BRIGHTON PARK — Three days after a gang shooting killed a man blocks from where students walked home from Shield Middle School, a group of sixth-graders there wrote letters to Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) asking for help.
The letters offer a surprising glimpse into the lives of children navigating a neighborhood where gang killings are a part of life.
"Dear Mr. Lopez," starts one sixth-grader's letter. "Please help about the neighborhood violince (sic). It's a tragic thing that has been happening. We know it's mostly shooting but you can prevent that from happening."
Letter written by a Shields Middle School student to 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez. [DNAinfo/Ed Komenda]
The letters describe a tragic reality unfolding on the streets of Brighton Park, a place where gang members have shot and killed three men and wounded six others in the last month.
This is a place where children often see gangbangers as close friends.
"Mr Lopez, don't blame the gangsters," the student's letter says. "My friend's family is mostly gangsters and they love me and I love them."
Reading the letter aloud at a Tuesday morning meeting between city and school officials at Shields Middle School, Lopez said those words should pain the entire city.
"That's what we're up against," he said. "We need to show our kids we love them more than the gangs."
'Hurting in fear'
Around 6 p.m. Jan 11, a carload of gang members drove up to a van filled with Satan's Disciples in the 3700 block of South Western Avenue and sprayed the van with bullets from an assault weapon, according to Chicago Police. Police are investigating which gang members were in the car, but gangs in the area include La Raza, 50 Strong and the Latin Saints.
At the same time, Maria Ordonez was dismissing sixth-graders in the after-school program at Shields Elementary, just blocks away from the shooting.
The gang shooting killed 18-year-old David Gonzalez and wounded four others. The bloodshed had a profound impact on Ordonez's students.
"They [are] hurting in fear," said Ordonez, a resource coordinator with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. "We need to make a change and we need to step up now."
The number of shootings in Brighton Park jumped from 16 in 2013 to 64 in 2016 — a 300 percent increase, according to a DNAinfo analysis. The number of people killed during that time increased from one in 2013 to 10 in 2016.
Neighborhood advocates said the number of shootings and violent crimes in the Brighton Park and nearby South Side neighborhoods like Back of the Yards correlates to a steady stripping of resources that began as early as 1990, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin closed 40 churches and schools to pull the Archdiocese of Chicago out of debt.
In 2012, the state budgeted $30 million to fund two programs that aimed to keep Chicago kids off the street and out of trouble. One of those programs was the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative that created 80 jobs for young adults and 50 for parents to serve as mentors in 20 Chicago neighborhoods.
The state later slashed those funds in half. Today, those programs don't exist.
Over the next four years, the number of shootings in Brighton Park increased by 250 percent — from 15 in 2013 to 54 in 2016.
'It should pain the entire city'
During a Tuesday morning meeting about neighborhood violence at Shields Middle School, Ordonez delivered the letters to Lopez.
"I just want me, my school, teachers and friends and community to be safe," one student wrote.
"I'm afraid, because you never know when they're going to jump us or jump somebody," wrote another, "and I always question myself. Why do we live on this street?"
"My mom already made my little sister move schools [because] of the shootings," reads another letter. "She's thinking of moving. I don't wanna leave. This neighborhood is amazing but the hate is changing that. I don't feel safe at school no more because of the violince (sic)."
The letters demonstrate a need for more resources to clean up violence on the South Side, Lopez said.
"This is why I continue to fight," he said. "I fight because we all want something better."
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