CHICAGO— The life and tragic death of Elijah Sims is a story that stretches over several city and suburban blocks that bisect two very different worlds in Chicagoland.
Sims, who was just two days shy of his 17th birthday when he was gunned down on a Chicago street on Aug. 29, is just one of more than 500 homicide victims killed in the city this year, one of the bloodiest the city has seen since the drug wars of the 1990s.
There has been no shortage of innocent lives lost during Chicago's violent summer, during a crime surge that city officials blame on increased gang activity and gun laws that are feckless when it comes to deterring repeat offenders from arming themselves.
But the killing of Sims, whose family made the decision to leave their crime-plagued neighborhood for greener and safer pastures, is among the most heartbreaking.
More than two years ago, Sharita Galloway decided to move from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood for the sake of her children, taking them from one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods to the leafy, neighboring village of Oak Park.
“Moving was about making a choice,” Walter Sims told me after his younger brother’s funeral service last week. “It was about putting us in a good school and not having to worry about the extra stuff.”
With about 98,000 residents, Austin is still one of the biggest neighborhoods in the city. But in the aftermath of the riots of the late 1960s on the city’s West Side, the neighborhood was decimated by white flight and the loss of jobs and businesses.
Poverty skyrocketed, schools foundered and drug-dealing and gang activity have festered for years. As violence has soared in predominantly black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, Austin has become arguably Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood, with nearly 60 homicides this year alone.
In contrast, the suburb of Oak Park, which borders the northern edge of Austin, seems like it could be a million miles from the troubles plaguing Austin.
The town’s public high school, which Elijah and Walter attended, is one of the best in the state. The village of 52,000 — which was once home to author Ernest Hemingway and architect Frank Lloyd Wright — recorded its last homicide in 2011, and last year had its lowest crime rate since it started compiling stats in the 1970s.
Oak Park residents love their quaint downtown and arts district. They flock to the Saturday farmers market to buy the Pilgrim Congregational Church’s famous doughnuts.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, a civil rights activist based in Austin, recalled that after an off-duty Chicago police officer was killed in a 2011 robbery on the Chicago side of the Austin-Oak Park border, some residents darkly observed that even the bullets know to stop at the city’s edge.
“There’s such a stark contrast between the two communities, such an abrupt demarcation of the cultures of life and death,” Hatch said.
Sims had just started his senior year at Oak Park-River Forest High School when he was fatally shot in the head while standing on the street with other young men in his old neighborhood.
Police said it was not clear who was targeted in the shooting, but that neither Sims nor another teen who was seriously wounded in the incident had gang ties.
In fact, Sims appeared to be thriving. He was proud that he was earning money at a part-time job at a grocery store in Oak Park. He had set his ambitions on becoming a nurse. His family said he was looking forward to taking his girlfriend to the senior prom at the end of the school year.
But Sims didn’t forget his old neighborhood. He maintained friendships that went back to childhood and regularly made the blocks-long journey to hang out back in Austin.
His mom told me she worried about him spending time in Austin but knew that forbidding her teen from a community that was the foundation of much of his life was inviting defiance.
Instead, Galloway cajoled him to respect his 11 p.m. summer curfew, a parenting strategy that seemed to be working. On the night Sims was killed, she said she had reminded him again to be home on time, and he promised he would. Police would receive the call of his shooting at 10:11 p.m.
During his eulogy for the teen, the Rev. Ira Acree reminded the hundreds from the Austin community who gathered, that with Sims' death they lost a young man who was well on his way to becoming somebody special.
The only way to honor Sims was to make fundamental changes to end the culture of violence in neighborhoods like Austin.
“There is power in the blood of the innocent,” Acree intoned.
We can only hope that Chicago can discover this strength.