Walking down 69th Street in Englewood, Chicago, near where she grew up, Michelle Rashad gestures to a rundown retail shop, across from a long open lot.
“At this store, there’s a Muslim brother who sells some fruits and vegetables some days,” says the 27-year-old. “But that might be the only piece of fruit you can get for another mile. Most [of] it has been like this since I was a kid. At least since I can remember.”
The stores here – the few that haven’t been boarded up or burned to the ground – sell mostly packaged goods from behind thick plates of ballistic-proof glass. Even at the Subway sandwich shop a few blocks down, the healthy option in the area, customers have to shout their selections to overcome a muffling bulletproof encasement around the food and register.
On a bustling Tuesday afternoon in Streeterville, meanwhile, it’s hard to believe those Englewood streets are just eight miles away. On an open space between the Ritz-Carlton and the Lurie children’s hospital, vendors hawk farm fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and squash in sheer abundance. There are handmade crêpes and fresh pastries. There is small-batch artisanal tofu.
The gulf between the two communities which share a city, a mayor, a police force and a school system is just as apparent by the numbers. A recent analysis from the City Health Dashboard, published by the department of population health at New York University, found that the two neighborhoods have the most divergent life expectancy of any in the US that share the bounds of a city.
In predominantly white Streeterville, Chicagoans can expect to live to 90. In Englewood, where the population is virtually all black, life expectancy is just 60.
“There’s a concept that is increasingly being understood, that your zip code has as much to do with your health as your genetic code,” said Dr Marc Gourevitch, chair of the NYU department and the principal architect of the health dashboard.
“Another way to look at that is that your zip code shouldn’t determine whether you get to see your grandkids. And at some level, that’s how I see and feel about these kinds of data. It’s shocking.”
Back on 69th Street, Rashad reflected on this 30-year disparity.
“That’s the difference of an entire generation,” she says, incredulity in her voice. “But I won’t accept that. Englewood won’t accept that.”
Streeterville is almost a caricature of physical and economic health. The lakefront neighborhood, a mere 14 blocks north to south, is home to a Northwestern University campus and three hospitals. On a late spring day, teens toss footballs and volleyballs as joggers zig-zag with leashed dogs in tow. On a full-length track in front of a pair of highrise condominiums, Kate Gardner jogs. She can’t muster one complaint about life in Streeterville, save for a few weeks of unseasonably cool weather.
“I know we’re lucky to be here, and that other people in the city don’t have it so good. It’s totally unfair,” she says.
The different health outcomes are multifaceted and correlate to almost every socioeconomic factor. The median income in Streeterville is nearly $100,000 a year, according to the US census. In Englewood, smack dab in the center of Chicago’s Southside, it’s a quarter of that. More than 80% of Streeterville residents have a college degree, compared with 8.2% in Englewood.
Then there’s the violence and the trauma it brings. Walking down 69th, Rashad stops to point.
“That’s where, freshman year, my 14-year-old friend was killed,” she says. “A stray bullet went straight through the window while she was getting ready for school. And I have to walk past that block.
“We’re constantly having to walk past these traumatic situations. You can literally look at the sidewalk where you’ve once seen blood or people bleed out, and you have to go to school, you have to go to work.”
Erin Vogel, co-executive director of I Grow Chicago, an Englewood-based community nonprofit, says 100% of the children the group works with have lost someone they know to gun violence and have heard gunshots while in their home.
“93% of them have literally seen a shooting with their own eyes,” she says. “There’s a young man who I work with who just turned 15, and in his 13th year of life, five of his friends were murdered. He saw two of them.”
The violence, of course, drives down life expectancy and health outcomes. But health inequities also drive violence. Take lead poisoning. For decades, Englewood had one of the highest rates of residential lead contamination in the country. Research has shown that lead poisoning in children is associated with dramatic spikes in impulsiveness and aggression.
“Irreversible brain damage just because of where you live, and you’re too poor to go anywhere else? It’s not fair. You’re cheating kids,” said Rashad, now executive director of Imagine Englewood If, a community group founded largely to draw attention to the lead crisis.
It wasn’t always this way.
“It was a Mecca!” exclaims lifelong resident Djanie Edwards, rattling through a list of vanished community anchors like the Sears store and the old Empress theatre. Everyone who remembers the community before the decay of the 1980s and 1990s points to the abandonment as perhaps the biggest change.
“There wasn’t all these open lots everywhere, these were houses,” Edwards says, at the headquarters of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (Rage), the only occupied building on its block. In seven lots, only two structures are standing.
Edwards remembers a time before local jobs began to move overseas, like at the Nabisco bakery where Rashad’s father worked most of his life. Unemployment opened the door to drugs, drugs fostered an environment of violence, the community fell into poor health and dysfunction.
“When cocaine hit there was such a rapid decline, and it affected individuals across the spectrum,” said Rodney Johnson, whose family arrived in the community in 1966. He was one of many who left in the 1980s but he has now returned, in part to deploy his skills as a public health researcher.
Johnson is one member of a team of “community health navigators” who this week began conducting a door-to-door survey. One of the most pressing questions they’re trying to answer is why there seems to be a disconnect between services that are actually available in the community and residents who do not use them.
“The ironic thing is there are a lot of health resources available here,” said Cecile De Mello of Teamwork Englewood, one of the community groups involved in the research. “We want to know what are the barriers to people taking advantage of care opportunities in the community. Is it issues around safety? Is it issues around transportation? Is it that people feel helpless, and that they need motivation to help them get into care?”
‘The Promise Land’
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are patches of hope, like the abandoned lot Tina Hammond bought across from her home for $1, thanks to a city program. She and her husband made it into a green space with colorful planters, murals and space for community events like free yoga. They named it The Promise Land.
“It shouldn’t be that we have to have money or a certain income to get this kind of stuff,” Hammond said. “That’s why I envision just a beautiful space, something to get your mind off all the wretchedness that’s going on in life and all on these blocks. A place to just go and sit, relax and bring calm.”
There’s economic development too, bringing more healthy options to a community long described as a “food desert”. De Mello found her way to community work after being heavily involved in the siting of a Whole Foods market in Englewood, focusing on making sure products were affordable and accessible.
Violence is trending down too – though the reasons are still hotly contested.
More than anything, community groups like I Grow Chicago are giving residents hope. Their “peace house”, across the street from a community garden, is a frenetic jumble of answers to unmet needs. Visitors might be there for anything from toilet paper and toothpaste to a Reiki healing session.
Ora Bradley, who has lived in Englewood most of her life, spoke to the Guardian at the peace house as Reiki masters “smudged” the room with palo santo.
“There was a time I wanted out of this neighborhood so badly,” said Bradley, who watched her son Julius get caught in the drug game, spending time in jail.
She says the I Grow Chicago campus, which has essentially taken over her block, is nothing short of a godsend. The organization trains community members in construction and is refurbishing homes as community space or affordable housing.
Bradley says she still wants to leave, but for a very different reason. She wants to donate her home to I Grow, to make it part of its growing “peace campus”.
“There’s a desire that’s been placed in my heart to do this for our children,” she says, “and I can’t let it go”.