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In the Line of Chicago Fire


Leon Cunningham, 19, at Kindred Hospital. Cunningham has been shot four separate times within walking distance of his home in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. His left leg was amputated from the knee down due to an infection that developed the last time he was shot.

Cunningham’s mother, Della, pictured with brother, Thomas, holds a picture of Cunningham as a child.

Friends and family of Cunningham gather in the basement of his family home.

Holding a photo of Shakaki, who was murdered when Leon was shot for the 4th time.

CeaseFire Roseland.

TG, who was once gang-affiliated, became an Interrupter after his first major court scare, saying he, “wasn’t raised to be a block boy.” As an Interrupter, TG speaks to everyone he runs into.

Workshop at a CeaseFire lockdown, where 200 “at risk” clients were hosted in a Salvation Army for the night, participating in workshops: conversations with ex-prisoners, boxing and basketball and HIV awareness.

CeaseFire lockdown workshop.

Boys praying before dinner at the Ceasefire lockdown.

Memorial for Jonylah Watkins, killed at six months old.

Alvin Henry is an employee of the City of Chicago who opens his home to neighborhood children of all ages in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

Alvin Henry's house.

A member of the Blockheadz, a clique from New Block City. A clique in Chicago is a group of people from a specific block.

Members of the Blockheadz, a clique from New Block City. A clique in Chicago is a group of people from a specific block.

Marshall Field Garden Apartments.

Inside New Block City.

Marshall Field Garden Apartments.

Young Trell, with Gorilla Green Entertainment founders and in the studio.

Big and his son Yung Trell, an aspiring rapper

Young Killa aka YK, an aspiring rapper, with friends in Cabrini Green.

Chase, 14, with his parents, Mike and Latrica, who are fighting to rid their community of gangs and drugs

Text by Katy McCarthy / Photos by Daniel Shea

A while back I sat down to listen to a radio special on Chicago public schools and was blown away by what I heard. In a little over an hour, I understood that some kids in Chicago kids didn’t join cliques (think gang but smaller, younger, and less organized crime) but were automatically grouped into cliques based on the block they lived on. I learned that getting a gun was as easy as getting a new pair of sneakers and that organizing something as quintessentially high school as a dance was a huge deal in terms of safety.

So earlier this month, when I rolled across Daniel Shea’s photo series on youth violence in Chicago’s South Side, I was sort of prepared, but his photos still punched me in the gut.

In one photo Leon Cunningham, 19, lies in bed at Kindred Hospital. Leon has been shot four separate times within walking distance of his home in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The last time he was shot he developed an infection in his left leg. It had to be amputated from the knee down.

Daniel is well spoken, he chooses his words with care, but when talking about the roots of the violence you can hear the frustration and sadness leak into his voice. On the phone he lamented, “Almost all these kids are really good kids, but they get caught up in bullshit, and it becomes very territorial.”

To give a taste of how space and relations are delineated, Daniel worked closely with a clique called The Blockheadz, who live in Marshall Field Garden Apartments. In an earlier interview, Daniel wrote, “People in The Blockheadz … would interchange the words clique with family. It’s a bond for these guys.” Unfortunately, friction between cliques is often a cause for violence. According to a Chicago Sun-Times article, nearly half of all violent crimes in the city involve school-age youth.

That said, it’s not all bad news: The Blockheadz are working to make a name for themselves as rap artists on YouTube. 

In a couple photos, the aspiring rappers huddle, talk and smoke. There is an intensity to their stances that communicates that they aren’t taking a future rap career lightly. It may be a pipe dream, but they certainly aren’t approaching it that way.

Music is close to the heart of this work. The impetus for Chicago Fire was drawn from an earlier project Daniel did to document rappers on Chicago’s South Side. After that piece, Daniel and his editors at The Fader realized there was more to explore between the streets and the representation of young black rappers in the media. They wanted to “pull back the curtain on the mythology of the universe of hip hop lyrics” to look at what was really happening in the streets that inspired that content.

For a kid living in a neighborhood where you may be lucky to make it out unscathed, dreams are important to have. An image of a young woman standing on a porch holding a photo of a friend shot to death reminds us of this.

For Daniel, there were endless ways to think about the violence — both in terms of cause and effect. “There wasn’t a convenient narrative scope,” he explained. Ultimately this is what drove him to work with so many different groups — cliques, rappers, and conflict mediators with Cure Violence (an anti-violence, conflict mediation group, formerly called Ceasefire)   — which gives his project such gravity.

“What is happening is extremely complicated and woven into various cultural things, and institutional things, and structural things, there’s no way to pin point what causes the violence and keeps it going,” he explained.

As Daniel points out, lots of folks are doing good things to stop the violence. During the project, Daniel photographed and met Chase, 14, and his parents Mike and Latrica, who are fighting to rid their community of gangs and drugs.

Chicago was hit hard by deindustrialization, which played a significant role in the downturn of many of its neighborhoods. In the final photograph the family stands a strong set of three in front of what looks to be a shuttered motor supply factory. Here, in crisp autumn light and warm clothes, they look very up to the task of turning things around.




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