They say all things come full circle. In September of 1969, I hopped aboard the Red Line of the EL and rode down the Dan Ryan Expressway for my first day at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The neighborhood around Roosevelt and Halstead Streets was not safe in those days. One block south was Maxwell Street, for years home to the world’s largest open-air market. By the time I arrived, foot traffic had been reduced to sullen gang members, panhandlers, and furtive drug dealers lurking in shadows between the neighborhood’s disintegrating, grime-covered buildings.
To the north, the university squatted across several blocks, a barren heap of concrete where saplings withered and stoned-out hippies lounged in the Student Union, strumming anti-war ballads on guitars. Barely seventeen at the time, it was more than I could handle; I dropped out before the end of the first semester, got a job, and never looked back. But last month, during my annual trip to visit my family over the holidays, I was invited to have lunch with a professor friend who teaches at the UIC. It had been more than 40 years since my last visit and I wasn’t sure I remembered how to get there, so I asked my Dad for directions.
“Halsted and Roosevelt? You mean down by Maxwell Street? You can’t go down there alone; it’s dangerous!”
I explained that, according to my friend, the neighborhood is now quite safe. Continue reading