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Remembering the block parties that brought childhood summers to an end

As much as I wished that life here would stay the same, I realized that life here would change.

A little girl draws on the sidewalk at a block party in August 2018.
A little girl draws on the sidewalk at a block party in August 2018.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

In memory of a Chicago tradition known as the annual summer Block Club party, this week’s column is an excerpt from the author’s memoir, “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope & Clarity.”

Every kid on Komensky looked forward to the end of summer when the grown-ups cordoned off the block at the south end of 18th Street and at the north end of 16th Street with streamers and two yellow police horses. This was the second-greatest event that took place on Komensky each year.

At the annual Block Club party, Old Man Newell, who headed the Block Club, carted out his gargantuan grill and smoked hot dogs and sausages paid for with donations from each household.

We all ate from the same grill, laughing with friends over a mouthful of Oscar Mayer and a cold cup of Kool-Aid. Then we ate watermelon and homemade ice cream that melted like cotton candy in our mouth.

There was singing, foot races, and dancing in the middle of the street. Mostly, the kids danced while the grownups laughed or played cards and snapped their fingers. At first, it was the sounds of Motown: Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations and the Jackson 5.

There was the finger-snapping, booty-shaking music of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As I got older, the music turned to disco, then to P-Funk and to a new blend of booming bass riffs laced with words but no singing, called rap.

But there was nothing like the Isley Brothers pouring from speakers on a hot August day at the Block Club party on Komensky. As the Isleys played, time stood still, the melody and the smell of barbecue smoke drifting on a summer breeze.

Then came the band. My best friend was a skinny kid named Elvis, who had a brother named Leon who played drums. Elvis, Leon and I formed our own group called the Funky Souls. I played lead guitar, and Elvis played bass. But we weren’t good enough to play the Block Club party.

Elvis and Leon had a grown-up brother named Willie who played skins for a Chicago band called the South Side Movement. And no Block Club party was complete until the band had played.

I still have visions of Willie, a tall, wiry brother with an Afro, beating his glistening drums in the middle of the street, his gangster brim cocked to the side and hanging down over his face, his arms flailing as if on fire. Suddenly, he twirled a drumstick on his fingers, then slung it high into the blue sky to the oohs and ahs of the crowd, smiling as he caught it without ever missing a beat.

As much as we could count on the annual party, we could also count on the annual fight. … There was the time that Gladys and Scooter Mump’s mama got into a brawl and Old Man O’Neal came out shooting in the air. There was always an assortment of squabbles that sometimes led to fisticuffs and sometimes even to minor bloodshed. No one ever got killed, and usually it was feelings more than anything else that were most seriously hurt …

As much as I had often wished that life here would stay the same, I realized a long time ago that life here would change. I don’t know how I knew this.

Whether it was the slowly mounting toll of murder or the decay and poverty that eventually spread like weeds and began to choke out life, or something else, I don’t know. I just knew.

And I knew early on that if I were to survive, I must surely flee this place.

Except this was home. And there was a part of me that never wanted to say goodbye.

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