Sunday, November 1, 2009

City in Pain...City of Hope

Directly across from the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, there is a brand new office building that, to the casual observer, is seemingly unoccupied. But look closer - on any given weeknight, if you gaze up to the second floor and through the large pane windows, you will probably notice a group of people congregating...they gather, they talk, they laugh, they live their lives. I work in this building as an ESL teacher, and my organization serves the Latino community of Waukegan by providing classes in English and basic computer skills, as well as housing advocacy and legal counsel for those who need it.

Waukegan is a city that has gone through a great deal of change through the years. It was originally a French trading post and eventually grew into an incorporated town in 1849. Flashes of greatness reside in its past. In 1894, a man named Edwin Amet invented what is believed to be the first 35 mm projector, which allowed movies to be watched en masse on a large screen for the first time (before this, films could only be watched peep-show style on Kinetoscope machines). Amet partnered with his friend George Spoor to produce and show films in Waukegan's old Phoenix Opera House, and the films brought in hundreds of dollars a week. Believing the phenomenon to be a temporary fad, Amet sold his entire stake in the venture to Spoor, who eventually migrated south to Chicago and founded the legendary Essanay Studios, which, long before the rise of Hollywood, was THE American movie studio and employed such cinematic greats as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.

That missed opportunity aside, Waukegan thrived throughout much of the twentieth century as a port city rich in commerce. It was quintessential middle America, with the added bonus of a prime location right on the periphery of Lake Michigan. Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine revels in the nostalgia of a childhood spent in this city (he calls it "Green Town" in the book). Based on reports like this, Waukegan seemed idyllic and prosperous in every way.

Something changed along the way, though. Its economy dwindled to a fraction of its prior greatness by the end of the twentieth century. The demographic changed considerably as well - today, approximately half its population is Latino, along with 20% African-American. These two minorities often co-exist uneasily, fighting for the same meager jobs of barely manageable income. Gangs have become a prevelant problem in the city, and it's probably best not to walk the streets alone after the sun goes down. At night, it literally feels like a ghost town. The wind blows hard off the edge of Lake Michigan, and trash often swirls eerily down the main drag of Genesee Street.

Proponents of the city have been hopefully pointing to revitalization projects that might someday turn things around, but change is slow going. On the first floor of my building, for example, there is a sign for a new bar and grill called Jack's on Genesee, and if you peer inside the windows, you can see some evidence of almost-completed bar, rich mahogany cabinets, a few somewhat finished walls. Look again at the sign, though, and read carefully: "Jack's on Genesee - coming soon this summer, 2008!" It is now November of 2009. We're still waiting, Jack.

But if you venture inside the building, and follow the laughter from above, up to the second floor, you would hardly be aware of any of these poignant and trenchant truths. Approximately 50 students congregate in three separate classrooms on any given weeknight, struggling with the vagaries of the English language. They are there to learn, but they are there for community as well. Friendships are formed; experiences are shared; lives are lived. If you go to the end of the hallway on the second floor and walk inside classroom number 3, you will find me there with my students, conjugating verbs, leading discussions, creating something out of nothing every night we are there.

"All right, now where in the house do you find the toilet and the shower?"

"In the bathroom, teacher!"

"Excellent. Now where in the house do you find the stove and the refrigerator?"

"In the kitchen, teacher!"

"Great! Now where in the house do you put your jackets and your clothes?"

"On the floor, teacher!" booms Juan, the resident class jester. "Always the floor!" And great spasms of laughter explode into the night.

You would never hear this laughter from the street below. You would only see an empty office building, sadly ironic signs, forlon swirling trash. It is easy to assume, upon a first casual glance, that this is a city in pain, nothing more. But there is something more, if you look a bit closer. This is a city of hope.

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