Back of the Yards

 by Megan E. Doherty

BEYOND THE headlines of the notoriously high gun and gang violence in Chicago, there is the debilitating loss of human capital in many communities of the city’s South and West Sides. For the last 28 months, I have been documenting the efforts of one man—“Brother" Jim Fogarty—who works to help people in the Back of the Yards reinvest in themselves and the transformation of their neighborhood.

We're on the 9th floor of a building in the Dearborn Homes housing project visiting Joyce, who has AIDS and is dying of terminal cancer. This one she can't beat. She called Brother Jim and asked him to help her go over some paperwork. “Final Wishes” planning guides. Where does she want her funeral? Who will carry her coffin? She breaks down in tears, her body convulsing through the sobs. She leaves the room multiple times to collect herself. In a moment of quiet reflection, Br. Jim looks stressed.

We're on the 9th floor of a building in the Dearborn Homes housing project visiting Joyce, who has AIDS and is dying of terminal cancer. This one she can't beat. She called Brother Jim and asked him to help her go over some paperwork. “Final Wishes” planning guides. Where does she want her funeral? Who will carry her coffin? She breaks down in tears, her body convulsing through the sobs. She leaves the room multiple times to collect herself. In a moment of quiet reflection, Br. Jim looks stressed.

Jim is the last remaining member of a small street ministry, Brothers and Sisters of Love, which tends to those involved in—and victimized by—gang violence and urban poverty. When I met him, I knew that I wanted to document both the work he was doing in the community as well as the lives of the people he was engaging with. When I began walking the streets with Br. Jim in February 2013, he introduced me to the neighborhood and its residents, and I have been following, photographing, and walking with him every week since.

I wanted to do more than show the harshness of this place. I wanted to show how people here are struggling to achieve some kind of redemption; and what does this look like in Back of the Yards?

I asked Jim to elaborate:

"One of the problems is that for 150 years, successful projects, programs and infrastructures that have worked in immigrant communities have not worked with poor African Americans. A large part of that is due to racism, exploitation, and the destruction of infrastructures decades ago. The best friend of the African Americans, since the time of President Lincoln, has been the federal government—and the government has not been a particularly good friend. I guess what I am saying is that good will in challenging people's default perspective has not been working, and I don't see it changing any time soon. Most people who I can challenge on their default perspective are people who walk with me in the neighborhoods."

My work really isn't much when compared with what Brother Jim does—he’s been challenging people's default perspective for over 30 years. Unfortunately, many people have a particular fear of poor African Americans. And too often our only exposure or contact is "when things go wrong.” One thing we can learn from Brother Jim is that remaining present can engender empathy. We just have to put ourselves out there.