CHICAGO — In harrowing moments, in the sobs of grieving mourners and the incessant wail of sirens, the crises of 2020 have played out painfully within a single Chicago community:
Patricia Frieson posted a hopeful Facebook message in late February when a mysterious new disease invaded her neighborhood: “May the world recover from coronavirus soon. May all be well and happy.”
Less than three weeks later, she was gone.
Ron Cashaw is a shopkeeper who has devoted 17 years to building his business. A community mainstay, he plays Santa every year. Alerted one horrible weekend that looters were smashing the windows of his clothing store, he rushed to confront them.
Would he be wiped out?
She prayed she would not die.
In a chaotic year destined for the history books, Auburn Gresham has written its own grim chapter. This Black community on the city’s South Side has endured a deadly virus, gun violence and economic misery — a constant state of turmoil that mirrors the tumult afflicting much of urban America.
Auburn Gresham was hit early by the pandemic. COVID-19 infections rose quickly. Stores closed during a citywide lockdown. Then the agonizingly public death of George Floyd spurred protests that turned ugly. Businesses were set ablaze. As summer arrived, shootings surged in the 6th police district. Over three months, there were a shocking 175 victims. The youngest, 10 and 11, were wounded in a drive-by attack.
Auburn Gresham has faced hard times before. Guns are easy to find. Fresh produce isn’t. Poverty hovers around 20 percent. But there’s never been anything like this: A once-in-a- century epidemic in a community without a hospital. Long lines of the newly unemployed waiting for food donations. Jobs disappearing. Anxious shopkeepers. And police racing from one scene to the next.
“Forty-five years I’ve been here and never has it been as bad as it is right now in terms of hopelessness, anger and despair. Never,” says Father Michael Pfleger, one of the city’s most vocal social activists. He presides at St. Sabina, a Catholic church that’s a community anchor.
One day in July, a gang dispute erupted in a shootout in front of a local funeral home, wounding 15 and leaving 60 bullet casings strewn about the sidewalk.
Pfleger walked over to the scene, then went home and cried.
“Take care everyone.”
So began the Facebook message that Patricia Frieson posted in late winter.
As a nurse, Frieson had tended to the sick in Arkansas, where she’d relocated as a child to help her widowed grandmother. But her own ailments, including severe asthma and lymphedema (a swelling of the limbs), forced her to retire in the ’90s. She returned to Auburn Gresham.
Frieson, a regular at the local Pentecostal church, was a devoted sister and loving aunt in a tight-knit family of nine siblings. She also was someone they could turn to for advice, a vocalist often called upon to sing at family weddings, parties and funerals.
On March 2, the family gathered for cake and ice cream to celebrate the birthday of Wanda Bailey, a sister who was two years older than Patricia.
A double tragedy followed.
More than a week later, Patricia’s asthma flared up and she was hospitalized. Four days later, she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She died the next day — the first known casualty of the disease in all of Illinois — as Wanda entered the hospital for breathing problems. She died of the virus nine days later.
“My sisters never had a chance,” says Anthony Frieson, who also was infected but didn’t become seriously ill. “We have to figure out how to keep going without them.”
They were two of the earliest victims in the country of a pandemic that has ravaged Black people disproportionately. In Chicago, one of the nation’s most segregated cities, nearly 43 percent of the virus’ victims have been Black – more than twice the number of whites.
COVID-19 “has pulled the curtain back on historic health inequities… and Auburn Gresham is a tremendous example,” says Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community heath equity at Rush University Medical Center.
In Chicago, white people live on average almost nine years longer than Black people, compared with a four-year mortality gap nationwide, he says. And Auburn Gresham’s rates of diabetes, asthma and cancer exceed citywide averages, according to the 2019 Chicago Health Atlas.
The higher rates of illness here and in other Black communities are attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of insurance and access to health care, poor housing, limited food options and stress.
As for the pandemic, Ansell says residents are also more vulnerable because many live in close quarters — multigenerational families, for example, sharing a bungalow — or hold front-line jobs in home health care, cafeterias and grocery stores.
State public health officials report more than 1,700 COVID-19 infections in ZIP code 60620, which includes Auburn Gresham. There were 77 COVID-19 deaths in the area as of late August, About half of the community’s 45,000 residents have been tested.
