By Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.

What has happened to my hometown?  After an eleven year absence, it is nothing short of heartrending and stunning to see the negative changes that have degraded the quality of life in Maywood, a strategically located, and once vibrant, village of beautiful homes nestled in the near west suburbs of the world-class city of Chicago.  Moreover, it is sad to observe the resignation and inertia that have settled like a dark cloud over many residents of Maywood.  It is as if some of us believe that we are powerless to chart the destiny of our own community, and nothing could be further from the truth.  

Oddly, all around Maywood, other towns are thriving.  Oak Park is still home to a healthy, upscale lifestyle.  It’s an edifying community bustling with energy and a strong business life force.  Forest Park has become a more viable town, too, with a business environment that supports life that’s worth living.  Melrose Park continues to thrive, River Forest is still a good place to live, and Broadview and Bellwood appear reasonably stable.  Then there is Maywood, a community with a brilliant history of human achievement — and that continues to have tremendous potential — sitting there struggling mightily.

The first indicator that something is desperately wrong concerns the public school system.  The once exalted township anchor high school that sits at First Avenue as people enter the village on Madison Street, Proviso East, is mired in failure.  According to the Chicago Tribune 2011 Illinois School Report Cards presentation (and the State Board of Education), in the Spring of 2010, a meager 1.6% of the juniors taking the ACT “scored high enough on at least three of the four parts of the ACT to be considered ‘college ready’ for key [college] freshman classes.”  (The data was “computed based on ACT scores for 97.4% of students taking the test” at the school.)  Is it at all possible that I am the only person who finds that figure unconscionable?  With a low enrollment of 1,918 students, that school, my school, which was once ranked in the top ten percent of public high schools in the nation, is now ranked 622 out of 669 ranked schools in the state, according to the Chicago Sun-TimesUnbelievable! 

When one stops to consider how important an excellent education is for the future of our children, those statistics are nothing short of tragic.  Bad schools have a destabilizing effect on communities.  (Well, actually, and more precisely, bad schools and degraded communities have a reciprocal destabilizing effect on each other.)  So, if we don’t move swiftly to counteract this educational crisis, there will be a day of reckoning for all of us.

The District 89 feeder school system as a whole is in bad shape, too.  According to the 2011 Illinois District Report Card, every school in the system is underperforming, except one.  Also, according to the report card, District 89 is not making “Adequate Yearly Progress” in reading or mathematics, and it is on “Academic Watch Status.”  This is unacceptable, plain and simple.  A citizen’s group needs to get on the case and demand a proper education for our children, so that their future is not truncated or foreclosed before they can even reach adulthood and maturity when they will have a better understanding of what is being lost now.  We need to answer a very basic question:  Exactly, who is in charge here, the adult authorities or the immature, unformed juveniles?

Public safety is a major issue in Maywood, too.  Homicides, shootings, and other violent crimes, as well as drug trafficking and other non-violent crimes, are of serious concern to residents.  It’s as if Black life doesn’t matter or have any real value here (and NOTHING could be further from the truth)!   Everywhere in the village, people drive cars with blatant disregard for traffic laws and rules.  People fly down residential streets as if they are being shot out of a cannon.  Some people blow through stop signs with impunity, and others aggressively pull off, with jack rabbit starts — that is, when they manage to stop for traffic signals at all.

What in the world is going on here?  Many people are questioning whether crime prevention is a high enough priority in this village.  Are all government entities working together for the good of Maywood?  Do all government officials share a strong vision and commitment to seeing Maywood prosper economically, socially, and culturally, or are they asleep at the wheel, people wonder?  Then, too, where is the sustained pressure —  the sustained outrage that should come from the people — that demands certain action from elected, appointed, and other hired officials?

Another problem in Maywood, is that, sadly, trash, litter, splintered glass, garbage, and debris strangle the streets of some of the most (historically) aesthetically lovely areas of Maywood; and people who seem to have little to no understanding of basic residential civilities continue to move in.  Taxes are high, utilities are high, and, yet, the standard of living continues to diminish rapidly in Maywood.

Isn’t it Time to Ferret out the Insanity?  

How?  Where do we begin?  Enforce the laws for one thing.  Among other functions, it is the job of municipal leaders to put structures in place that maintain a good quality of life for the inhabitants of the village.  In short, it is their job to enforce the laws in a manner that makes it clear that this is not the place for people who are not interested in being good neighbors.

Start with the small things, with simple strategies.  Police officers should be stationed at all the entry points in Maywood to stop those who enter the village breaking the speed limit laws.  People who ride around with their radios blasting adult content on our streets, as our children play outside or as we walk around with them in and out of commercial public spaces, need to be ticketed, too.  We have a nuisance ordinance, enforce it.  There are humane ways to do that.  Give them a “warning” citation, the first time, but lock the driver’s license in the computer each time.  Perhaps some of these drivers just need to be reminded about what they have forgotten.  However, the next time that driver is stopped for blaring, disturbing music, ticket him or her.

