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Art imitates life in Spike Lee’s movie ‘Chiraq’

I took a drive Sunday through Englewood to see whether anything has changed.

It hasn’t.

That’s why New York-based director Spike Lee has chosen the blighted South Side neighborhood to be the location for his already-controversial film, which he has titled ‘‘Chiraq.’’

Englewood, adjacent West Englewood and a few surrounding areas have become emblems of American urban life at its worst, infested with poverty, crime, violence and, perhaps saddest of all, hopelessness.

Generalizations are never fair, but they must be made before specifics can be fleshed out.

And what I saw Sunday reminded me of what I saw in Englewood in 2011, when I wrote a multipart series for the Sun-Times about that area and, specifically, about Murray Park at 74th and Wood, the childhood playground of Bulls star Derrick Rose.

Back in that summer four years ago, several forces were at play. Manufacturing jobs had all but vanished from the South Side, and the Great Recession and real-estate meltdown had obliterated the economics of the working class. Owning a house in virtually all-black Englewood was akin to owning a ship with holes drilled in the hull.

Back then, I saw boarded-up houses, some with the gutters, air conditioners, copper wires and anything else made of metal torn out. There were more storefront churches than I could count, selling, I knew, a desperate kind of solace in an afterlife that had to be better than the here and now.

The vacant houses, the empty factories, the weed-covered lots, the inhuman decrepitude all ran as a frightening cross-current to the teeming front porches and drug-dealing sidewalks on hot summer nights. People — young men and women, mostly — were afraid to cross certain unstated boundaries, such as Garfield Boulevard or formidable Ashland Avenue, whose four-lane, north-south cement trough served as a demilitarized zone between God-knows-how-many gang turfs.

As often as not, parks were scary places with signs stating that the penalties for gang recruiting, drug-dealing or violence would be increased if done on playground property. I’m not sure that made any difference to anybody.

Oh, and the shrines to the slain children and young people, shot on porches, in alleys, through walls, from distances near and far — those RIP altars with their balloons, teddy bears, empty booze bottles and hand-scrawled messages — resembled the naïve offerings from a vanished civilization.

I didn’t see the shrines Sunday, but my cruise was perfunctory, up and down, avoiding certain streets out of fear, trying to get a feeling.

To me, Englewood felt the same. And my thought was, as before, ‘‘How do you solve this complex economic, racial, historical and sociological problem?’’ The old jobs never will be back. Never.

So hope? How?

Yet despair isn’t a choice. And other people can see possibilities and hues where many don’t.

I spoke with Lee in New York a couple of years ago, and I commented to him that his onetime screen name of Mars Blackmon was a clever one, coming, as it had to, from the essential artists’ paint known as mars black.

‘‘I’ve never heard of that,’’ Lee said, eyebrows raised.

The ‘‘Blackmon’’ came from, well, it was ironic and obvious.

‘‘And Mars came from my grandmother,’’ he said. ‘‘She always said I was from Mars.’’

Well, what do you know?

At any rate, much of Brooklyn, Lee’s home in New York, has gentrified. The townhouses that once were crack houses go for a million dollars and more these days in places such as Park Slope and Fort Greene. In a recent online article for Complex.com, titled ‘‘Your Sneakers or Your Life: 25 Years Later, Has Sneaker Crime Changed?’’ writer Dennis Tang states that much of New York has calmed down from the rampant crime that pervaded it back in the day.

Tang states that in 1990, the year I wrote the aforementioned ‘‘Your Sneakers or Your Life’’ article about youths being murdered for sports apparel for Sports Illustrated, Washington Heights, ‘‘the murder capital of New York,’’ had 103 killings; last year there were two.

Lee should be able to call his film ‘‘Chiraq’’ or anything he wants. He sure as hell didn’t make up the title. I’ve heard it for years.

Own it, Chicago.

But if he’s true to his calling — and he made a recent movie shot, in part, in Carmelo Anthony’s old apartment in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn — he’ll put Rose in this movie. And maybe his old house. And maybe Murray Park.

He’ll make Rose, the homeboy who survived it all, a brief symbol of hope.

Which, after all, he is.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com
Twitter: @ricktelander