10.27.08

Jennifer Hudson's Tragic Homecoming

Jennifer Hudson's family chose to remain in perhaps the most dangerous corner of Chicago.

UPDATE: TMZ.com reports that the actress and her family were notified that a body found Monday was identified as her 7-year-old nephew, who was missing since Friday.

Englewood is a tough place for dreams.

The Chicago neighborhood that Jennifer Hudson, the Oscar-winning star of Dreamgirls, called home was cast uncomfortably into the national glare this weekend when Hudson’s mother and brother were murdered. As of Monday afternoon, police confirmed a body found in an SUV parked in Marquette, on the west side of the city, was that of Hudson's missing 7-year-old nephew, Julian King.

William Balfour, the estranged husband of Jennifer’s sister Julia, has been in custody since Friday, held on a parole violation and deemed a “person of interest.” He will certainly be questioned again now that the Julian's body has been found in the white SUV, registered to the family, that police have been seeking since Friday.

"There's a lot of good in Englewood," Deputy Police Chief Joe Patterson said. "People who have been there for 40 years, and seen it go from good to bad."

Sunday night, Hudson’s family posted a $100,000 reward for finding Julian. This morning police received a call that the missing car was parked on South Kolin Street, about five miles from Hudson’s family home. The scene there quickly became chaotic, as a crowd gathered, and police decided to move the vehicle, with the body inside, to pursue their crime-scene investigation.

This tragic discovery came after two days of scouring the area for any clue about the boy. Neighbors pitched in with the search and piled tributes in front of the house where Darnell Donerson, 57, and her son, Jason Hudson, 29, were shot, demonstrating the oddly tight sense of community that kept Donerson rooted to this decrepit, crime-plagued neighborhood even when her movie-star daughter pushed her to move.

The house where Hudson grew up, working at the Burger King drive-thru and dreaming of a spot on American Idol, sits on Yale Avenue at the southern end of Englewood. It is perhaps the most notorious of Chicago’s neighborhoods, a seven-square-mile pocket of poverty on the South Side where the median income is less than $19,000 a year.

Englewood is not pretty, though it could be. Elegant prewar buildings—the sort that have raised Chicago to one of the nation’s top architectural cities—line narrow streets. But here, once-rich avenues are lined with vacant homes and businesses and littered with trash. The biggest local revenue source is the trade in heroin crack, ecstasy and marijuana.

This is not the South Side that has drawn a parade of journalists to document the rise of Barack Obama—he lives a short trip northeast in Hyde Park, and devoted his energies as a community organizer to public housing projects, although he did make gestures to shore up Englewood when he was a state senator.

Nor is Englewood the South Side that Mayor Richard M. Daley is betting huge amounts of cash on to draw the 2016 Summer Olympic games. That’s Washington Park, still poor, still wrecked by crime, but within reach of sanity. It’s not Englewood.

Englewood is where roughly a third of its 90,000-plus residents are estimated to be mentally ill, according to Deputy Police Chief Joe Patterson, who now oversees the area where the murders took place.

Englewood is where the count of abandoned buildings is nearing 2,000—the highest of any district in the city. The murder rate is also among the city’s highest and thousands of felons call it home, running in various factions of the Gangster Disciples gang with names like Mad Bill, Sixth Ward, Crash Town, and the Mob.

This is where one of the highest concentrations of parolees and sex offenders lives in the city, and where some 40 percent of the residents—roughly 98 percent of whom are black—were reported living below the poverty line in the last census.

And this is where, in 1998, the beaten and raped body of 11-year-old Ryan Harris was found in a weeded lot—a case that drew national attention after two boys, ages 7 and 8, became the country’s youngest charged with murder. The charges were later dropped, leading to cries of sloppy police work and coercion in an area already stained with police corruption.

This is Englewood. This is Hudson’s home. This is where, reportedly, she returned as often as twice a month to be with a family that she hailed in interview after interview as her foundation, along with God.

There are also some 200 churches here, block clubs everywhere and community activists always willing to welcome the likes of former President Bill Clinton, who came to Engelwood in 1998 to announce a new economic incentives program. There are good people here—people like Hudson’s family, who by all accounts, were churchgoing, caring and close. Her father, who drove a trolley, died in 1999. Her mother was helping raise Julian, whose mother, Julia, 31, is a bus driver.

“There’s a lot of good in Englewood,” Patterson said. “People who have been there for 40 years, and seen it go from good to bad. They’re trapped by the criminal activity around them. But it’s an easy statement to make to say that Englewood breeds bad people. There’s a good side to Englewood. It’s twofold.” And Darnell Donerson, for one, decided the good outweighed the bad, resisting her daughter’s pressure to move to a safer place.

On Sunday, as services were being held at the family’s South Side church, dozens of police mustered outside for roll call in a show of commitment to the community before fanning out to search for Julian. Boarded up buildings were checked. Dumpsters were checked. Every nook. No Julian.

“The biggest untold story is the tremendous level of community activism in this area,” said Johnnie Muhammad, 42, a community activist with Teamwork Englewood. “Go into any meeting, daytime or nighttime, and we have a large crowd. But there’s just this strong disconnect between many of the people here and the alienated population who engages in these acts of violence. We have to turn it around.”

“The people are dissatisfied here, with what’s going on here,” Muhammad said. “The kids here, they’re de-sensitized to gun violence and probably 80 to 90 percent of the violence around here is guns. But we can make investments and I believe we have seen the day when Englewood could live without the black eye that is these murders.”

Indeed, where there was once no grocery store and no bank—no private enterprise to speak of except liquor stores and corner shops—there is finally some new investment. Mayor Richard Daley pumped $256 million in public funds into the neighborhood in the late 1990s, but Englewood still couldn’t shake its image. More recently, the Salvation Army has erected a $30 million facility, the city put a new community college and police district in the area, and a new family center was built. So there is some traction; there is some hope.

When he was an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama also tried to give a boost to Englewood, arranging a $100,000 grant to one of his former campaign workers to build a botanical garden in the neighborhood. The garden was never built, however, and the state is now investigating charges that investors pocketed the some of the money.

Obama was also clearly mindful of the endemic violence in this and other South Side neighborhoods, especially among teens, when he spoke last year to a church congregation just south of Englewood.

After quoting from both the Bible and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, he declared:

“We can blame each other and we can blame our leaders….We can grown hard, and we can grow angry, and we can get cynical. And we can become numb and indifferent to the gunshots and funerals…But I’m tired of going to funerals. I’m tired of marching. I’m tired of giving speeches like this.”

Over the weekend, he sent his condolences to Jennifer Hudson, whom he had tapped to sing at the Democratic convention in Denver.