(MCT) — CHICAGO — Over the years, the Redd children believed the colorful tot lot next to their two-story house belonged to them alone, a haven of slides and swings in Chicago’s lakefront North Kenwood neighborhood that rivaled playgrounds in the suburbs.
“They would see other kids in the park and (say): ‘Why are there other kids in our park?’ ” Geri Redd, 40, said about her son Andrew, 9, and daughter Lauryn, 7. “And, we’d say: ‘You know, we let other people use it.’ ”
Since the shooting death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in late January, the children don’t want to go to Vivian Gordon Harsh Park anymore, she said. In a flash, the tot lot in the 4400 block of South Oakenwald Avenue has taken on the air of other troubled parks across Chicago, avoided because they’re believed to be the realms of gangs and drug dealers.
Early on, Chicago police suspected that whoever shot Hadiya was targeting a rival gang member when he fired several times and killed her eight days after she performed during the presidential inauguration festivities as a majorette with the King College Prep band. On Monday, police said the two men charged in Hadiya’s killing, Kenneth Williams and Michael Ward, said that they were looking for rivals who had shot Williams in July.
Hadiya’s killing — a mile from President Barack Obama’s family home in neighboring Kenwood —garnered international attention as a tragic example of the random gun violence gripping Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police are trying to turn back a wave of shootings that led to 506 homicides last year and 42 more in January, the highest number in that month since 2002. First lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral Saturday, along with Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn.
The violence is largely concentrated in certain besieged areas of the city but is also rattling neighborhoods in transition such as North Kenwood and Oakland just to the north. Many new homeowners in those lakefront communities felt shielded from crime on their neighborhoods’ periphery, but Hadiya’s slaying has shattered those illusions.
“Even when there are changing neighborhoods like North Kenwood-Oakland, violence is still a problem,” said David Whittaker, executive director of the Chicago Area Project, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce juvenile crime through community building. “I don’t think any of us should feel safe and secure. As long as it’s next door, it affects us.”
In the U.S. census community area that includes Harsh Park, 51 people were shot last year, and three were killed, according to city data. Five people, including Hadiya, were shot in January. Those numbers are consistent with the tally of violent crime there over the past decade, the data show.
The high-profile shooting has shaken residents on South Oakenwald and challenged their vision of a block of pristine brick and graystone houses as a safe sanctuary.
“When it’s on your front door, it makes you think: What’s happening in the city about gun violence?” said Desiree Sanders, 45, who lives across the street from the park.
Sanders’ front porch looks out onto a shrine for Hadiya made of stuffed animals, candles and hand-scribbled messages of grief.
That view, along with the “Save the Children” fliers that hang in her windows and those of her neighbors, runs counter to the path that the South Side neighborhood has been taking.
The area was known during the early 20th century as the Gold Coast of the South Side, home to the city’s elite. Then, over several decades through the early 1990s, as violent crime devastated many neighborhoods across the city, much of North Kenwood and Oakland became an urban wasteland of trash-filled vacant lots, public housing towers and crime.
But in the past decade, the neighborhood has seen a slow revival. South Oakenwald Avenue has played a key role in the resurgence, followed by the demolition of public housing high-rises that made room for new mixed-income developments.
During the mid-1990s, homes built along Oakenwald became blueprints for new or renovated brick and graystone houses in the area, community leaders said. A University of Chicago charter school opened in 1998.
The experience of living on Oakenwald has been “close to perfect,” said James Holliday, 54, an Internet technology salesman who moved to his airy, two-story brick house 18 years ago.
Sitting inside his sunlit living room, Holliday described the neighborhood where he walks his dog, Diogi, every day as a place where other homeowners rarely fail to say hello.
“Most of the neighbors are the same neighbors that have been here since I moved in,” Holliday said. “People see me with my dog, and I just walk and talk. It’s been relatively safe.”
As in many communities, the local park helped define the neighborhood.
Formerly called Beech Park, the lot was once filled with broken concrete and other hazards, said Paul Johnson, who is president of the local block club and lives across the street.
There were no lights there, and teenagers gathered in the park at night, making some homeowners uneasy, Johnson said.
“After dark, it was pitch black, and people would be there smoking marijuana or hanging out or doing all kinds of things, doing drug deals,” he said. “The neighborhood had changed, but it gave them the space where they could do those kinds of things.”
In 2005, the park was renamed after Vivian Gordon Harsh, a longtime resident of the area whose 1932 appointment as the first African-American to oversee a Chicago branch library reflected the area’s robust hopes.
In 2011, improvements to the park were completed, including new grass and the installation of benches and a pavilion, Johnson said.
Those features attracted more young families and some couples, neighbors said. Later, some teenagers started coming by to sit and talk, walking over from nearby schools — including King College Prep high school, where Hadiya went.
Shirley Newsome, a driving force behind the local revitalization, said parks are always linchpins in community stability.
After the Harsh Park improvements were made, “the negative element felt like, ‘Hey, this is off the beaten track, out of the line of sight,’ ” said Newsome, who in 2011 served briefly as interim 4th Ward alderman after Toni Preckwinkle became Cook County Board president.
But while children vaulted toward the sky on swings and the lot remained relatively peaceful, darker claims were being made on the park.
The playground was the setting for an amateur rap video posted to YouTube. The video, which also highlights the intersection at Oakenwald and 44th Place, uses the moniker of a local gang in an opening credit and features a rapper shown leaving the Cook County Jail, then threatening to shoot down his foes.
The video ends at a house party with a smiling teenage girl flashing gang signs at the camera.
Johnson, the block club president, said some of the youths who live in the neighborhood’s newer homes are falling into gang life, emulating the culture that percolates through more violent communities.
“If some of us are so well-off to think that because we’re well-off we can hide in one corner in the world and we won’t be affected by all of these things, it’s just not true,” he said. “Our children are attracted to these things.”
Redd said that thought is chilling. She and her neighbors have vowed to take a more active role in their community — vigilance they concede they have shirked in the face of work pressures or the demands of their children’s after-school activities.
Redd lamented the “awful” conversations her family has recently had about guns and gangs, a long way from the happy day in 2000 when she and her husband moved into their new home on their first wedding anniversary.
On the Sunday before the shooting, she said, their daughter Lauryn was playing in the park with a friend, wrapped in a snowsuit and giddily slipping down the slides.
That pleasant memory is fading as TV news crews from around the world use the park as a backdrop for reports about Chicago’s intractable problem with violent crime.
“I don’t know when they’ll be comfortable setting foot over there,” Redd said of her children. “I don’t know when I’ll be comfortable letting them go play.”
(Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen, Pete Nickeas and Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report.)