In Chicago, teen died strad­dling two worlds

- Aamer Mad­hani @AamerIS­mad USA TO­DAY Aamer Mad­hani is USA TO­DAY’s Chicago-based cor­re­spon­dent. Incidents · Chicago Metropolitan Area, Illinois · Austin · Ernest Hemingway · Frank Lloyd Wright · Frank Lloyd Wright · Frank Lloyd · Chicago Police Department · Oak Park

The life and tragic death of Eli­jah Sims is a story that stretches over sev­eral city and subur­ban blocks that bi­sect two very dif­fer­ent worlds in Chicagolan­d.

Eli­jah, who was just two days shy of his 17th birth­day when he was gunned down on a Chicago street on Aug. 29, is just one of more than 500 homi­cide vic­tims killed in the city this year, one of the blood­i­est the city has seen since the drug wars of the 1990s.

There has been no short­age of in­no­cent lives lost dur­ing Chicago’s vi­o­lent sum­mer, dur­ing a crime surge that city of­fi­cials blame on in­creased gang ac­tiv­ity and gun laws that are feck­less when it comes to de­ter­ring re­peat of­fend­ers from arm­ing them­selves.

But the killing of Eli­jah, whose fam­ily made the de­ci­sion to leave their crime-plagued neigh­bor­hood for greener and safer pas­tures, is among the most heart­break­ing.

More than two years ago, Sharita Gal­loway de­cided to move from Chicago’s Austin neigh­bor­hood for the sake of her chil­dren, tak­ing them from one of Chicago’s most vi­o­lent neigh­bor­hoods to the leafy, neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Oak Park.

“Mov­ing was about mak­ing a choice,” Wal­ter Sims told me af­ter his younger brother’s fu­neral ser­vice last week. “It was about put­ting us in a good school and not hav­ing to worry about the ex­tra stuff.”

With about 98,000 res­i­dents, Austin is still one of the big­gest neigh­bor­hoods in the city. But in the af­ter­math of the riots of the late 1960s on the city’s West Side, the neigh­bor­hood was dec­i­mated by white flight and the loss of jobs and busi­nesses.

Poverty sky­rock­eted, schools foundered and drug-deal­ing and gang ac­tiv­ity have fes­tered for years. As vi­o­lence has soared in pre­dom­i­nantly black neigh­bor­hoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, Austin has be­come ar­guably Chicago’s most dan­ger­ous neigh­bor­hood, with nearly 60 homi­cides this year alone.

In con­trast, the sub­urb of Oak Park, which bor­ders the north­ern edge of Austin, seems like it could be a mil­lion miles from the trou­bles plagu­ing Austin.

The town’s public high school, which Eli­jah and Wal­ter at­tended, is one of the best in the state. The vil­lage of 52,000 — which was once home to author Ernest Hem­ing­way and ar­chi­tect Frank Lloyd Wright — recorded its last homi­cide in 2011, and last year had its low­est crime rate since it started com­pil­ing stats in the 1970s.

Oak Park res­i­dents love their quaint down­town and arts dis­trict. They flock to the Satur­day farm­ers mar­ket to buy the Pil­grim Con­gre­ga­tional Church’s fa­mous dough­nuts.

The Rev. Mar­shall Hatch, a civil rights ac­tivist based in Austin, re­called that af­ter an off-du- ty Chicago po­lice of­fi­cer was killed in a 2011 rob­bery on the Chicago side of the Austin- Oak Park bor­der, some res­i­dents darkly ob­served that even the bul­lets know to stop at the city’s edge.

“There’s such a stark con­trast be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties, such an abrupt de­mar­ca­tion of the cul­tures of life and death,” Hatch said.

Eli­jah had just started his se­nior year at Oak Park-River For­est High School when he was fa­tally shot in the head while stand­ing on the street with other young men in his old neigh­bor­hood.

Po­lice said it was not clear who was tar­geted in the shoot­ing, but that nei­ther Eli­jah nor an­other teen who was se­ri­ously wounded in the in­ci­dent had gang ties.

In fact, Eli­jah ap­peared to be thriv­ing. He was proud that he was earn­ing money at a part­time job at a gro­cery store in Oak Park.

He had set his am­bi­tions on be­com­ing a nurse. His fam­ily said he was look­ing for­ward to tak­ing his girl­friend to the se­nior prom at the end of the school year.

But Eli­jah didn’t for­get his old neigh­bor­hood. He main­tained friend­ships that went back to child­hood and reg­u­larly made the blocks-long jour­ney to hang out back in Austin.

His mom told me she wor­ried about him spend­ing time in Austin but knew that for­bid­ding her teen from a com­mu­nity that was the foun­da­tion of much of his life was invit­ing de­fi­ance.

In­stead, Gal­loway ca­joled him to re­spect his 11 p.m. sum­mer cur­few, a par­ent­ing strat­egy that seemed to be work­ing. On the night Eli­jah was killed, she said she had re­minded him again to be home on time, and he promised he would. Po­lice would re­ceive the call of his shoot­ing at 10:11 p.m.

Dur­ing his eu­logy for the teen, the Rev. Ira Acree re­minded the hun­dreds from the Austin com­mu­nity who gath­ered, that with Eli­jah’s death they lost a young man who was well on his way to be­com­ing some­body spe­cial.

The only way to honor Eli­jah was to make fun­da­men­tal changes to end the cul­ture of vi­o­lence in neigh­bor­hoods like Austin.

“There is power in the blood of the in­no­cent,” Acree in­toned.

We can only hope that Chicago can dis­cover this strength.

 ?? FAM­ILY OF ELI­JAH SIMS ?? Fu­neral pro­gram for Eli­jah Sims, 16, who died on Aug. 30 af­ter be­ing shot on Chicago’s West Side.
FAM­ILY OF ELI­JAH SIMS Fu­neral pro­gram for Eli­jah Sims, 16, who died on Aug. 30 af­ter be­ing shot on Chicago’s West Side.
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