Watching the good and the bad on an Uptown street corner

After shooting that wounded 5, pastor shines light on neighborhood's woes

The Rev. Michael Allen offers a prayer for the safety of the community surrounding Uptown Baptist Church on Aug. 20, 2013, in Chicago. On the traffic light control box is a bullet hole from the shooting. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune)

They say it's a bad corner.

Pastor Michael Allen hadn't thought of it that way.

In his eight years as pastor of Uptown Baptist Church, Allen has known that the corner of Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road in Chicago was at the border of rival gang territories, but it's also the corner where he oversees all the good that goes on at the church.

Good was going on there Monday evening, in fact, when he heard the shots.

The church had just finished a first seating of its weekly Monday supper for the homeless, down in a basement room that every night turns into a women's shelter, and the second prayer service was almost done, to be followed by the night's second seating for tacos.

Firecrackers, the speaker assured the congregation when the shots rang out.

Allen suspected otherwise. He stepped out onto the steps of the old graystone church, with its black gate thrown open to welcome the hungry, and saw the truth on the sidewalk.

Five men down, wounded and bleeding.

Bullet holes, each the size of a fingertip, in the metal traffic signal boxes.

The wailing and the snap of cellphone cameras. Cop cars and media trucks soon followed.

"This was too big to ignore," Allen said Tuesday when I went to see him, and, to his mind, if there was any good news in Monday's Uptown shootings, that was it. No more acting as if all the city's trouble happens on the south and west sides of town.

"For years I've been saying that incidents like this happen all the time on the North Side," he said.

And yet Allen, a native of Jamaica who lives in Rogers Park, still doesn't think of it as a bad corner, or a bad neighborhood, just a neighborhood whose problems deserve more attention.

"One of the deceptive things about this neighborhood," he said as we stood on the corner in the muggy day, "is that what you see is only a fraction of what is here."

What he meant is that during the day, the middle-class residents, the college grads, the people who can afford the $1,700-a-month two-bedroom apartments in the renovated terra cotta building cater-cornered from the church — they're at work.

Those residents, he emphasized, are a big part of the shifting landscape of Uptown. Some of them are in his congregation.

But what you see on an average day, standing outside the church, looks more like what the corner looked like Tuesday, which was this:

Elderly women with walkers. Teenage boys riding bikes on the sidewalk. Gaunt people with weathered faces, unsteady on their feet. People who speak English, Spanish, Haitian French, African dialects. Every shape and shade of human pushing in or out of the doors of the McDonald's across the street.

A slight woman with ragged hair stopped and stared at a single bouquet near the bloodstained sidewalk.

"Please," she said, throwing her arms open to Allen, "give me a hug. I gotta get out of this neighborhood."

CHICAGO

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