Cars parked on the grass in front yards need to be ticketed and towed, too, if necessary.  People playing loud music at home into the middle of the night during the work week need to get a citation for disturbing the peace.  This is not the place for people who don’t understand that homeowners have a right to what the law calls the “quiet enjoyment” of their property.

These kinds of simple measures can be used as a means for sending a clear message to people who don’t want to conform to the set of community norms by which longtime Maywoodians want to live.  The message?  Leave.  That’s right, leave.  You do not belong here and you are not wanted here.  People who don’t want to conform to an intelligent and civilized way of life should be made to feel uncomfortable, because too many good people have made too many sacrifices and poured their hearts and souls into making Maywood a sound community in which to live.  Those sacrifices must be honored and the effects and results of those sacrifices need to be perpetuated.

All village business should be conducted and administered in a manner that makes it clear to anyone contemplating residing (or doing business) here that this is not the repository for people who are interested in behaving badly — people who have no respect for themselves, the people living here, or this town.  This is not the place for people who don’t understand the concept of civic pride — people who don’t want the best for this community.

We don’t want people here who are destructive and who want to tear the village down and make it uninhabitable.  We don’t want people here who don’t understand that a positive living environment plays an important part in the healthy development of our children and in the maintenance of comfort and peace of mind for our adult citizens.  Nor do we want our property values — our hard earned investments — to dwindle.

Furthermore, we don’t want people here who don’t understand that congregating in front of businesses make those commercial ventures unappealing to would be consumers.  Quite candidly, we don’t want people here whose level of consciousness leads them to believe that, because this town is predominantly Black, we don’t have the right to have the same quality of life that people in communities that are recognized as tony or “good” have.  (Government officials and concerned citizens must demand the same level of respect for Maywood that is given to people in Winnetka or Deerfield.)  On the other hand, good, productive people who want to add value to our neighborhoods and commercial strips are more than welcome here.  There should be no equivocating on these issues.

We the People:  Come Together?

At the social and political level, a major problem in the village is that there are too many factions and too much interpersonal conflict.  People are warring with each other and all that behavior is doing is contributing to the decay and downfall of Maywood.  Most of the people who are at war with each other are not bad people.  Quite the contrary, there are many, many fundamentally good residents in this town, people who want to see the village flourish.  All over town there are people who have organizations and groups that were formed with a desire to be a part of the solution.  The problem is that ill feelings toward each other, some of it deserved and some not, have calcified to the point that constructive action that needs to be taken can’t get accomplished because people are so turned off with each other.  Many people will not work together, and some actively attempt to obstruct anything certain others attempt to do, even if it is in the best interest of the citizens!

Moreover, there seem to be a lot of longstanding, now insignificant, conflicts among different groups and individuals; and while people are nursing trivial grievances against each other, the town is collapsing around them.  So, now there are many community groups that are seeking positive change, but they are pulling in different directions and refusing to help each other at a time when we need to coalesce, force some governmental changes, and make this town work.  Maywood is too small to advance under the weight of all this division.  The way things are going, it will surely fall.

Furthermore, many people have thrown up their hands and given up on various governmental entities, convinced that these systems do not and will not function in the best interest of Maywood.  There is not enough cohesiveness and not enough collaboration among what should be interfacing systems, including different arms of government (e.g. school and park districts), different branches of government (at all levels), businesses, non-profits, faith-based organizations (where appropriate) and, ultimately, families.  Hence, the positive synergistic effect that all these entities could have on Maywood simply isn’t there.

So, what we need now is strong, fearless, innovative, unselfish leadership that will extend olive branches and call all the groups, factions, and individuals who want change to the table for the good of the town.  It needs to be done and someone needs to have the courage to do it.  We must come together for the sake of the community.  The good people here must help “heal the land” by working together.

Long time Maywoodians, aren’t you, in the words of that phenomenal human rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired?”  Isn’t it time to get serious about preserving and maintaining the beauty, dignity, safety, peacefulness, intellectual heritage, pride, sanity, and what’s left of the shared sense of community in Maywood?  We must hold our elected and appointed officials accountable, because, in the words of the great Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”  It is our job to make the people we put in charge, the people who say they want to serve and protect our town, do just that.  Residents must unite and work together.  Everyone should employ their respective talents and be a part of the things they are interested in and for which they are qualified.

Let’s rebuild this town and restore this village back to what it used to be — a great place to live.  Fortified with information, determination, and an unalterable understanding that we have a right to a good quality of life, we can change the course of Maywood’s history and lift this community back up.  Remember,  we (the people) are NOT powerless!  We are perfectly capable of governing ourselves properly.

(Note:  A few other things, just in case you “need to know:”  The Chicago Sun-Times ranks Proviso West 593 among 669 ranked high schools, and the Proviso Math and Science  Academy is ranked 60th.  According to the Times the paper “bases its exclusive rankings of schools on average scores on state achievement tests.”)