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Escape from the West Side leaves bittersweet memories

Updated: September 3, 2012 1:18PM

‘Make a better life for yourself.”

“Buy a house in the suburbs.”

“Whatever you do, you can’t stay here!”

This is what they told me growing up on the West Side — the unequivocal message from relatives, teachers and most adults I knew with a good sense of the hazards of ghetto life and who had witnessed the death of dreams, the consuming madness of the ’hood.

I believed them. And if I ever wavered, the elements of poverty, death and dysfunction reinforced their message.

And yet, years later, after making my so-called great escape, I have wondered if in some ways whether what they told me was really right.

I felt that way even as the tour bus rolled away from the West Side some years ago, and I settled into my seat, staring quietly out the window, looking back over time. The year was 2000. I was a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and we had come to Chicago for a tour.

Ever since going off to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I had often found myself looking back and longing for home. In my mind, “home” always meant Chicago, the West Side, 16th and Komensky — K-Town.

Despite its hardship and challenges, I missed it. And I’ve long wondered whether you can ever go back home.

Even while working as a Chicago newspaperman and living in Oak Park, I sometimes took late-night drives through K-Town, tears falling from my eyes while I crawled down the street under the glare of streetlights and the silent stillness of the night.

While driving sometimes, it was as if I could see the faces of my friends and hear their voices ringing over and over in my mind, though by then they were ghosts of times past — murder, drugs and prison having laid claim on far too many.

I missed the faces and the voices of friends and family, the summer nights of playing hide-and-seek under a fluorescent moon. I missed sitting on the porch with the fellas, talking trash and dreaming our big dreams until Mama’s voice cracked the night: “Joh-ohnnn.”

I missed catching apples when my cousin Arty and the other boys climbed up in Old Man Newell’s tree and made it rain.

For all that K-Town was not, it was where I remembered walking hand-in-hand with my dad. It was where the Hagler clan (my mother’s family) had made a home, where I had lived longer than anyplace else on this earth and had made many fond memories. It was home.

Maybe when I was struggling, I had been too caught up to appreciate it. When I was planning my escape, maybe I was too busy. When I was a child, maybe I was too young. And when it made a turn for the worse, maybe I had been too pessimistic to still see the hope.

Or maybe this yearning was born out of the rejection I often felt in white suburbia. Maybe it was the long stares in the grocery store lanes and checkout lines, or my own submersion in a mostly white world where in order to survive, I often felt that I had to be less black.

Maybe it was my weariness of mental boxing.

Maybe it was my desire to be able to live where I grew up, to walk out of my home and see familiar faces, and to walk in familiar places.

Or maybe I just felt lost.

Maybe, in a way, I still do. And I know I am not alone.

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