Hudson Deaths Latest Chapter in South Side Chicago Violence

The brutal deaths of three members of singer-actress Jennifer Hudson's family shocked the nation last week. But as residents of Chicago's South Side, where the killings took place, know well, violent crime is an all-too common occurrence.

Even so, the slayings of Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, her brother, Jason Hudson, and 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, have brought an outpouring of grief, prayer vigils and cries for help.

King's death appears particularly gruesome. Police sources told the Associated Press that the boy was likely alive when he was taken from his home and killed in the sport-utility vehicle where his body was found.

The murders have also focused new attention on an area plagued by violence so chronic that the gunfire coming from the Hudson family home last Friday morning did not even warranted a phone call to police.

Author Alex Kotlowitz, who lives just outside Chicago, has been writing about the problems and the promise of inner-city Chicago since penning "There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America." As the Hudson family prepares for a public memorial service Sunday (Jennifer Hudson is not expected to attend) and a private funeral Monday, spoke to Kotlowitz about the city's rising homicide rate, how much has changed since the publication of his best-selling book 16 years ago and whether there are still no children there.

These killings took place in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Give us a snapshot of the area.

Englewood is a neighborhood, like so many, which has struggled both with forces from within and without. For years, it suffered from disinvestment, and that wear and tear shows in the neighborhood. Vacant lots. Few grocery stores. No movie theaters. Crumbling homes. I was just there the other day, and the community has taken a terrific hit from the foreclosure crisis. Some blocks had four or five homes boarded up. Yet, amidst all this you have to remind yourself that every morning men and women march off to work, children walk to school. People are somehow managing to stay erect in an otherwise slumping world.

But as you suggest, it's the violence -- especially the gunplay -- that is most disturbing and troubling. It's a neighborhood that experiences one of the highest rates of violence in the city. Homicides citywide are up considerably from last year. The gunfire can be so frequent that often people don't report gunshots. Apparently, when the Hudson family was shot there were 10 bodies at the city morgue, all victims of violence, awaiting identification. I've spent 25 years writing on our central cities, and for me what has been most perplexing is the stubborn, persistence of the violence. In one weekend this past spring in Chicago, 37 people were shot, seven of them fatally.

Gunplay, I fear, has become all too common. And Chicago is not some exception. In recent years, homicides are up in cities across the nation.

It appears that Jennifer Hudson's mother and brother were shot in the morning but not found until that afternoon. How is that no one responded to the sound of gunshots that morning? Have gunshots become so commonplace?

In some neighborhoods it has. An elementary school principal once told me that without looking at the clock he could tell when the end of the school day was nearing. Around 2:30, the building would begin to shake with activity. Kids suddenly got antsy. They'd run through the halls. Slamming lockers. Hollering at each other and at teachers. The children would get agitated -- because they dreaded the walk from the school to their homes, knowing that they might get caught in crossfire. The violence has traumatized the children -- as well as the adults.

Earlier this year, over the course of six weeks, two students at Chicago's Community Christian Alternative Academy were murdered on the streets. Myra Sampson, the principal, told me that students would come up to her in the hall and declare, "I'm next." One student had to be hospitalized because he was having hallucinations that the deceased was talking to him. "They're in a constant heightened state of arousal," Sampson told me. "They can't learn."

Amidst all the street violence, communities virtually unravel. Businesses pick up and leave. Neighbors begin to distrust neighbors. Neighbors distrust the police -- and the police have little confidence in the residents. In Chicago, police now patrol certain neighborhoods in full military garb. And as a result of all this, these communities become increasingly isolated from the rest of us, both physically and spiritually.

Looking at (suspected Hudson killer) William Balfour's background, his father and brother were in prison and he was affiliated with the Gangster Disciples. How difficult is it for someone who grows up in the neighborhood to avoid a life of crime?

There are many in these neighborhoods -- the vast majority in fact -- who lead honorable lives. Spending time in a place like Englewood can be dispiriting, but it can also simultaneously be inspiring. To see the fortitude of individuals who somehow manage. Yes, the gangs are pervasive, and as a youngster, especially if you're a boy, they're hard to avoid. I don't mean to suggest that all kids end up joining gangs. Not at all. It's just hard not to have some contact with them. A friend. A family member. A neighbor. It's hard not be touched by their activities.

Are the gangs, particularly the Gangster Disciples, still pervasive and powerful in Chicago?

The gangs are still pervasive. And, yes, the Gangster Disciples are still very much around. But the gangs structurally have changed. They used to be run from the top down. The leadership hierarchy was pretty clear. Now that's no longer the case. The kids and young men (and women) run in much smaller groups. On the street, they're often referred to as cliques -- whose members are answerable to no one but a handful of peers.

Also, it's important to recognize that while the gangs certainly are responsible for a good deal of the violence, much of it is often the result of rather small, mundane disputes. An argument over a girl. An insult at a party. A wrong look. Cutting in front of someone at a club. These minor arguments quickly escalate -- and it's not long before a gun enters the picture.

