If you do a quick Google search for the neighborhood East Garfield Park, you will find a number of news stories detailing shootings in the area and statistics that say it is the fourth most crime-riddled neighborhood in Chicago.
East Garfield Park isn’t a place too many Lincoln Park residents frequent, maybe because of the hour transit it takes to get there. But in my News Reporting class, we were all given a neighborhood to go and report on throughout the quarter, and my professor assigned me to East Garfield.
Despite the stories and the scared tones that people’s voices take on when they talk about the West Side, I refused to allow misconceptions to cloud my judgment. I grew up in a part of Kansas City, Missouri that was often labeled as “dangerous,” but I never lived in fear on my block. I don’t want to impose stereotypes on an area I do not know, so I went into this project with an open mind.
I went to a community meeting the other night in East Garfield. The meeting was called together to discuss a new building and business in the area. I listened to debates and disagreements about what’s going on in the community. I was doing my job as a journalist by live tweeting the event and covering the new development possibilities.
I left the meeting feeling on top of the world. It was a moment when I felt like I was on the right path in my career, and I knew this was something I wanted to do. The road in front of the event hall was closed for construction, so I walked two blocks over and called a ride. I was waiting near an empty lot next to a dry cleaner. The street was full of random lots, and streetlights were further between each other. There were a few people on the street, but for the most part I was alone.
Again, I wasn’t afraid of the area. I was conscious of what was going on around me, but I wasn’t terrified for my life. That is, until, a man in a green Jeep pulled up next to me. He cracked his window and asked me, “do you date?” I’m currently working on a story about prostitution in the area, so I knew this was a john asking if I was a sex worker.
I shook my head no and took a couple steps back, hoping he would go away. Instead, he rolled his window down all the way and motioned for me to come closer. I said no, shook my head, and walked a few more steps away from the car so I could no longer see the man’s face. He sat there, with his car running and his window down in the chilly January weather, for another four minutes. I counted.
Finally, my ride showed up and I happily jumped into the car. The Jeep pulled off ahead of us, leaving me shaking. I’m not afraid to admit that in that moment I was terrified. I had texted multiple people my location just in case, and I was running through defensive strategies that I had learned years ago at a community center. I will be the first to admit that I was scared for my life.
By the time I got home, the fear had dissolved away. I was left with this boiling anger inside of me. This was not only my class assignment but this is the field I want to go into, and someone made me feel at danger for doing my job. I am angry that I felt in harm’s way by simply waiting on a sidewalk on a main road. I am angry that I have to run through a list of people who might go with me back to East Garfield if I plan on staying past 6 p.m.
Most of all, though, I am angry that I am the “lucky one.” I’m angry that this kind of thing is so accepted in Chicago that people breathe a sigh of relief when I tell them I made it out okay, because that means there are hundreds more women who haven’t. There shouldn’t be a fear to walk alone on a sidewalk, or sit and wait five minutes for a ride. I am furious at anyone who has ever made another woman feel threatened in that place, and I’m hurt that it is “just a part of it.”
I got to walk away from the situation with nothing more than a scare. I went back to my warm dorm room, ate dinner, and went to bed that night. I have wonderful people who have volunteered to come with me next time I plan on going back to East Garfield. But so many other people aren’t in my shoes. How many women have had to sit there and stare at a car and pray that door doesn’t open? How many others have been forced into the car, and how many never went home again?
This is not my attack on the neighborhood. I met some funny, sweet, and incredibly nice people while I was there. I think that, as a whole, the people in that area are wonderful, and I have nothing negative to say about them. But the few bad apples will try their hardest to spoil the bunch.
East Garfield is not the problem, and girls walking alone in Chicago are not the people to blame. The problem is that myself and so many other people are chastised for participating in a very normal part of everyday life. We have an issue that needs to be addressed, and attacking women and sex workers isn’t the fix.
I am thankful that I am safe. But that doesn’t take away from every other woman who wasn’t. I have a right to my anger, and so does every other person affected. We cannot accept this as okay, and we need to start talking about it.