Fountain: Mapping the ghosts of North Lawndale

SHARE Fountain: Mapping the ghosts of North Lawndale

True Vine Church of God In Christ, circa 1970s, where columnist John Fountain worshipped as a child. The church that once stood at 3915 W. Roosevelt Rd., on the city’s West Side, was founded by his grandparents, George and Florence Hagler. After the congregation moved in the 1980s to Bellwood, the former church building became home to George’s Music Room and is now vacant. Photo provided by John Fountain.

Ghosts. I see them, drifting in and out of the rubble and remains here, appearing in my mind like grayish shadows, reaching from the past through poverty and smoldering ash. I see both the living and the dead. Home. I am home.

I sojourn west on Roosevelt Road in my beloved North Lawndale, past where my grandfather’s church once stood in the 3900 block, replaced by George’s Music Room — now a shell.


My car is my time machine in this impromptu, dichotomous journey. My windshield the picture window to hope and despair in this neighborhood once dubbed by well-intentioned but prejudiced sociological probers as “The American Millstone.”

Bittersweet, my memories play in black and white, the devastation in living color. A few corners of promise shine like a faint white light in an obscure tunnel.

And yet, I see — imagine — blood, even if the most recent murderous spillage has since washed away. I imagine the shell casings, where Jonathan Mills, 26, a native son, was gunned down weeks earlier on Roosevelt Road; the blanket that covered his dead body, but not his basketball sneakers.

I feel a certain kinship to young brother Mills — beyond the knowledge that my former high school teammate became Mills’ high school basketball coach. Ours is a West Side connection. We are brothers in the same struggle — regardless of generation. Objects of the genocidal mechanisms that seek to claim this “black body” and our souls, most often at the hands of another black male.

I am bonded to my brothers in the hood by our certainty over the fragility of life. Of the certainty that this brand of urban destruction, devolution and devastation are by design. And that the neglect of certain neighborhoods — and their pillaging by politicians, preachers and assorted poverty pimps — predestinates so many native sons and daughters to return someday as escapees. As survivors from the island.

I roll on, this afternoon, aware that days earlier, just a few blocks north, Tavon Tanner, 10, was critically wounded by gunfire.

I turn left at Pulaski Road, bound farther south for my old block: 16th Street and Komensky Avenue.

I roll on. Past pastel-colored, fluorescent small business fronts. Past vacant lots and crumbling brick buildings. Past trees — alive, dying, or already dead. Past wrought iron-fenced churches — where I once worshipped.

I am a mix of emotion, having earlier given a commencement address at the Consuella B. York High School inside Cook County Jail. Having witnessed about four dozen incarcerated young people — most of them black males — receive high school diplomas, wearing blue caps and gowns in celebration with their families, then donning their jailhouse beige and silver handcuffs, and file by twos, back to their divisions.

Home sweet home lies in close proximity to the jailhouse. I felt the need to come home.

I draw closer, feeling recharged on one hand; drained on the other. I am conflicted by the confluence of green space where buildings once stood and of my memories of a once more vibrant landscape. By the laughter, faces and lifeblood I once knew here.

Disturbed by the sight, just south of 14th Street, of a tall, thick black woman, wearing no pants or underwear — ducking behind green brush. Encouraged by the sight of a young woman spotting her and apparently trying to offer help.

Finally, I turn down my old block and spot two old neighbors. We chat. But I cannot shake the ghosts.

I climb back into my car. At the end of the block, I glance over my shoulder, wounded into numbness by the devastation of home. Haunted by ghosts.


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