Family and Stigma in Chicago Neighborhoods

As someone who has grown up near Chicago neighborhoods my whole life, I am familiar with the violence, poverty, and detestable living conditions that are prominent in many of them.

I’ve grown up hearing news about shootings and increasing crime in these areas and because of that, I have become conditioned to believe that Chicago neighborhoods and the people that live in them, specifically on the South Side, are not to be explored. Because of the poor conditions and violence, for the longest time I believed that the people who live there are bad people. I now know that that is incredibly incorrect. Based on the poem we  “Unsolicited Witness” by Ladan Osman, I could immediately tell that the purpose of it was to belittle the stigma that I’ve grown up to believe until recently. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker characterizes a boy who “[changes] an F to a B” and “poked holes in the Barbie pool” (ll. 1-4). By this characterization, the stereotypical troublemaking boy in Chicago immediately popped into my head. I imagined a middle school boy with a dirtied wife-beater on, maybe some holes in it, and a buzzcut going around wreaking havoc on his neighborhood, much like what I envisioned life in Chicago neighborhoods to be like. Yet, in the middle of the poem, the narrator takes a sharp turn and begins to speak of the boy as family-oriented – taking care of his sister, cleaning the house, and showing the speaker frogs. And later, it’s said that they find day old donuts in the dumpsters along with some “dog shit” (ll. 16-17).

chicago-looking-north

This spoke to me, particularly the contrast between the boy caring for his family and also scrounging for food in the dumpsters. Typically, many of the neighborhoods that surround Chicago are on the poorer side and this solidifies that fact. But, it also embodies the way that people who live in these neighborhoods live with it. By using words such as “magic” and “glitter,” their home is described as their own personal fairy tale. It may not be ideal, and they know that, but it is their fairy tale and they make do with what they have. And I imagine that is what it is like. Therefore, I believe that this poem incredibly crushes the stigma of the miserable living that people associate Chicago neighborhoods with and instead replaces it with a sense of family. (Dylan Ward/City of Stories Student)

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