Auburn Gresham was one of Chicago’s early COVID-19 hot spots; city public health officials dispatched supplies, including masks and hand sanitizer. But some local leaders were extremely frustrated it took several weeks to bring a testing site to the area. City officials say those sites were set up as soon as kits and trained staff were available.
With stores closing and layoffs widespread, a local group, the Auburn Gresham Development Corp., stepped in, distributing about a half-million dollars from private donations and government funds to help pay mortgages, utilities and other bills. It also has kept on staff about a dozen workers who delivered food to the elderly, made well-being calls and dispatched a mobile testing unit to 13 senior or veteran centers.
Others have walked the streets to warn one segment of the population — victims and perpetrators of gun violence — of the dangers of a virus they could unwittingly pass on to their families.
The Target Area Development Corporation, a social service group that addresses stubborn local problems, supplied its outreach workers face masks to distribute while making their rounds to prevent gang retaliation.
It hasn’t been easy making the argument to young men who pay little attention to the virus and already have a fatalistic view of life, says Autry Phillips, the group’s executive director.
“Most of the youths we work with and talk to don’t believe that they’ll reach the ripe old age of 20 or 25 because what they see is that their friends are dying,” he says. For them, seeing is believing so they think “if none of my guys have died from the virus, it’s not real.”
Some expected the pandemic would keep people hunkered down in their homes, reducing gang tensions.
“We thought that the violence would have died down,” says Jerrell Wayne Harris, an outreach worker. “Unfortunately, it didn’t. The same beefs were still out there.”
Some worried longstanding disputes would be revived as the county jail released inmates to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The ready flow of guns in the community heightens the danger. Last year, 1,149 guns were recovered from the 6th police district — about 10 percent of the haul for the entire city.
As of the end of September, the district had recorded 59 homicides this year, nearly 60 percent higher than the same period last year.
The violence has stretched beyond bitter rivalries with the pandemic playing a supporting role.
When the virus turned Teyonna Lofton’s high school graduation into a virtual event, she basked in her car parade celebration, preparing for the actual ceremony the next day.
Hours later, Lofton, 18, was in line outside a locked gas station, waiting to buy a soft drink. The crowd was buzzing with talk about protests nearby that had grown violent.
A white SUV pulled in and a gunman started shooting. One bullet struck Lofton in her left arm. She collapsed. And she prayed.
“No! Not me. Not today.” She heard screams but didn’t know if the shooter was gone. She saw a second victim sprawled on the ground. (He survived; no one was arrested.)
Lofton crawled on her stomach toward an ice cooler to prop herself up to inventory her wounds — her fingers were already numb. A friend called 911 but the emergency center was overwhelmed with reports of looting and vandalism across the city. Police would receive about 65,000 calls — 50,000 more than normal — in a 24-hour period.
And Lofton, her jacket soaked in blood, couldn’t wait.
Her mother arrived within moments. Lofton was whisked to a hospital where doctors found a bullet had pierced an artery. She needed two surgeries and a vein had to be grafted from her left leg to increase blood flow in her arm.
Now college is on hold as she undergoes therapy.
“I’m not angry at my shooter,” she says. “This happens every day. It’s just crazy that it happened to me … I’m still here. I’m blessed. I can’t complain.”
And yet she is frustrated by a political system she believes favors the moneyed business interests and shortchanges the needs of her community. It’s a common refrain in Chicago’s Black and brown neighborhoods and one the mayor has pledged to address.
Why, Lofton asks, is there no local hospital? Why didn’t police respond to her call? “Nobody helps us,” she says. “Nobody.”
No incident in Auburn Gresham was more shocking than the shootout outside a funeral home that wounded 15. In its aftermath, Pfleger, the pastor, couldn’t stop crying.
“We’re looking at a whole community suffering from PTSD,” he says.
Police Commander Rahman Muhammad says there’s been a big shift since he began work in the 6th district 25 years ago — the first of three tours — when gun violence revolved around narcotics or some other criminal enterprise.
Now, he says, social media is often the driving force behind the shootings. Disputes frequently begin online by gang members who’ve grown up together and are now rivals. They taunt each other over petty matters that escalate into tragedy.