Balfour was paroled in May 2006 after serving a 7-year prison sentence, and Julia Hudson, the mother of Julian King and Hudson's sister, married him in November 2006. What does her marriage say about the options for women in inner-city Chicago? Is it commonly accepted that eligible men and would-be fathers will have had some sort of run-in with the law?

Anyone concerned about our cities, concerned about justice, ought to spend a day in the criminal courts. In Chicago, if you did, it would quickly become apparent that the overwhelming majority of the defendants are African-American and Hispanic. Last I looked here, nearly 90 percent of the 11,000 awaiting trial in the county jail were black and Hispanic. There are those who might argue, "Well, that's who's committing all the crimes," but given that an estimated 70 percent of the cases are for possession or selling of narcotics, the racial makeup of the defendants seems rather lopsided. Blacks or Hispanics, after all, are no more or less likely to use drugs than whites. One long-sitting judge once complained to me that the drug cases "are nickel-and-dime stuff." What's more, he told me, there were only 45 slots available in rehab programs for defendants with drug problems.

I guess this is a roundabout way of answering your question. Yes, many eligible men and would-be fathers have had some run-in with the law, but more often than not it involves what this judge called "nickel-and-dime stuff." Having said that, it's my understanding that Balfour had a violent past, which is very different from what this judge is speaking of -- and very different from the majority of those in the county jail awaiting trial.

How impressive is it that Jennifer Hudson was able to leave the neighborhood and become so successful? Is she unique in that way?

Her success, by any measure, would be impressive. But you're right to suggest that it can be extraordinarily tough to find success having grown up in a neighborhood like Englewood. You have a lot working against you. Underperforming schools. The violence. Financial struggles. Even those who we think of as successes, their upward momentum can be, well, rocky.

Years ago, I did a story about these five boys, the best and the brightest, who all graduated from DuSable High School, which sits not too far from Jennifer Hudson's neighborhood. Two of them had excelled academically, and got full scholarships at the University of Illinois. Neither of them lasted more than two years. Both were the first in their families to head off to college. Both had to leave to take care of struggling parents. Plus, they found themselves woefully unprepared for the academic rigors of the university. An editor at the New York Times Magazine (where the story ran) came up with a headline which I think captured their lives perfectly: Upward Fragility.

So, yes, Hudson's success is remarkable, but to paraphrase William Faulkner, the past is always present.

Hudson apparently offered to move her mother and family out of the neighborhood, but her mother reportedly refused. How do you explain that kind of allegiance to a neighborhood where there is clearly violence and poverty?

I think it's only human nature to want to be among the familiar. When they tore down the public housing high rises in the city, as miserable as those projects were, people didn't want to leave. It's what they knew. It's what felt familiar. It's where they had learned to get by. It's where they had family and friends. That's hard to leave behind.

Julian King's horrible death reminds us of the title of your first book, "There Are No Children Here." Is that still true?

"There Are No Children Here" came out 16 years ago. And surely some things have changed. But what's so remarkable to me is how in the end so much feels the same. I remember after Hurricane Katrina, everyone seemed so surprised that so many had so little. All I could think to myself is, "Where's everyone been?" Such neglect borders on the willful. Communities like Englewood have been abandoned by the rest of us. We need to reinvest in these communities -- and find a way to talk about personal responsibility and collective responsibility in the same breath.

Julian King's death was horrific. It's shaken many of us. As it should. But consider that at least 36 Chicago public school students have been killed since September of 2007. Virtually every child in a place like Englewood has a friend or family member or neighbor who's been a victim of a shooting. These kids become traumatized.

I've met kids who have flashbacks. Kids who act out conflict in aggressive ways. Kids who are hyperactive. Kids who have physical problems when the gunfire becomes more frequent, like stomachaches or stuttering. Kids who are depressed. It's not at all uncommon in a community like Englewood to find kids with dark circles under their eyes, kids who clearly have trouble sleeping. We've completely underestimated the effects of the violence on the children. I'd suggest that it's one single act of violence around which the rest of a childhood will revolve. And yet children in these communities don't receive counseling. No adult walks into their lives and says, I'll do what I can to make sure that such a shooting doesn't happen again.

What would you like to see come out of this tragedy?

I don't mean to be dismissive, but we ask this question every time there's a high-profile killing. And little changes. That's what's so dispiriting for me. It's like that movie "Groundhog Day." We relive these violent, unspeakable shootings over and over again. I've been to far too many funerals over the years. Funerals of the young. Funerals where each time there are pleas to stop the violence. These deaths -- which mount and mount -- eventually sap the spirit of even the most spirited people.

In the short run, we have to consider new ways to tackle the violence. More police and longer sentences haven't worked. Let's get guns off the street. Maybe think about violence as a public health matter (which is being done by a Chicago group, CeaseFire, run by an epidimeologist). Look for ways to fortify families. Strengthen the schools. Rebuild community -- both physically and spiritually.

In the long run, it seems to me that we have two options. One, we walk away from communities like Englewood, from our neighbors who are trying to get by. Or we recognize that if the community isn't doing all right neither am I -- and engage our neighbors. We've done the former. So it seems to me we might as well try the latter, which is to recognize that the people in places like Englewood want what everyone wants: a good life for themselves and for their children.