My guidance counselor, Mr. Hopkirk, had a talent for telling students devastating news in the nicest of ways.
We huddled together in his tiny box of an office. He avoided meeting my anxious eyes as he methodically jogged the pages of my application together against his desk into a neat rectangle.
“This is all fine, Marcus. Very well written.” He hesitated, still not looking up. “Your extracurriculars are weak, though. I just don’t see your spark.” I frowned and opened my mouth, but he kept talking over me. “Where’s the passion for doing something that deeply matters to you? What separates you from every other qualified student applying to the University of Chicago?”
I felt as though he had punched in the stomach as I groped for an answer. The application was due in two weeks. It’s not like I had any time left to build houses in South America or intern for some mental health clinic.
Mr. Hopkirk shook his head sympathetically as he slid the papers back to me. “Just apply to your safety schools and remember that U of C is a reach for a lot of kids.”
“There’s got to be something I can do to stand out!”
He shrugged. “It’s not over until your decision letters come back. Maybe something right around the corner will inspire you.”
I trudged home, kicking my feet through the fallen October leaves that littered the sidewalk. As I turned onto Kedzie Street, I found an orange and white striped wooden sawhorse blocking my path. The sidewalk had been closed for construction. A few large dumpsters lined the road, filled above the rims with torn drywall and crumbled bricks.
I obediently crossed to the far side and glared at the sorry-looking construction site. A chain-link fence backed by green fabric surrounded the flattened piles of dirt.
A lone, somewhat rickety three-story walk-up of brown brick remained at the end of the block, just beyond the fence. Paper permits tacked to a wooden sign out front flapped in the wind. I was about to turn away when I saw a flicker of movement in one of the third-floor windows.
An older woman briefly peeked out, then pulled the curtains shut. I waited for a few cars to pass and jaywalked across to read the permit. It quoted a bunch of ordinances at the top. Beneath that was a notice that 3200 S. Kedzie was due to be demolished the following week. The words “eminent domain” appeared several times among the legalese.
My crappy day was nothing compared to losing a home.
Wait a minute.
Before I let myself think too hard, I scampered up the warped wooden stairs and knocked. No answer. The four doorbell buttons suggested multiple units in the building, but none had names or numbers. I pressed each one in turn but still failed to get a response from inside.
The owner was probably wise not to answer the door for a total stranger. Maybe she’d been hassled by the construction workers or was too busy fretting over the loss of her home.
Maybe she didn’t have to lose her home.
I needed to show passion. Short of saving someone’s life in the next week, this might be my next best option. If I could help this poor old lady, I’d have one heck of a story for my application.
“Hell no, we won’t go! Hell no, we won’t go!”
I’d gone home that night and furiously prepared. I was no longer Marcus Pearson: high school student. I was Marcus Pearson: freshly minted activist. I held my protest sign proudly as I marched in defense of my neighborhood. The yellow poster board announced, “Honk to save our city!” in black bubble letters.
A passing car gave me a quick “beep, beep.” It was my sixth supportive honk of the day.
I still hoped the resident or residents of 3200 Kedzie would come down to join me, but perhaps they weren’t the protesting sort. The window shades all remained pulled down, obscuring any view of the inside.
“Hell no--” I started up again when I felt a tap on the shoulder. I spun around to find myself staring at the broad blue-uniformed chest of a Chicago policeman. His silver nametag read E. Gibbons.
I cleared my throat and swallowed. “Can I help you, Officer?”
The policeman’s voice was deep, with just a hint of a midwestern accent. “Son, what do you think you’re doing?”
U of C, here I come. “I am exercising my right to free speech. The city is tearing down this irreplaceable building. I’m here to preserve the historic character of our neighborhood.”
“Little late, don’t cha think?” Officer Gibbons nodded his head at the surrounding empty lots.
My cheeks felt warm. “I didn’t know about any of this until yesterday.”
The policeman took off his cap, revealing thinning black hair. He pursed his lips. “So, you don’t live in this here building.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No, sir. But I have every right to be here. I am a proud Chicagoan protecting my city.”
“What’s all this really about?”
“Someone is living in that building! Is it fair they lose their home?”
“Did she ask you to come out here?”
“No,” I mumbled.
“Speak up, son. Want to try again?”
“It’s for my college application.”
“Did you say your application? What’s that got to do with a hill of beans?”
“Officer, please, I’m doing what I think is right.”
He looked me up and down, then over at the building. Finally, he shrugged. “March all you want, as long as you stay on the sidewalk and don’t block the path. I’ll circle by to check in on you later in my shift.” He walked away, shaking his head. I heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, “crazy kids these days.”
I looked up at the building and saw a curtain on the third floor twitch closed. Someone had watched the whole exchange. I wondered if the homeowner would come out to say something, maybe to thank me, but no such luck. I continued my one-person protest for the rest of the afternoon with no more excitement, then headed home for dinner.
I worried that I wasn’t doing enough. Bernie Sanders was arrested speaking out for civil rights when he was a student at U of C. He was almost elected president. Twice. I suspected an afternoon parading around with a sign wasn’t going to cut it.
I needed concrete results.
The next day, I weighed my options. I hadn’t managed to rally the neighborhood, and I wasn’t exactly sure how doing so would stop the demolition anyway. I considered chaining myself to one of the bulldozers parked on the construction site. Unfortunately, there were two of them and only one of me.
I didn’t have a chain, either.
What did I have? I lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. My cell phone buzzed, and I idly checked the Instagram post. The face of a classmate smiled up at me from above a stained white apron. The background was a busy soup kitchen on Chicago’s south side. I wondered if I should have taken a selfie during my protest.
