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."

She sank onto the pavement, loosely holding her asthma pump. She said she knew who shot the five men Monday. Allen squatted next to her.

"Were you drinking today?"

"Yes."

"How many drinks did you have?"

"Just two glasses of wine."

"Would you like to see one of our grief counselors?"

When a young man walked by, a cigarette tucked behind his ear, and seared her with a look, she said he was one of the guys who did it.

"He runs the whole street," she said, but there was no quick way to know if that was true.

"Pastor Michael!" cried another woman. She was pushing a cart filled with Pepsi and white bread. She, too, wanted a hug.

She told Allen she'd been across the corner at the Uptown Shop & Save when the shootings happened.

"I don't feel safe to take my kid to the park," she said.

It was a common sentiment Tuesday, but there were also people like Tom Westerman, a church member who lives in a nearby SRO. He said he loves the neighborhood and has come to believe that if violence is going to get you, it can get you in any neighborhood.

After he said that, he walked away. He came back.

"They missed a couple of spots where there's still blood on the sidewalk," he said.

"We'll take care of it, buddy," Allen said.

And next Monday, the door will be open for a free dinner again, proof that the good and the bad co-exist, sometimes on the same corner.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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