Muhammad also says solving crimes has become tougher because of “an erosion of trust between the police and the community.” Residents fear their own safety, and so are less inclined to cooperate.
Carlos Nelson, the head of the Greater Auburn Gresham group, views the recent rise in shootings as a byproduct of all the ills that torment this community – poverty, joblessness, a struggling education system — combining to make people feel “hopeless and helpless.”
Add to that warm weather when people are outside and “it’s like a fuse that had been lit,” he says. “It will subside. Then the numbers will tick up again. But until you deal with the core issues at hand, you’re going to be talking about this forever.”
“I had tears in my eyes,” says Ron Cashaw.
Blocked by security bars, looters smashed the front window of his clothing store, Just Kicking, grabbed some clothing and ran away before Cashaw arrived.
The looting was something new, and horrible. But the community has a long history of trouble attracting and maintaining businesses.
“We were living in economic apartheid before the coronavirus,” Nelson says.
Auburn Gresham suffers from decades of disinvestment that began as the population transitioned from white to Black in the 1960s, he says, and residents frequently travel outside the community for health care or groceries. That creates enormous hardships for the elderly.
The pandemic added new pressures as barber shops, nail salons, restaurants and other mom-and-pop operations closed their doors, squeezing a community where about 30 percent of the residents are unemployed, according to Nelson.
Many of those working survive paycheck-to-paycheck, and they’ve suffered, too, amid furloughs and job cuts. Food pantries have popped up. Nelson’s group, working with a food depository, has served 1,200 families a week.
So in late spring, when protests spread nationwide against police brutality and calls for racial justice following George Floyd’s death, Auburn Gresham was fertile ground. Peaceful demonstrations spun into violence.
Stores burned to the ground. Looters grabbed money orders from a currency exchange and tried to crack open an ATM. Drug stores and grocery store shelves were stripped bare.
While Cashaw and his 17-year-old son were cleaning and boarding up, a menacing group of men approached. “Why are you destroying the place where you shop and where you live?” he asked.
Sensing they were about to force their way into the store, Cashaw’s son stood firm. “I will fight each and every one of you.” he said, his father recalls. The group moved on.
Pfleger, the priest, watched from another street, sensing a futility he hadn’t seen before. During the looting of a Walgreen’s, a young woman he knew walked by, carrying an armful of stolen goods.
“What are you doing? This isn’t even you,” he told her.
“I know,” she responded sheepishly, the priest recalls. “But I don’t have anything. I need this stuff. And they don’t give a damn about us anyway.”
As this agonizing year nears an end, some in Auburn Gresham are looking ahead — with hope.
Tequila Butler is among them. She suspects she was infected with the virus this spring after she was transferred from her job in a hospital kitchen to one cleaning COVID-19 patients’ rooms.
Butler, 41, wasn’t tested, but she lost her sense of smell and taste, two common symptoms of the coronavirus. Her mother and a daughter also got sick.
After she was furloughed, she decided not to go back.
“I know I gotta pay my bills, but if I bring this home to my family, how can I live with myself after that?” she asks.
So Butler, a culinary school graduate, converted a rented U-Haul into a truck that sells $1 tacos, the low price to accommodate customers with little money. It’s working; now she’s looking to buy her own truck.
Nelson is trying to convince businesses that were looted or destroyed to return. “We’ve been begging and pleading, ‘Help us rebuild,’” he says.
A recent study of Auburn Gresham and three neighboring communities found 30 percent of groceries have closed since the pandemic and civil unrest.
Nelson’s organization recently won a highly competitive $10 million grant from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation that will be used to build a hub that will provide medical, dental and other healthy living services.
The project — which will also be financed with $4 million in city funds — will include a community center, an urban farm that produces thousands of pounds of food a year and an anaerobic digester, which converts food waste into clean energy.
For Betty Swanson, it’s one more sign of the resilience of a community she’s called home since 1964. A block club president and community activist, she’s weathered many turbulent years in Auburn Gresham.
This is another. But she’s not deterred.
“When you’ve been knocked down so many times, there’s not too much that’s a blow to you,” she says. “We keep pushing on and plowing right along and if we can’t make it through, we just turn around and go another way. So we don’t give up. We don’t quit. And we do come back.”