April 25, 2012
The big, old, white house with the boards on the windows and the trash in the yard remains a landmark.
The Hudson place. Neighbors still call it that even though the Hudsons haven't lived there since the murders.
"Did you know them?" I asked the man who stood on the sidewalk Tuesday morning gazing at the littered empty lot next door. Before he could answer, a loud pop cracked the air. We both twitched.
"What was that?" he said. His eyes darted toward the alley.
Another pop. It sounded like a gunshot. He relaxed.
"Firecracker," he said.
Yeah, he knew the Hudsons. But when he added that he'd been asked to testify about Jennifer's brother in the trial that began earlier this month, I quickly told him I didn't want to compromise a witness. He gave me his name anyway, without my asking, then walked off, only to call out a minute later from a nearby porch.
He walked back to the Hudson place. Another loud pop.
"I hope I'm not going to look up and see my name in the newspaper."
He flashed a hard look that seemed to add: Don't mess with this.
The streets in this part of Englewood have Ivy League names. Princeton. Harvard. Jennifer Hudson's family lived on Yale.
That's where her mother and brother were shot to death in October 2008, a few days before her 7-year-old nephew was found dead in an SUV on the West Side. Prosecutors say her sister's jealous ex-husband, William Balfour, did it.
The testimony that began Monday is happening in a different piece of Chicago. A few miles north, in the safety of a courthouse, reporters from all over hang on the comings, goings and stylings of Jennifer Hudson, the famous member of the family.
Here in Jennifer's old neighborhood, where discarded plastic bottles and junk-food bags are almost as thick as the weeds, where it's hard to tell the frequent firecrackers from the common gunshots, there is no safety or high style.
On Tuesday, down at the corner of Yale and 71st Street, a red car pulled up to the curb. Two men peered inside and walked away carrying small plastic bags, past Linda's Daycare, where the sign out front promised "hot meals," "foreign language" and "computer," along with a "safe" and "bright" environment. All the blinds were drawn.
The men disappeared into a gangway. One reappeared a while later.
"Don't nobody mess with that house," he said, looking over at the Hudson place.
Right after the murders, he said, thieves stole whatever they could from inside, but that was before the boards went up and the "No Trespassing" signs took on moral force.
"That house like sacred ground," he said.
I asked the man if he knew anything about Jennifer's brother, Jason.
Three and a half years ago, when I visited the Hudson place, when the teddy bears and balloons outside were still as fresh as the grief, some of Jason's friends had come by to mourn him. They recalled him as a master griller, and as a tough basketball player, before he got shot and had to walk with a cane.
They said he mostly kept out of trouble, which in this neighborhood can mean little more than staying out of prison and staying alive. Now William Balfour's attorneys are suggesting that his big-time drug dealing led to the murders.
The man just shook his head, shaking away the questions.
"You probably never been in this lifestyle," he said, amiably enough. "There certain things people just don't talk about."
Across the street, cater-cornered from the Hudson place, Kamarion Omari, 17, was sitting on his mom's car, skipping school.
"I was up all night, thinking about life," he said. "About my brother and what I wants to see in life, what I'm going to do with myself."
Two months ago, his brother was shot to death, at the age of 14, in their apartment by one of his autistic teenage brothers, in what police say appears to have been an accident.
Jennifer Hudson came by afterward, he said.
"She gave my mama some gifts."
The TV trucks came for his brother's death, too, just like they'd come on Monday to film the Hudson place for a story on the trial.
Now he was sitting in the sun, thinking about how he might get off this block, out of this lifestyle, like Jennifer Hudson did.
"Standing out here'll get you killed or in jail," he said. "I ain't with that."
Jennifer Hudson is one of the lucky ones. She escaped a fate that to many people in many Chicago neighborhoods feels inescapable. But even she couldn't avoid the harm.
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