Vickroy: One man’s journey out of Englewood
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy July 14, 2014 5:52PM
Homewood businessman Earl Bell grew up on the rough streets of Chicago's Englewood community. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 16, 2014 6:13AM
Chicago’s ongoing violence problem has landed it in the national spotlight.
As city officials and social policy pundits struggle to find solutions, I sat down with a survivor. This is simply the story of one man who’s been there, done that and lived to tell about it.
He does not purport to have answers but he hopes that by sharing his story, people will have a greater understanding of what it’s like to grow up in tough, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Maybe that will lead to a solution.
Earl Bell has been a gangbanger, a prisoner, a victim and a perpetrator.
Today, the 49-year-old father and businessman is also a rarity: He not only survived the streets of Englewood, he has found a way out.
Bell is very open about his past, about growing up at the intersection of poverty and desperation, about the many mistakes he’s made and about why the current efforts to change life in Englewood and other tough communities are not working.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Bell, who owns Ratio 1:1 Fitness in Homewood. “Ninety-eight percent of the guys I grew up with are in jail or are dead.”
Some of those guys had real promise, some were smart as whips and many had talent that would have been nurtured had they grown up somewhere else.
“First off, I have to say I don’t have any answers,” Bell said. “If I did, I’d be a millionaire. But I do know this: What they’re doing is not working.
“If you notice, they talk about all these programs that are going to change neighborhoods — golf programs, basketball programs. None of it ever affects Englewood. None of it ever changes Englewood. Because in Englewood, like a lot of other poor areas, you grow up with no hope. And unless you find a way to get hope, you don’t care,” he said.
Bell said when he was running the streets, “I didn’t care about my own life, so why would I care about yours? The threat of going to prison didn’t scare anybody. The threat of death — they’d say, ‘If you keep doing that you’re going die.’ — was nothing. I’d say, ‘Hey, you already told me I’ll be dead by 18 and, look, I’m 19 so I got a year on ’em.’ ”
Bell grew up at two Englewood addresses, one tougher than the last. Until he turned 10, he lived at 71st and Green streets in a “rat-infested, roach-infested” apartment run by his grandmother and great-grandmother.
People would get their Social Security checks on the 1st and the 15th of the month, he said, “and we would all go to the store.”
They’d buy what they needed and ration it all.
“We couldn’t afford juice so we’d buy Kool-Aid. And you were only allowed one cup of Kool-Aid a day so it could stretch the whole month,” he said. “Everything from cereal to hot dogs, every piece of food, had a number attached to it. You can only have one of these a day, or one of that a day. But I don’t recall being hungry. It was so normal. Everybody lived that way.”
It isn’t until you realize that there is more to be had, and that you can’t have it, that poverty becomes synonymous with misery.
“My cousin and I would walk to 63rd and Halsted and go to the Kresge department store. It had a restaurant inside. We would watch the people sit down and be served. We thought that was the most amazing thing in the world. To sit down and have someone bring you food. And not only did they get served, they got served bread with meat on it. We were used to eating ketchup sandwiches. We couldn’t afford meat on our sandwiches,” he said.
“We would walk there — we couldn’t have been no older than 7 or 8 — and we would press against the window and say, ‘Wow.’ Me and my cousin would say, ‘One day we’re going to be rich enough for people to come and serve us.’ That was our biggest goal,” he said.
“Back then, 71st and Green was the ground zero for sniffing glue,” he said. That was before crack became the drug of choice.
“Home invasions, robberies, break-ins were a common occurrence. They were nothing new,” he said. “Seeing people get robbed, shot at, heads busted open with pipes. Nothing new. It’s what we saw every day. I couldn’t have been no older than 5 or 6 the first time I saw a guy get shot.”
But that was normal, Bell said.
“I didn’t know until I got older that this was so bad,” he said.
The headquarters for the Black Gangster Disciples, the gang he would later run with, was just a block from his home, he said.
“My dad was a part of it,” he said.
“I remember getting beat up going to the store when I was 9 years old,” he said.
You learned at an early age that there were certain places you could go and certain places you couldn’t, he said.
If 71st and Green was tough, 57th and Elizabeth was even tougher. Bell was 10 when he moved further north to live with his mom.
“To this day it’s still one of the roughest areas in the city. We used to get chased home from school every day,” he said.
One day he sat down and pondered the dynamics.
“That’s when I realized you are either a predator or you’re prey. I decided I was going to be the toughest predator on the street,” he said. “And that’s when my real troubles started.”
Having your stuff stolen, being beaten up just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, watching friends get shot or stabbed — all of that only cemented one goal in Bell’s mind: “You become a predator and you run with other predators,” he said. “And doing that in that neighborhood means you carry guns, you shoot people, you beat people with baseball bats. You do these things because now your reputation is at stake. And unless people fear you, chances are you’re going to become prey.”
Bell dropped out of high school his freshman year. He became a dad at 14. He’s been in and out of both the Audy home for juveniles and prison. His rap sheet includes gang intimidation, auto theft, gang activities, assault and strong-armed robbery.
It was his mom’s ultimatum some 25 years ago that finally made him change.
“We stole cars, a lot, in abundance. We had an auto theft ring. We were hiding parts to be sold in my mom’s basement. While I was in jail, other guys in the ring came to my house and said they needed the parts out of the basement to raise money to get me out. They took the parts but never got me out,” he said.
His mom said, “This is what kind of friends you got. I hope you see it now.”
At the same time, violence on the street was escalating. A lot of the guys he knew were getting killed. He knew if he didn’t do something, he’d share their fate.
You have a lot of time to think in prison, and he began to think about getting out of the gang. But at the same time, the notion of moving to the suburbs was almost laughable.
“You might as well tell people you were going to be a millionaire; it was that ridiculous,” he said.
After his release, his mom sat him down for the conversation that changed his life.
“She said, ‘If you go back to prison, I’m not getting you out,’ ” he said. “She said, ‘You know there are some nights when the phone rings and I’m praying that they’re going to tell me you’re dead.’ I said, ‘Whoa, that’s cold, why would you say that?’ She said, ‘Every night that phone rings I’m a nervous wreck. I don’t know if they’re going to tell me you’re dead, or you killed somebody.’ ”
Bell said, “For a person to say, ‘You’re my son but I wish you were dead so I wouldn’t have to suffer any more,’ that’s a lot of suffering.”
His mother gave him three choices: go to college or trade school, go into the service or get out of her house. So he went to trade school for auto mechanics and moved to Hazel Crest.
He later got into the fitness business. Today, Ratio 1:1 personal training works with 25 clients a day, he said. Bell also recently added a retail arm to the business, selling products and clothing via the Internet.
His girlfriend, Chie Terui, helps run things. His youngest son, Cameron, a college student who lives with him in Homewood, pitches in during his breaks.
Though he has been “living clean” for more than two decades, Bell said you never lose that street survivor mentality, especially when things get tough.
“It stays with you always,” he said. “You keep all of it. Growing up in Englewood is like fighting guerilla warfare. You don’t forget stuff. I’ve had a friend killed while standing right next to me. I’ve seen people stabbed. I’ve had friends come up missing.
“And this is the way it has been for generations,” he said.
What changed him: maturity, clarity and a determination to be different. It hasn’t been easy and it didn’t come naturally. It’s a deliberate thing, he said, that needs constant reinforcement.