Monday, September 8, 2008

What did we lose with a lost life?

Every now and then, a thought pops into my mind – “What would have ever become of Dantrell Davis?”

If he had lived, he would be 23 years old. Although considering he grew up on some rough inner-city streets at Cabrini Green public housing (which was nowhere near as comical as that 1970’s era sitcom “Good Times” would have us think), there’s a chance he might not have made it this far regardless.

THIS WAS A kid growing up in the same public housing complex where former Mayor Jane Byrne felt compelled to focus her own efforts to fight inner-city crime. Dantrell had a lot more strikes in life piled up against him than most kids, and he might have struck out.

Or, he might have overcome them and made something of his life. We’ll never know, although he deserved the chance to try to succeed in life.

Now back in the late 1980s into the early 1990s, I was a reporter with the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. In my role with that local wire service, I wrote about a lot of crime – to the point where a lot of the mayhem I covered blends into a mish-mash.

I will go by the place where Pershing Road and Archer Avenue intersect, or the 8900 block of South Burley Avenue, or many other sites around Chicago and surrounding suburbs, and I know I once covered something bad that happened there. But I can’t remember the specifics.

THAT, HOWEVER, IS not the case with regards to Dantrell. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the 7-year-old boy who was shot to death in what quite possibly is the most pointless incident of violence imaginable.

It was October 13, 1992 that Davis was walking to school. As a resident of the Cabrini-Green housing complex (which was just a few blocks from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Chicago), he attended the Jenner School – which was located within the complex and consisted of public housing kids.

So this wasn’t the idyllic image of a grammar school that some people might come up with, even though all of these students were little kids. These are the kids whom the Rev. James Meeks is fighting on behalf of with his attempts to organize boycotts and alter the school funding formula to give all children a chance at obtaining a better education.

Security was tight around the building, as Chicago police made a habit of sending a marked squad car with uniformed officers to the school every day around the times that school began in the morning and ended in the afternoon – just to create the appearance that THE LAW was present.

SOME PEOPLE WOULD think that having uniformed police so obviously in place would scare away anyone who might be thinking of doing something illegal.

But in the case of Cabrini-Green, it didn’t. In fact, it is questionable whether anything more could have been done by authorities to prevent this incident. It happened anyway.

What happened was that rival street gangs were always engaged in acts of trying to one-up each other, so as to show who THE BOSS really was in the housing complex.

On that particular day 16 years ago, Davis was in the school yard, and happened to be standing (if my memory serves me correctly) about 20 feet away from that police car that was supposed to make everyone feel safe.

BUT AT THAT particular moment, a gang member with a rifle who was trying to intimidate rival gang members fired a shot. His aim stunk, he missed his target, and Davis was wounded in the jaw. He was killed almost instantly.

Some say the gunman (who later was arrested and convicted, and is currently serving a lengthy prison term) was trying to hit rival gang members who were standing near the school, but I can remember indications at the time that the gunman was trying to hit the police car.

I suppose it would have made him feel like a big man to think he could strike the police and get away with it (even though, in the end, he didn’t get away with anything).

Instead, Dantrell Davis had his life snuffed out at age 7 – which creeps me out because I have two nephews who are both older than that and two nieces who are 5. What a waste it would be if their lives were nearly over before they could even come close to accomplishing anything in life.

NOW I NEVER knew Dantrell Davis or his mother, who in dealing with reporter-types trying to get a quote was understandably hysterical over having lost her son and was incapable of saying anything coherent.

So I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what Dantrell was destined to become. For all I know, the ignorant half-wits who on Sunday used a Chicago Tribune website comments section to say that Davis would have been just another criminal in prison may have turned out to be correct. Of course, that could be said about a lot of people, and turns out to be correct by pure coincidence.

As it was, the Tribune in a feature story that interviewed Dantrell’s mother noted that the boy (even though only 7) had already become adept at shooting dice, had lost his father to a drug overdose, and was experiencing problems in school that made him inclined to not want to go.

It was obvious that the lure of the inner-city streets were already starting to reach out to Dantrell. Who’s to say whether he would have been strong enough to resist, or to see the need to try to get out of “the projects” and the possibility of a better life.

I DON’T KNOW. None of us do.

What is sad about this case is that Dantrell never got the chance. And for those people who would say he didn’t deserve a chance in life to succeed because of his background, all I have to say is, that’s just sick.

Now I was glad to read the Tribune’s account of how Dantrell’s mother was trying to rebuild her life after losing her only child, mainly because there are times I wonder if I’m one of the few who remember Dantrell’s name.

The school he attended is now an open field and the building where he lived was demolished, all as part of an effort to expand the Near North Side neighborhood of wealthy Chicagoans a little further west.

WHAT I NOTED about the Tribune account was that they found the honorary street name sign “Dantrell Davis Way” that had been erected as a tribute in the months following the incident had been taken down, and no one could provide an explanation of what happened.

My guess is that gentrification, that process by which neighborhoods are upgraded so as to benefit a higher-income type of resident, is involved. Somebody probably took the sign down, having forgotten who or what a Dantrell Davis was.

Now I’m not going to say I long for the “old days” when Cabrini Green had become a notorious public housing complex (mostly because of its proximity to such wealthy neighborhoods directly to the east. Other public housing complexes on the South and West sides actually had higher crime rates).

But I hope someone does manage to replace that street sign. For even if the area around Evergreen and Sedgwick streets continues to develop into an area of affluence (an extension, so to speak, of the Gold Coast), there ought to be a reminder of what was once at the site – a place where a young life could be snuffed out before it had a chance.


EDITOR’S NOTES: The Chicago Tribune had at least one interesting story worth reading (,0,337057.story?track=rss) in their Sunday edition.

There are some sick, twisted people in this world, and the scary aspect is that they think ( they are the respectable ones in society.

Much of what was once Cabrini-Green is gone (, but some people ( are determined to follow the advice in the title of an old Elvis Presley song, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” what was once there for public housing.

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