You’ve probably heard of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, and residents who live there worry that it wasn’t for a good reason.
“Due to a lack of resources, our youth has a hard time finding positivity and productivity in our community,” lifelong resident Christian Armendariz says.
The neighborhood has been in the news a lot recently, with several deadly shootings taking place there, including the shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer.
Lifelong Little Village resident, and 22nd Ward Ald. Michael Rodriguez says the community has long suffered from violence and gang violence, and things seem to be getting worse.
“Communities like Little Village are inequitably-invested in and inequitably receiving the resources from our city, state and federal governments,” he said. “We need more. Quality is not enough. We need equity.”
Rodriguez says that residents in the neighborhood have done a great job of thinking creatively to bring programs to the area to give children something safe to do, with one of the most successful programs being Beyond the Ball.
Executive Director Rob Castenada says he is proud of the group, which helps create natural ways for kids and their families to create relationships with caring adults, but that there needs to be more investment at all levels.
“Because of the density of the number of youths that we have, we need large investments,” he said. “We’ve always functioned with fewer resources. It’s like drinking water out of a hose (on full blast).”
Rodriguez says groups like Beyond the Ball are pivotal in helping make things safer for the youth in the community.
“They need to be an example, and those efforts need to be multiplied across our community,” he said. “If young people were allowed to play, we wouldn’t have had the same amount of shootings in our community. These programs work.”
For those children that do get into trouble or make bad decisions, activists like Paulino Vargas, who operates an outreach program and boxing club in the neighborhood, are there to help.
“We do this (fail to invest) to kids and wonder why these kids retaliate the way they do,” he said.
Instead of community-driven events like baseball and football leagues and after-school programs, activists say that gang culture has filled a void in the neighborhood, and has proven to be a difficult problem to solve.
“We have three of the biggest gangs in this neighborhood alone,” Vargas said. “We have to plan safety routes. I have a coworker on the east, and if we’re out on the same day, we have to check in and say which restaurants we are going to.”
Vargas says his group, New Life Centers of Chicagoland, supports children who go into juvenile probation programs.
“As a kid, you made a mistake at 15, you go to the probation department. Probation, instead of sending you to juvenile hall, will contact a program like us and go ‘hey, instead of sending you away, we will send you here,’” Vargas said. “Help you get your GED or a job.
The Chicago Youth Boxing Club shares the vision of those activists, aiming to show kids that someone cares about what they ultimately become.
“Teaching kids how to box and stay out of the streets helps them to respect discipline,” George Perez, a title fighter from Little Village, said.
“If we’re shutting doors on them because we don’t have the money and we can’t feed them, they don’t have a choice,” Vargas added. “They’ve been crying for help.”
NBC 5 asked the city about its plan to invest in the Little Village community. The mayor’s press office pointed to investments and projects, including more than $3 million in Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants in the past five years, and to $1.5 million awarded to a community café with a training space upstairs.
Residents and activists argue that more is needed, and offered a challenge to the mayor and to community leaders.
“The mayor has been here. (Rep.) Chuy Garcia and other people in power who are from this community: this is your change to do something for us,” Vargas said.
For more information on New Life Centers of Chicagoland, visit the group's Instagram page: