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John V. Santore/MEDILL

Empty seats at Lonnie Jones' debate party.

Bronzeville debate party takes place amidst crime and poverty

by John Santore
Oct 04, 2012

The upstairs unit of the Bronzeville building Lonnie Jones owns is furnished with a pink couch and one plush chair covered by a sheet. The walls are blank, and one needs a coat of paint. The wood floor is clean, and a rotating ceiling fan casts soft, strobing shadows over the room. In anticipation of the first presidential debate, Jones announced his watch party on Barack Obama's website. He leaves the door unlocked.  

He optimistically faces 13 folding chairs toward a TV on top of a stand holding trinkets, books, portraits of children, and a bottle of blue tequila. He puts out grapes, as well as plates of carrot slices, lettuce, and tomatoes, toppings for a frozen pizza baking in the oven.  

A friend sits on the couch, and a tenant in the unit comes and goes. No one else shows up.

Jones, 75, spent nearly three decades as a teacher and administrator at South Side high schools, retiring in 1994. He lives further south, but bought this building in the hope of turning it into condos. Since 2007, average area home prices have dropped by as much as 80 percent, but Jones hopes things will turn around.  

From Sept. 13 -26, there were 43 reported incidents of crime within an eighth of a mile of the house, according to CPD statistics, including a homicide, five burglaries, and six robberies. Jones says he feels safe in the area, but admits crime is an issue, attributing it to “idleness” that leads to “frustrated” young men “fighting those closest to them.” Local unemployment is 20 percent, according to census data. While 12 percent of households are in poverty, more than 21 percent received food assistance at some point in the past year.  

Jones voted for Obama in 2008, impressed by his campaign and opposition to lobbyist influence in Washington. He supports the Affordable Care Act, and applauds Obama’s attempt to wrestle with a “broken” education system, though he thinks it’s not yet fixed. He thinks Romney is “awful,” in large part because there’s “not enough meat,” on his proposals. 

The day after the debate, Jones said he thought both candidates presented themselves well, but that Romney again avoided specifics. Obama’s impact on Bronzeville has been "minimal at this point,” he said, but he believes things will get better as more of the government’s investments reach communities like this one.