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A Fragile Hope in America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
FORD HEIGHTS, Ill. -- He doesn't want to talk.

The middle-aged black man is walking past the shuttered Lincoln Highway Fuel Food & Liquor store, waving off questions. He turns right, heading toward what look like housing projects. But it is unclear if they are still occupied or, like much of this town, boarded up and empty.

He warns, kindly but sternly, not to follow as he disappears around the corner.

The service station liquor store appears to have closed decades earlier -- patches of cherry red paint on the side of the building are peeling away. A makeshift altar is located along the wall toward the back; it is lined with bottles of hard liquor, candles, a wilted red rose and the word "love" spelled out with decals.

Nobody ever really moves in here. Nobody ever comes here except to pass on by; you either escape or die.

The only businesses left in the town are one gas station, two liquor stores and a strip club. The strip club, a massive Greek-revival structure, is the largest employer.

Building after building is vacant. Litter is everywhere. Businesses are shuttered. Modest homes are abandoned, and so are a couple of the housing projects.

The community's connection with hope is fragile.

And the saddest thing is that none of this is new: Ford Heights, located 25 miles from Chicago, has been fighting this battle for decades. In 1987, it was named the poorest suburb in America. A study by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that in 2014, Ford Heights' jobless rate exceeded 60 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds.

Deindustrialization is colorblind; it doesn't matter if your town is all white or predominately black (like Ford Heights) -- when the jobs leave, everyone bleeds red.

The problems are so numerous, so egregious to polite society's sensibilities that polite society just doesn't come here. Like everything in culture, if you don't hear about it, see it, walk the streets, or step in the people's shoes for a week or a day or even an hour, then it mustn't really be happening.

Except it is.

In the 1970s and '80s, drugs and violence came to the housing projects in town. Gang shootouts over drugs and territory were common. The projects were so violent that the gangs nicknamed one of them "Vietnam."

And if people were looking for help from those who were supposed to protect them, well, in that same time period, more than 15 public officials -- nearly half of them police officers -- were indicted for taking part in a variety of payoff schemes.

By 2008, what was left of the police force just stopped showing up for work, a move that forced the sheriff's department to move in permanently.

Being poor in a large or mid-size city is different than being poor in a rural area. If a poor rural town has no tax base, then social services start to erode, and things like libraries and water service become at risk.

Yes, something as fundamental as water can be denied if your town does not pay its bills, which is exactly what almost happened here last fall, when Ford Heights fell behind on its payments to Chicago Heights, the source of its municipal water supply.

When the Chicago Heights mayor announced that his city would stop providing water, it caused an understandable panic among residents. And when a deal was struck between the two cities, a second blow was dealt to Ford Heights residents: Their water bills doubled.

If we are being honest, this town was never meant to be something big or grandiose. It was meant to be a home for middle-class blacks who could not afford housing elsewhere; it was tidy, rural, convenient and practical.

When the federal government placed 60 acres of housing projects in the town, the strain was gradual but eventually buckled, as the town's limited resources were unable to sustain the burden.

Government corruption, societal decay, drugs, gangs and blight followed. Hope evaporated.

It is difficult to see a town like this in America, difficult to understand how to stop it -- and the government isn't the answer, considering that it started the problem. Like the majority-white rural communities in Appalachia, the people here are trapped, and the answer from critics is to move out.

But where do you go when you are poor, lack education and have no guiding force?

Mayor Charles Griffin, who recently lost his bid for re-election, points to a Little League baseball field that is about to open, thanks to the efforts of Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, Major League Baseball and George "Kirby" Green, who resurrected Little League baseball in his hometown a couple of years ago.

"Green and his teams have had to travel miles for the past few years to play; now they'll have one field in their backyards," explained Dart. The people of Ford Heights, he says, "are true fighters, like anyone in this country they want to hold on to their little slice of this country and make it better."

The answers are not easy, but they are rooted in efforts by men like Green and Dart, who still believe in the promise of Ford Heights. They may be small things, but they are something -- and that's a lot more than anyone has done for this town in more than 50 years.

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