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Murray Park regulars ask curious figure on basketball court: ‘Are you a coach?’

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PART 3 | TUESDAY

The rise and fall of a community that no longer has a reason to exist.

Part I: Can basketball help Derrick Rose's Englewood neighborhood?
Part III: Englewood's demise has turned it into 'the devil's playground now'
Part IV: Land of the free? Not for the children of Englewood
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Updated: December 1, 2011 5:27AM



Before I enter Murray Park, I stand outside the fence, pondering the old, red brick park house, the sidewalks outside the fence, looking to my right where someone has set up a stand along Wood Street, selling shaved ice on a card table, with big bottles of colored flavorings in the trunk. To my right and left and behind me are small houses, bungalows and the like. It’s hard to tell which ones are boarded up.

I walk into the park, past the swing set, the chains of one swing having been wrapped around the top metal support like a choke collar, past the teeter-totter and the silver metal slide. There are two little rocker horses on large springs and a fountain with four seahorses spitting water into the air.

A basketball game is being played on the court just ahead, the only court. Not a bad one. Green and red-painted surface. Clean white backboards, on curved poles. Double orange rims. White rope nets hanging down. There is a teenager playing with his long striped shirt pulled up beyond his chest and over his head. There is a kid playing in a leather-sleeved letter jacket, a red baseball cap backward on his head. There is a boy with plaid shorts almost to his ankles, a teenage girl in a pink top and light blue sweat pants, two youths, one little, one big, both with Mohawks and wearing identical white T-shirts and jeans.

The game is random, half-‘‘21,’’ half 5-on-5, or maybe it’s 6-on-7. Maybe 7-on-9, it’s hard to tell. Players walk off and on for no apparent reason. This is a social game, a chatter game, the kind that goes on at playgrounds worldwide. I’ve seen them in Brooklyn, Dallas, L.A., Florence, Sydney, Munich.

I have come by myself, no entourage, no photographer, no pals. Just me. An aging white male in shorts, T-shirt, Chucks. A small kid with dreads strolls up, looking at me as I sit on the wooden planter railing that passes as a bench. The boy is smoking a cigar.

‘‘You a coach?’’ he asks, smoke swirling above his head.

No, I tell him. A sportswriter. He sifts that for a moment, apparently finds it satisfying and wanders off.

At a black park, a strange white man too old to be a basketball player is one of four things: a coach, a social worker, a drug dealer, a cop. To give an idea of the racial isolation within which Murray Park, and all of Englewood, exists, I find it illustrative that during my summer days in the area, I saw only a handful of white or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern people anywhere — and all of those seemed to be workers or shop owners. I didn’t see a white man anywhere until my second day in Englewood — including on street corners, in cars, on porches, in two McDonald’s — and that was a white cop racing by in a squad car. I saw no white women all summer except for teachers in the Randolph Grammar School (Derrick Rose’s old school) and dispatchers at the 7th District Police Headquarters on 63rd and Loomis.

In the park, a man sitting with an old woman under a tree gets up and walks my way. He looks like he might be drunk.

‘‘You got a spare cigarette?’’ he asks.

‘‘No,’’ I say. ‘‘Sorry.’’

I make a mental note to buy a pack. Cigarettes are a good peace offering to down-and-outers.

And who isn’t down and out here? The rotting, abandoned houses have made everybody’s homes worth almost nothing. I checked on a real estate site and found a two-story house with four bedrooms for $12,000. It likely had been stripped of all metal, plumbing and accessories, like so many empty houses here. A vacant lot could be had for $10,000 or less, maybe free, I figured, if a buyer paid back taxes. Indeed, one of the scariest, most apocalyptic aspects of Englewood is the abundance of residential lots overgrown with towering prairie grasses and weeds, bisected by narrow dirt trails of the likes used in frontier settlements. To walk one of those paths after dark would be to walk in a nightmare.

Lenders and banks and mortgage brokers preyed on the poor folks of Englewood, helping make it this way. There is no need to go into the greed and deregulation and give-everybody-some-of-the-pie fabulousness of Wall Street and Washington of the last quarter century, but suffice it to say that when the house of credit cards collapsed, sub-prime places like Englewood fell first and hardest. Combined with white flight, the demise of manufacturing jobs and the influx of chronically unemployed ‘‘Section 8’’ people, relocated after the tear-downs of their high-rise, low-income housing projects, Englewood has become the septic hole at the end of the sewer pipe. It should be noted that it is the ‘‘haves’’ who relentlessly put stuff into the ‘‘have-nots’’ system and hope that the sewer gas doesn’t someday explode.

Whereas America once had stable working and middle classes, we now have the ‘‘downwardly mobile,’’ vast populations that would like to work but are not as clever or lucky as those who win the game.

Joblessness in Englewood is so bad that it is more than double that of that national average (9.2 percent). For male teens, it is almost 50 percent. As I drive through the district, I see bored, scary-looking young men on many porches. I see one shuttered small business after another. Not even the corner bars — scenes of frequent violence themselves — have survived the economic mayhem. Can you be so down that you’re wistful for sleazy bars? Here, yes.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, people can survive temporary joblessness without much psychic damage. But, the study showed, after half a year off ‘‘experiences with emotional problems increased dramatically.’’ In short, how do you give a kid self-esteem when you have none yourself? How do you talk about the future when you don’t even know what a good job looks like?

And so there are shootings. Seldom fisticuffs or brawls. Just over-the-top shootings by young, unguided, hopeless men who couldn’t care less about a fair fight. And the worst are the drive-bys — gun spray from thugs in cars aimed at crowds or houses or nothing at all. Editorials always call these shootings ‘‘senseless.’’ But they’re not. They’re over gang turf, drug deals, embarrassment, machismo. Those may be dumb things, but they are no more senseless than wars in distant lands over resources, imagined fears and male pride.

Murray Park is bordered on the west by Wood Street, and by June 28, three teen males will have been shot to death on or near Wood about 20 blocks north. Technically, that is Back of the Yards, but it’s close enough. As Jesse Jackson has said of unemployed young people: ‘‘They are dry sticks in a parched land, ready to burn.’’

A 14-year-old kid at Murray Park talks to me after a game. He is so skinny that his huge white belt has nearly two feet extra to it. His long pants are nearly off him. The boy keeps tightening the belt, then loosening it.

‘‘You ever seen Derrick Rose?’’ I ask.

‘‘I saw him play here. Twice.’’

I tell him he’s too young, kidding.

‘‘I was about seven,’’ he says.

I ask him if he’s from near here.

‘‘Right around the corner.’’

I ask him if it’s safe here, if the thugs ever come out.

‘‘Not too much,’’ he replies. ‘‘It’s good.’’

On the way out, I drive east on 71st, also called ‘‘Emmitt Till Drive’’ on the brown street signs. Is it sad when one of a community’s main thoroughfares is named for a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was beaten to death, whose murderers were found innocent? Or is it just life.



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