my grandson up from school every day. Some people think he’ll hang out. No. No. No. He doesn’t have that option.”

It’s called being proactive, she said.

And being proactive is something that more people — including the police — need to be if Chicago is going to solve its shooting problem, neighbors said.

That’s what a lot of folks on Oakenwald have been talking about in the week since Hadiya was murdered — and just thinking about it makes them angry.

“Now people think we have gangs over here. We don’t have gangs over here. We don’t see that. But you know what, nobody is immune. And there has to be community outrage all over the city," Sanders said. "The solution isn’t coming from the top down. It’s going to take people getting concerned and getting involved and then things can take a turn for the better.”

There’s already talk of getting the block club back together.

“We had a group, the Concerned Citizens of Oakenwald, but it kind of disbanded because everyone got busy,” Tareema said while she held her daughter on her hip.

“This woke us up. We’re going to put our heads together and work with police and the alderman. Now is not the time to walk outside and see nothing. It's the time to see everything and call police. I hope we can be an inspiration to other neighborhoods.”

Take it from the good neighbors on Oakenwald: if you do nothing the problems of “those people” in “that part of town” can find you — even if you live on a quiet street nobody has ever heard of.