Nicole Johnson leading the Englewood Unity Day/Earth Day clean-up event in April 2017

The People is a section of The TRiiBE for opinion pieces on trending topics regarding Black Chicago. In this op-ed, Teamwork Englewood’s data & communications manager, Nicole Johnson, explores how Chicago fits into Jay-Z’s vision for financial freedom in his new song, “The Story of OJ.”

Jay-Z wrote “The Story of OJ” just for Black Chicago. Well, “OK.” Maybe he didn’t pen the track specifically for us, but we better listen closely. As a Black millennial leader in Chicago, the song sums up a conundrum I’ve wrestled with for years, and provides insight into topics of financial freedom that I’ve discussed with my peers on many occasions.

The song starts with listing the different types of “nigga” one can be.

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga

Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga

Still nigga. Still nigga.

Niggas are treated differently in America. And, trust, it’s no act of endearment. Step outside of the golden paved streets of Chicago’s loop, and into the discarded microcosm that is Chicago’s South Side, and you’ll never again question what it means to be a nigga in America. Our neighborhoods are bare – save for the gas stations and corner stores owned by Arabs, and beauty supply stores owned by Asians. We don’t own anything.

For 20-plus years, I have lived in this world. It’s called Englewood. The South Side neighborhood is growing increasingly popular because of gentrification, and the city is intentional about getting this land back on the tax rolls. Which makes sense. However, it’s not us who’s buying the land. It’s large developers, accessing tax dollars, implementing their ideas of what should be here, and the people are the last to know. Don’t get me wrong. Public dollars are necessary to stimulate development in our poorest communities. This also calls for more creative civic policy innovation, but we can talk about that another time. A good portion of the homes on my block are not owner occupied. They are owned by white people who reside in the suburbs and Indiana. Take a home three houses down from mine; owned by a man living in Munster, IN who bought it for $41,000, completely remodeled the place, and put it on the market for $239,000. This is the same Englewood that appears alongside murder stats when you search “Chicago” on Google.

I could’ve bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo

For like, $2 million

That same building today is worth $25 million

Guess how I’m feeling, DUMBO.

“The Story of OJ” is Jigga’s plea to corner hustlers, which he used to be before his rap career. However, these bars resonate with those of us outside of the street game, too. Black people, we tend to get our degrees, nice jobs and paychecks, and move to gentrified areas, leaving the hood where our roots were planted. Research studies attribute Black flight as a cause to the decline of our communities. Is living in the hood really the answer, though?

Courtesy of Nicole Johnson

I moved back to Englewood after college and grad school. I work in the community. And, in following my Granna’s hustle, I am in the process of buying my first home in Englewood. I enjoy the proximity to the El and the Dan Ryan. I can easily buy my favorite hood delicacies, such as Flamin’ Hots w/ cheese and Harold’s. Most importantly, I’m around Black people. Moving back home represents one of my fundamental beliefs: If we move back to the hood, or buy it up, we could save the hood. Widespread moves like this are integral to reviving our communities, making them safer and prosperous. While my choice comes from the heart, my experience is not always positive, or safe, and because of this, I am often conflicted.

A few weeks ago, another Black millennial leader fell victim to Chicago violence. Xavier Joy, a fellow Whitney Young alum, worked tirelessly as a City Year Corps member at Dulles School of Excellence. As a Corps member, you work long hours supporting classroom teachers. This includes anything from working with small groups of children to overall behavioral management, and it’s all for a meager stipend. Dulles primarily services children from Parkway Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority apartment complex (a.k.a., the projects). Joy was a Morehouse man. Like me, he had friends who went to Wall Street, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles to stack up and spend their coins. Joy chose home, and home ultimately killed him.

Please don’t die over the neighborhood

That your mama rentin’

I don’t intend to die over the neighborhood. I don’t want to be a martyr. Just a fighter. And as my experience and reality weighs on me, I’m thinking of other ways to do the good work, but not at my personal, mental or emotional expense. Living in the hood is hard.

Despite the challenges, I choose to stay and fight. We must take back our communities before they become too expensive for us to afford them, and we’re unable to create our own vision. There is so much vacant land on Chicago’s South and West sides, the city sold residential lots for $1. Sure, this allows us to buy the proverbial block, but there’s commercial land that still goes to the highest bidder. We must think bigger. The ailments which plague Black Chicago are many, and I know there is more than one solution.

But owning our land is a start.

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