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Englewood’s demise has turned it into ‘the devil’s playground now’

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The land of the free? Not for little Treyvaughn Robinson or the other children of the Englewood area.

Part I: Can basketball help Derrick Rose's Englewood neighborhood?
Part II: Murray Park regulars ask columnist 'Are you a coach?'
Part IV: Land of the free? Not for the children of Englewood
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Updated: January 8, 2012 1:15AM

I stop at a gas station off the expressway, buy a pack of Marlboros and drive south and west to Murray Park.

Two men in disheveled clothes sit under a shade tree off the basketball court. Beyond them is the grass field with a softball diamond at this end and a hardball diamond at the other. During the entire summer I will see not one person play baseball on either field. But the basketball court, recently fixed up after years of neglect — that’s a different matter. It’s seldom empty. Basketball is the urban black man’s game. Today is different, though. It’s too hot for more than the occasional little kid to shoot around.

The men under the tree are dappled with water, having apparently recently stuck their heads in the nearby fountain. I sit near them, offer them cigarettes. The larger man’s name is Michael Jackson (yeah, he’s heard all the jokes). The smaller man with an earring in his right ear is Gregory Green. Both are wearing ball caps on backward, and both are longtime residents of Greater Englewood. We light up, sit in the heat, and they talk about the neighborhood.

‘‘I came here in the fall of 1976,’’ says Jackson. ‘‘As kids in the park we had it all. Used to ice skate right over there in the winter (he points to the field), had boxing, wrestling, and I played baseball for the Murray Park Battlers.’’

Great name for a team, I tell him.

‘‘We used to travel to Gage Park, Lindbloom Park, McKinley Park, all over with those teams,’’ he says proudly.

““Mm-hmm,’’ agrees Green, who then talks about his wrestling days. ‘‘I was definitely a lightweight. Back then it was working class neighborhood, a lot of white people. There was a big factory over there on 74th, by the CTA. Steel, chemical, something. I don’t know what happened. All the white people moved out. All the jobs left.’’

The deserted factories and warehouses on 74th Street and along Ashland Avenue are almost as frightening as the boarded-up houses that dot Englewood like a pox. Maybe they’re more frightening, because to an extent their demise has taken away the very reason for Englewood to exist. This was never a commuter suburb. This was an entity unto itself, only nine miles south of downtown Chicago, but a place where people dwelled and stayed. Ironically, in its epic decay Englewood is still that way.

White flight changed the economy forever, of course, but there was a time after that when Englewood became a distinct and proud African-American community. The great migration of blacks from the South had occurred after World War II, and even if the new folks brought little wealth with them as a result of the debasing and fracturing legacy of slavery, they brought spirit and the hope for better times. The ongoing real estate collapse, combined with the drawbacks of racism, urban crime, and educational and familial chaos pretty much have created the mess we now see. In just four years, from 2005 to 2009, the wealth — the sum of assets minus debts — dropped from an average of $135,000 to $113,000 for white households in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census data. For black households it fell from $12,100 to $5,700. In Englewood you have to wonder if there is any wealth at all.

‘‘They got to get programs for these kids,’’ says Jackson. ‘‘Not just sports. Academics, schools and stuff.’’

‘‘It’s the devil’s playground now,’’ agrees Green.

The temperature is 93 degrees, which brings up another topic, summer nights.

‘‘You gonna hear the shootin’ tonight,’’ says Green with authority, nodding his head. ‘‘It’s all the time, but it’s gonna be a wild night.’’

People stay out on summer nights, they sit on porches well after dark, they have parties in side yards, they get high, they get angry, they get guns.

‘‘It used to be safe, but it’s the new people,’’ says Green, alluding to the so-called ‘‘Section 8’’ people who have fled the city’s demolished low-income high-rises and used their Chicago Housing Authority vouchers to rent from private property owners in Englewood. It’s a common theme among longtime Englewood residents that the worst of the worst has drifted in as places like the hideous Cabrini-Green projects have been torn down.

‘‘They all used to be trapped in one single place,’’ sums up Jackson.

Whether that is true or not, a place like Murray Park must represent the best of what a debauched neighborhood has to offer. The reasoning is simple. If Murray is not safe, if play is not guaranteed at a gentle playground, then hope is gone.

A man wearing orange gym shorts and a T-shirt that says ‘‘Old School’’ with a flaming orange ball going through a rim walks into the park. It’s now after 6 p.m., and the heat is ratcheting back some. The man’s name is Steve Martin, and he is with his 13-year old son, Steve Jr., and another boy. Martin is a basketball coach and security guard at nearby Randolph School, which Derrick Rose attended from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Martin is the kind of man with a job who is rare in Englewood, and his presence in a park is always a good thing. Gang-bangers don’t stop when there are responsible adults around, but at least they pause, or they go somewhere else where the pickings are easier, which is almost anywhere.

‘‘What I’ve found is that when teenagers get in fights, it’s the way they were brought up,’’ says Martin. ‘‘You see a kid with a bad attitude, and then you see the parent and you know right away why.’’

The other night a little boy, just 8, was shot in the stomach outside his grandparents’ house on Wood Street not far from here. The boy survived, and it seems he’ll make it. I ask Martin if he knows the address.

‘‘Over there,’’ he says as we walk out of the park. He points up Wood on the left-hand side, just up from his own house, about a block away. ‘‘Where that black railing is.’’

‘‘Think they’ll mind if I stop by to talk?’’ I ask.

‘‘No,’’ says Martin. ‘‘I think they won’t. They might want it known.’’

I head up the tree-lined street toward the house. Everything is so quiet, so deceptive.

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