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Yard With Crosses In Englewood 'Pissed A Lot Of People Off,' Says Activist

 A lot in the 5500 block of South Bishop was transformed into a memorial for Chicago gunshot victims who died in January.
A lot in the 5500 block of South Bishop was transformed into a memorial for Chicago gunshot victims who died in January.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

WEST ENGLEWOOD — Forty-four wooden crosses in straight rows — some with photos, others with flowers — are on display in a lot in the 5500 block of South Bishop Street.

A lot in the 5500 block of South Bishop Street has been transformed into a memorial for Chicago gunshot victims who've so far this year. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

This isn’t a cemetery, but Englewood residents said that it eerily represents one. It’s designed as a memorial honoring the lives lost to violence in the city since this year began.

Greg Zanis, an Austin neighborhood native who now lives in Aurora, has been creating these crosses for more than 20 years. Where tragedy has struck, he’s been there. The now retired carpenter has brought crosses to Columbine High School, the Boston Marathon and the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Recently, he acquired the empty lot from a woman he said didn’t want to be named. He decided to create a place for victims of the city's violence to be remembered.

“My heart is here in Chicago,” Zanis said. “I wanted to give something that nobody expected, something different and unique.”

His heart may be in the right place, some residents said, but they think Zanis went about this the wrong way.

“This is a classic example of well-intentioned people still not recognizing their privileged place,” said Englewood resident Tonika Johnson.

The conversation that should’ve been had with the community never happened, she said.

“When you’re from outside a community, it is best to talk to the community,” Johnson said.

She said she understands that Zanis simply wanted to help, but he should’ve asked how he could lend his services to help families memorialize their loved ones.

“What if they had said ‘Hey, instead of putting them in a lot to look like a cemetery, what if we did this? We give them to the families,’” she said.

Resident Association of Greater Englewood President Aysha Butler said that a lot of RAGE members are displeased with Zanis making the decision without community input.

The community doesn’t always get to use its voice when outsiders decide what’s best for Englewood, Butler said.

“Sometimes, some of those projects [and] those things are very beautiful, and sometimes they piss people off, she said. “This was one of those projects, I think, pissed a lot of people off because of the tone around death and the fact that it looked like a cemetery.”

Some people lean toward using the shock value mechanism when creating awareness about violence, but Butler said the message still has to be “tactful and tasteful.”

The father of violence victim Tyrone Blake made his first visit to the lot Tuesday.

“I was at home, and my cousin hit me up, told me to look on his [Facebook] page,” said Tyrone Blake Sr. “He was telling me about it.”

Tyrone Blake died in a Jan. 14 shooting in the 6000 block of South Carpenter Street. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

He didn’t know about Zanis' project until it was completed, but he said it doesn’t bother him. The Jan. 14 shooting in Englewood killed his son and wounded his son’s girlfriend. At 3:30 a.m., they were in a home in the 6000 block of South Carpenter Street when five to six men entered and fired shots, police said. Blake was hit several times and pronounced dead at the scene.

Blake's father said his son was a “good kid and great father” who had a big heart.

The field of crosses doesn't offend Blake, but the Rev. Dwayne Grant, pastor of Xperience Church Chicago and a community activist for Englewood, said it does offend some people. He has held open-casket peace marches through Englewood to encourage people to stop the violence.

Grant said he understands that some residents don’t like the memorial, but he and other pastors support it. Some helped Zanis with a prayer vigil last Sunday.

“It’s a delicate situation, but I don’t think its presence is as traumatic as some might try and suggest,” he said. “People in our community, especially the young, are already suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

He said the memorial is no different than a similar one Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block, has in the Roseland neighborhood.

“It’s just that the crosses make it more like a cemetery. But in Englewood, Roseland, Austin, etc., the bodies are piling up whether we acknowledge it visually or not,”  Grant said.

Zanis said what he’s doing is bigger than this one neighborhood.

“It’s not about Englewood, it’s about Chicago,” Zanis said. “A lady gave me a free lot, a piece of property, because she felt I needed a presence in Chicago. I’m not trying to offend anybody.”

Since the first crosses were displanyed Jan. 1, Zanis has made regular visits to replace those that have been removed by families, which he encourages them to do. He’s also adding more as the victim list grows. In 2016 there were at least 762 murders and 4,331 shooting victims.

What he’s doing isn’t a solution to the violence, he said, but just him letting families know that their deceased won’t be forgotten.

Families have reached out to him asking if they can have a cross, he said.

“People appreciate it,” he said.