SPECIAL REPORT: Kohn students would pass many vacant homes on path to Lavizzo
Story By Lauren FitzPatrick Photography by Jessica Koscielniak May 20, 2013 11:39PM
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Updated: June 22, 2013 6:02AM
A little girl is running late for school.
She scurries along South Perry in the navy blue skirt required for Kohn Elementary School students and brown boots, fixing the buttons on her red-and-white plaid coat as she makes her way.
The bell at Kohn, at 104th and State on Chicago’s Far South Side, rang a good 20 minutes ago, yet the child — no more than 8 or 9 — walks alone, hurrying past vacant lots, buildings graffitied with Black Disciple taunts and abandoned house after abandoned house. In the last blocks of Perry and 105th before reaching school property, she also passes the homes of two registered sex offenders — one a predator whose victim was under 18 — and the sites of three batteries and two robberies with dangerous weapons.
Come August, she may have to traverse more of it.
Kohn is supposed to close, and if the Board of Education votes to approve the closure Wednesday, CPS wants to split its 400 students among three other Roseland schools. Just a few will be routed on buses to Cullen, more than a mile away. The bulk are going to Hughes, within sight of Kohn, and to Lavizzo, about six blocks away, under the four-fifths of a mile distance that would guarantee students a CPS-provided bus.
Not that a bus would help everyone. Another recent balmy morning, children trickled into Kohn well after the bell rang, small fry walking in pairs and threes toward the school. Lugging backpacks, they cut through alleys and across empty lots. Big boys and girls led littler children to the playground behind Kohn.
Shivering despite her layers and gloves, her face pelted by icy BBs on a fluke snowy day in April, longtime Kohn volunteer Nancy Thomas wonders what all these kids are going to do throughout Chicago’s winter.
“From Kohn to Lavizzo, that’s not a little walk.”
Lavizzo has CPS’ top rating: Level 1. Kohn has the district’s worst: Level 3. Lavizzo already has a Learning Garden, a computer lab.
Doesn’t matter, the Kohn community says. The kids still have to get there, and the six-plus blocks separating the two schools are falling apart, as Thomas tried to tell CPS at a series of public hearings and showed the Chicago Sun-Times.
Thomas’ own twin girls and boy are grown now, but she continued to volunteer at Kohn and this year got a job leading the volunteer corps called the Parent Mentors. She has served on the Local Schools Council and the Parent Advisory Council. She just can’t give the school up.
Thomas led the Sun-Times on the two likeliest routes between the schools: south on State then west on 109th to Lavizzo, and returning straight north on Perry back toward Kohn.
Thomas counted vacant buildings as she walked:
By106th, not quite two blocks from 10440 S. State, she passed six empty buildings.
By 108th, she counted seven more.
By Lavizzo’s corner at 109th and Perry, she racked up another six, including the two across 109th Street from the school. Total: 19 to school via State Street.
On the return trip up Perry, she would pass 13 more, including a shuttered corner store at 107th.
Total abandoned buildings: 32, most with boards and city-issued red X’s marking the buildings as unstable.
Her disgust grew by the block. The grayer the boards looked, the filthier the lot surrounding the house.
Then to Thomas’ horror, she spotted several vacant buildings with doors hanging wide open. Their boards had been pried off or had blown off so the houses were no longer secure.
“This is a prime example of what I’ve been trying to tell them about. Even though they’ve boarded the houses up, still look, the door is wide open,” Thomas said outside one house on State.
“Who’s to say what they’re doing in there? Drugs? They could grab one of our babies as they come to school. This is more dangerous than helpful to our kids.
“We don’t know what’s going on.”
She called another one on Perry, its porch ripped up despite tulips blooming in the front yard, “a dangerous hazard to kids.”
“My concern is they could grab one of our babies into one of them buildings and do what they want to do and nobody would know,” said Thomas, 44, who lives in West Pullman after 17 years in Roseland. “Some of them have to walk to school by theyselves.”
CPS hasn’t finalized all of its safety plans yet. It has shown members of the Board of Education drafts of each school’s safe-passage route, but Kohn and Lavizzo parents won’t see them until after Wednesday’s crucial vote.
In draft safety plans presented to Lavizzo’s principal Wednesday, CPS is suggesting children travel on State Street or Wentworth Avenue, where the district will place community members hired to watch them.
CPS Chief Safety and Security Officer Jadine Chou presented the draft last Wednesday to Lavizzo’s administration and the school’s chairman of the Local School Council to get their input. Chou told them the district will send children south on State Street or Wentworth to Lavizzo, but she wants their input, calling the safe-passage plans “living documents.”
“State Street is a straight shot out from the school, also it’s busy out there so it’s less likely for things to happen,” said Ronney Davis, the LSC chair.