Wait a minute. I was a teenager with a cell phone.
I googled around a bit and found the number I needed. Smiling broadly, I dialed and got ready to work my magic.
A woman answered on the first ring. “National Register of Historic Places, this is Linda.”
I tried to deepen my voice a bit. “Hello, Ma’am, I’d like to add a property to the list. The address is 3200 South Kenzie Street in Chicago. It’s a residence.
“Wonderful!” she said, sounding like she genuinely meant it. “I can help you gather the materials you need to begin the application. Have you been to our website?”
“I haven’t, but I was hoping you could help me speed the process along,” I said, crossing my fingers.
“Of course, let’s see what we can do. Is the building more than 50 years old?”
“t might be. It looks pretty old.”
“No problem, the date of initial construction should be readily available online. What can you tell me about the building’s significance?”
“It’s super significant. Um, it’s an important part of the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s character.”
“Significance means that the property had either important historical events or people associated with it. Otherwise, that the building itself is a significant architectural or engineering achievement.”
“Honestly, I don’t know about any of that. I need your help, though. The building is going to be torn down next week. An elderly woman will lose her home if you don’t add it to the Register of Historic Properties immediately.”
“Next week?” she repeated incredulously. “I’m sorry, but that’s just not possible. The process usually takes about nine months, including review, validation, and recommendations.”
I felt my chest tighten. “There’s no injunction or stay of demolition that you can issue in the meantime?”
“You don’t seem to understand what we do here. Adding a property to the Register can be a tax boon but isn’t a shield from demolition. The property owner can still change or tear down the property.”
“Even if the government’s kicking some poor woman out of her home? You won’t help?”
“I’m sorry, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Would you like me to send you the forms anyway?”
“No, I guess not,” I said heavily. “Thanks anyway.”
I had one last idea, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I waited until after dinner, letting the sky change from blue to pale lavender. Then I went to work. Deep in the back of the pantry, I retrieved four tins of sardines that had been left there for who knows how long. I pocketed them and snuck out the door, telling my parents I had a school project.
The Chicago River passed just a block to the south of Kedzie Street. High in the shedding trees that lined the road were clusters of distinctive scoop-shaped nests. A few years earlier, I remembered seeing the exact same ones on a field trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Those nests had been roped off to protect the endangered black-crowned night herons from the public.
In the twilight, I stood in front of 3200 South Kedzie. The dust from the demolition made my throat itch. I scanned the area to make sure Officer Gibbons wasn’t doing his rounds. Then I jumped up to grab the bottom rung of the metal fire escape that ran down the side of the building.
The squeal of metal was enough to wake the dead. I stood there, hands gripping the ladder, waiting for someone to sound the alarm. Nothing happened. A car drove past, headlights glaring but didn’t even slow. The cold, rusty metal bit into my fingers as I started to climb. I wished I’d worn gloves.
When I reached the landing on the third floor, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I froze, every muscle in my body tensing. The closest window creaked open a few inches.
A pair of brown eyes peered out at me through the crack. My breath caught. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the owner might make an appearance.
“I can explain!” I blurted out. “Please don’t call the police.”
“Are you the young man who was marching outside?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m trying to save your home.”
“By breaking into it?”
I shook my head vigorously, eyes wide. “No, no! I’m just going up to the roof. I’ve got a plan.”
She raised one thin eyebrow. Her frizzy cloud of white hair bobbed gently in the evening breeze.
I pulled out a can of tinned fish. “You’ve got all these black-crowned night heron nests in the area. They’re endangered. I figured if I could get one to build a nest on your building, then the city couldn’t knock it down.”
She slowly shook her head. “Those birds aren’t endangered anymore. Haven’t been for years. They don’t build nests in the fall, anyway.”
“Oh,” I said quietly, slipping the can back into my pocket.
“Why don’t you want this place knocked down?”
“Don’t--don’t you want to stop it?” I stammered. “It’s your home.”
“I’m moving in with my granddaughter in Bronzeville next week. The city’s paying me a fair price for this old place. Frankly, I doubt I could have gotten half as much if I just put it up for sale.”
“So you’re not upset?”
She snorted. “I’m pleased as punch. All these stairs are murder on my knees.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, unsure whether I was talking about her ailments or my actions.
“You know they’re building a new rec center here.”
“Yup. Gonna be like that Jesse White Community Center in Lincoln Park. Help a bunch of at-risk kids.”
“Sounds like that would be good for the neighborhood,” I said, not quite sure where she was going with this. It seemed rude to start climbing down the fire escape until she finished talking.
“Might be some opportunities there for an energetic and enterprising young man to make a difference,” she said, looking me square in the eyes.
“Thank you, Ma’am, but I’m going off to college next fall.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. This rec center ain’t going to be up and running for a while.”
I nodded slowly. “I suppose that’s true.”
“It’s young folks who are going to change the world. They’ve just got to figure out how first.”
I smiled. “Yes, Ma’am, thank you.”
She smiled back. “Goodnight, young man. Careful climbing down now.”
In closing, I’d like to thank you for considering my application to the University of Chicago. I’ve attached letters of recommendation from Officer Edward Gibbons, Linda Spielcroft of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, and Dolores Ramierez, formerly of 3200 S. Kedzie St.
As each of these letters can attest, I have passion. However, I sometimes lack the wisdom to use it appropriately. If you saw fit to accept me into the upcoming freshman class, I would gain the knowledge necessary to turn energy into accomplishments. I’m eager to help change the world.