Uptown Girl: Musings on the trauma and gift that is a Chicago Childhood.
Uptown is a fascinating neighborhood full of history, diversity, and stories of survival. I visit my childhood neighborhood often. However, the Uptown I visit presently isn’t like the Uptown I remember from my childhood.
There are streets close to my childhood home that I NEVER walked down as a child(Winona between Sheridan & Kenmore). When I go back to visit, I am still full of dread and anxiety, driving down certain blocks or parking in front of certain buildings.
Because growing up in Uptown, Chicago, in the late 80s and early 90s was dangerous. Most streets were “off-limits” because of they were gang territory and the gangs were neighborhood terrorists- and succeeding in terrorizing entire communities. And, wow, did Uptown have a lot of gangs in a very small area.
I still have fear of certain Uptown streets. Although the gangs (children, I think the oldest person who was in the gang that I knew was 19) who used to guard their gang territory are now gone; but, the memory and fear of their terror still exist.
Uptown had lovely nicknames that denoted the character of the neighborhood, like, “North Pole” or “Killer Ward” or “Moe town.” On the block where I lived, I was surrounded by 4 gangs who were often at war with one another. My house was dead center of the “The Black Peace Stones territory: Kenmore and Winona. Just south of my block, “The Conservative Vice Lords” not to be mistaken by the many other branches of Vice Lords, held down that territory (Kenmore south around Sunnyside). The next block over was Winthrop. There were only two blocks on Winthrop (north of Winona and south of Berwyn) I could walk on without being afraid. The “Gangster Disciples” had Winthrop and especially the notorious “4848 building” to the South of Argyle or the loud Latin Kings to the north of Berwyn. (I can still hear the 3 syllable Latin King chant I heard every time I walked by, “La-tin King, GD Kill-er.”
When driving to Uptown, I often would only park certain places. My children asked why I won’t park on certain streets, that “were way closer to our destination” and I wish I could tell them the truth: I am still terrified of certain areas.
Growing up where I did, urban Chicago in the late 80s and early 90s, was a war zone. The irony of people discussing the Chicago’s current, “out of control gun violence,” is that the violence of the last few years in Chicago still hasn’t reached the high numbers of deaths that happened during my childhood in the 1990s. For many children who live in “bad neighborhoods” now, have a less likely chance of being shot than me or my friends had growing up.
But it wasn’t all bad. We were forced to grow up and develop street smarts and survive, or not survive. The survival skills I learned as a child in Uptown, made me the strong, resilient woman I am today. I confidently navigate neighborhoods because I understand the culture. I learned to look for signs of gang fights: light post being broken, the whispers of people telling the kids to get in the house, yelling of the gang by members at a passing car, and, of course, the sound of bullets.
I knew the signs and families of gangs. My friends and I could distinguish what gangs where under the 4, 5, or 6 point star, the gang’s colors, their symbols, and which way to wear your hat, or not wear your hat, while kids in “good neighborhoods” learned their school work. Us, Uptown kids, knew how to identify, blend in, run away, and stay safe from gangs, with far more ease than we knew elements in the periodic table or how to use, “they, their, they’re” properly. Wearing the wrong color, having your hat twisted the wrong way, or walking down the wrong street, had life or death consequences. Our learning how to survive took precedent over academics, which I why I get especially frustrated when people laugh at people that misuse of language when they have no idea that we had another curriculum that we had to learn. Sometimes I have the urge to drop the “grammar nazi’s” in my old neighborhood and let them see how much value it is in the proper usage of “there, their, or they’re” when you are in the midst of gang violence.
I yearned to ride my bike around my neighborhood, down any street but was never allowed because it was too dangerous. I was one of the lucky ones because I had an escape, a gated backyard, that kept me and those who stayed behind the gates, relatively safe. We were lucky enough to be children, for a while.
Then suddenly, my childhood friends that I played “hide and seek” or “it” within my backyard, transformed,-in what seemed like overnight,- from children who played games and into their new identity of children in gangs.
By the time I was 10, I knew where I lived, Uptown, had the label of “a bad neighborhood.” Which meant, that my friends, who lived in “good neighborhoods”, couldn’t/wouldn’t come to my house. The friends of mine who lived in similar “bad neighborhoods” had to create the perfect plan to meet up. We had travel during the right time, wearing the right colors, walk on the right streets, and be both extremely alert and attentive to our surroundings, whilst, simultaneously, not making too much eye contact.
The funny thing was that for people unfamiliar with the north side of Chicago, they assumed every area was like Gold Coast. Friends I met that lived on the South or West sides, or in actual Housing Projects, thought my neighborhood was amazing! We lived close to the lake, there were grocery stores, trees, big mansions, huge apartments, within walking distance of my home!
But they didn’t understand the block-to-block reality that was Uptown. It didn’t matter that there were mansions on Castlewood, we weren’t allowed over there. It didn’t matter that we lived one block from one the most concentrated areas of Vietnamese stores in the United States, we weren’t allowed to go there. It also didn’t matter that our community had so many beautiful parks because if they were gang territory, it was off-limits for us.
In addition to physical violence, girls had to deal with sexual violence. Girls learned quickly that our bodies were not our own. Like the lioness, we had to travel in packs. If we traveled alone, our bodies were free game for any predator that managed to catch us and “feel on us.” And, it was always our fault for being “fast” or “walking alone to the store” or “wearing the wrong outfit.” So we tried to stay away from the most violent sexual predators (CG), while unknowingly participating in the violation of our bodies as part of “playing” with each other every day. To “play” as a girl, meant to have your body touched. Usually, the touches were light, hit on the butt, grabbing a breast, maybe a kiss with a little tongue. As we developed, and our bodies developed, “playing” took on new levels and I honestly couldn’t name a friend that hadn’t been “fingered” without consent. “Bitch,” “Hoe,” and “Trick,” were just names that girls were called. It was “playing” and everyone knew not to take the “playing” seriously.
I’m not sure how to conclude this. I am not even sure why I felt the need to write this. I know that it boiling inside of me and I felt like I would explode if I didn’t write my experiences today.
I feel like I have multiple people living inside of me. I am very much the goofy, immature woman who likes to laugh at fart jokes. I am also smart and extremely knowledgeable about politics and social events. I am also a girl who lived in the South, the Bible Belt and was one of the few black people in my classes.
But the core of who I am will always be that Uptown girl. And it’s hard because uptown Rondi doesn’t always fit my new environments. So I hide her. I try and bury and forget about that time of my life. Or, I try and overcompensate by giving my children, all the things that I wasn’t able to have.
The truth is, even though I’ve had lots of different life experiences, I’ve always experienced them through the lens of that Uptown girl. I continue to view myself as, ” Rondi, from Uptown, who couldn’t leave the backyard. And Rondi who had to code-culture switch, daily as a matter of survival.” It is because of my Uptown upbringing that I can easily assimilate to different environments; that I have the gift of intuition that allows me to “feel” danger and dangerous people; and that I interact comfortably and with ease in diverse cultures and settings. But most importantly, Uptown gave me my resiliency, my survival mode, my sassiness, and the inability to be broken permanently by any situation. Like Uptown, my goals are never straightforward. Being an Uptown girl, gave me the life skills that allow me to assess danger, make a plan to travel the safest road, and to be perceptive to my environment. Also, like Uptown, I am a lot of different things. I am fancy, diverse, full of arts and culture, and also, full of sadness, danger, and hurt. For giving me that foundation, I will be forever grateful for the trauma and beauty that was an Uptown childhood.