“CPD — they helped us create these maps — really wanted the main thoroughfare even if there’s not a lot of residents on the street. It serves as a central hub where the children can come out and meet — because we can’t provide safe passage to your exact doorstep so this is a way for the children to come to a common thoroughfare,” Chou said.
Police will provide extra help around arrival and dismissal, too, she said.
“And because it’s a straight shot, it makes it easier for you, like if you wanted to come out to the corner and see Wentworth and State,” Chou continued.
Davis wants her to consider Michigan Avenue, “ ’cause you know a lot of kids will cut up Michigan to get to the school, Michigan is, what, two blocks, three blocks over. Young kids will come up Michigan.”
Plus, he says, kids sometimes get lazy and hop the 119 bus down Michigan Avenue to 109th street.
Chou likes that.
“With that feedback, I would look at adding more people along Michigan as well as extending the south route towards Michigan along 109th,” she said, asking the group if they had any other concerns about problematic intersections or drug dens.
“I see a lot of vacant buildings. We’ll take care of those. If you hear of any problem buildings, let us know.”
Roseland was blasted by the mortgage crisis and has yet to recover from the recession. CPS points to the Far South Side community as one of the hardest-hit in terms of population loss since 2000. It’s ranked among the city’s top foreclosure zones. Some 5 percent to 15 percent of its vacant buildings stay empty for more than a year, according to the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing.
Those vacant structures and lots are much more prone to crime, as the Lawyers Committee just reported a 48 percent increase in the number of crimes reported in Chicago’s vacant buildings between 2005 and 2012. Simultaneously, the city’s overall crime statistics fell 27 percent. Three times as many reported crimes happened in abandoned buildings in 2012 than in 2005, they reported.
Lavizzo sits in the heart of it all.
Chicago police crime stats from 2012 and 2013 show that at least eight violent incidents were reported in the 100 block of West 109th Street, in front of Lavizzo and on school grounds. Strong-arm robberies, aggravated batteries, assaults involving knives, assaults using deadly weapons that aren’t guns. At least two robberies with guns were reported on the school’s back side.
As recently as April 30, a teenager and two men in their 40s were shot near 108th and Princeton, two blocks west of the school, within earshot of grandmother Carolyn Conner, who walks her grandson to and from a kindergarten program she’s very happy with.
“The area around the school is not so bad because they have teachers and the staff members out while the kids come and when they go home, but the surrounding areas, there’s a lot of gang-banging and gun shooting and fighting,” she said. “It’s a steady thing.
“It’s not a peaceful day.”
That’s what spooks one bunch of young neighbors walking to Lavizzo one chilly morning: Gunshots.
Janiyah Williams, 12; Kyshaun Miles, 10; Destiny Reed, 13, and Daija Rice, Jasmine Williams, and Kamaya White, all 14, find the boarded-up houses “sad,” in need of care, wanting love.
But the shootings . . .
“They were shooting at 1 in the morning,” someone notes.
“Yeah, they be shooting,” Daija says
“We were outside for recess and they were shooting, and we saw . . .” Jasmine Williams says.
“We didn’t see them,” Daija jumps in. “We were out at recess when we heard gunshots and they told us to go back in.”
The girls think the addition of newcomers from Kohn will bring drama.
“Kohn doesn’t really like Lavizzo, and Lavizzo doesn’t really like Kohn,” Daija says.
And yes, the girls say, they feel safe walking the two or three blocks westward to Lavizzo.
Kyshaun pipes up: “Most of the time.”
But Kohn kids and parents don’t have to be afraid, the girls say.
“It’s not that bad,” Kamaya White says. “It’s not like people are shooting on every corner.”
The other girls echo: “It’s not that bad.”
Daija offers advice: “At certain times, when you get ready to go out of school, you should just go straight home because like they start shooting at 4.”
“Sometimes,” someone interrupts.
“Yeah,” Daija concedes, “it’s not every day.”
A former Gangster Disciple who now works in Roseland called the area up for grabs among a ton of gang-affiliated cliques. The kids call the area around Kohn “Goontown,” and down by Lavizzo, the graffiti announces it’s “Rudeville.”
“It’s terrible. Roseland is probably just as bad or badder than Englewood,” he said.
“It’s like a bag of Skittles. You have the Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples, the Black Disciples. I’m an ex-gang member myself so I know hands-on. You have the MC Nation . . . the Black Stones. It’s like seven different gangs in this area,” continued the man, a father of seven, who didn’t want his name published for fear of retaliation.
The violence is so bad he was hesitant to speak at all.
“I’m taking a big jump, but I’ll do it off the record just to save some of these kids’ life.
“This is serious.
“People will get killed, people will get shot at, people will get jumped on.”