Look closely at the violence tearing at fabric of Chicago

| Posted in: Serious

Hanging on a wall in a storefront art gallery in Logan Square is a quilt stitched by hands that have felt the scope of homicide in Chicago, felt it with tired fingers pushing needles through fabric over and over and over again, lovingly spelling out the names of the hundreds killed last year.

The quilt is a map of the city, and most of the oddly shaped neighborhoods hold names — some only a few, some so many that names are sewn atop other names, forcing you to look closely to read one from the other.

And that’s the point, I suppose. To get you to look closely. To get you to see not only the perverse concentration of deaths in the city’s poorer neighborhoods but the sheer volume of loss.

There’s Austin, a white patch of fabric with more than two dozen names stitched in varying shades of red. Ashley Hardmon and Damani Henard, who were 19 and 14 respectively, shot to death within hours of each other last July. Leetema Daniels, 17, shot twice in the head in May.

Logan Square, the neighborhood surrounding the Beauty & Brawn Art Gallery where the quilt hangs, has six names, including Sheldon McCraven, a 23-year-old shot in the chest near his home Oct. 29. His last words to his mother were, “I love you more.”

I ran my finger gently across Englewood and North and South Lawndale, where the names blur and the stitching rises higher. It’s a tangible reminder of the more than 400 homicides in 2013.

Lourdes Arias, a member of El Stitch y Bitch, the group of crafters who conceived of the 4-by-6 quilt, said: “When I started stitching, I came to the realization that this was a person, that this is a part of somebody’s family.”

Since I moved here in 2002, there have been more than 5,000 people murdered in Chicago. That’s more than were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and more than the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq since 2003.

Each year, as the grim tally comes in, I think: “Surely this will be the year Chicagoans say, ‘No more.’ Nowhere can this level of violence be deemed acceptable.” And yet little seems to change. The numbers remain largely faceless, and the people with the means to make a difference all too easily avoid the neighborhoods where gunshots are common and children grow up in fear.

I was a senior in high school in the late 1980s, a time when the AIDS crisis was coming into the public eye.

An ignorant teenager, I thought little of it all.

Then, on a trip to Washington, D.C., I walked over the crest of a small hill on the National Mall and saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt, its huge patches of fabric stretching out in all directions, as far as I could see. Names everywhere. These were people who had died of something I had ignored.

It took my breath away, and I never took the issue lightly again. That quilt played a strong role in helping people unconnected to the AIDS crisis understand the immensity of the problem.

If only the quilt on that wall in Logan Square — called “Untitled (Homicide Quilt)” — could be made larger, stretched out from one end of Grant Park to the other, draped over Cloud Gate and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Buckingham Fountain so it was impossible to miss.

If only every Chicagoan could walk among the patchwork neighborhoods, trace a finger along the letters of a name and realize, as Arias did while she was stitching, that the colored thread represents a human being who no longer exists.

Rachel Wallis, another of the 15 female artists who worked on the quilt, said: “Part of the reason we made this is that every life matters. In Chicago, it’s easy to dismiss people as running with the wrong crowd or something like that. But these are all somebody’s children or brothers or sisters.”

Last weekend there were at least 36 people shot in the city, four of them fatally. Under what circumstances can we ever agree that that’s OK?

I don’t know the answers to the myriad problems that incubate and nurture violence. Clearly the police and politicians, the churches and the most well-meaning of activists don’t either.

But I believe that collectively the people of this city — supposedly a city that works — have the intellect, the resources and the compassion to make a change. If they want.

Sometimes to get fully invested, you need to recognize your own ignorance.

You need to see the problem blazed large, not distilled to numbers on a page.

You need something to take your breath away.

The homicide quilt may not be that thing, but it’s a powerful start.

Go see it. Open your heart to the scope of this problem.

Look closely.

This is where we live.

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