Featured Work- The Balloons Rising Over Chicago

By Contributing Writer

By: Michael McColly Instructor, English Department

They are hard to miss–those shriveled remnants of a child’s birthday, those pleas for love, those decorations of pride for the new graduate. Look and you will find balloons everywhere in Chicago, caught in trees, bouncing in traffic, strewn along the beaches. The numbers of dead balloons from yesterday’s party are rising, but not all are accidental trash or symbols of joy. Some reflect the tragic epidemic that is unfolding on the streets of Chicago: the killing of innocent children, victims of the city’s disturbing rise in gun violence.

The latest child to die was Heaven Sutton.  Seven-year old Heaven had been sitting by her mother, who was selling snow cones at her street side candy business in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood of Austin, when the little girl ran in fear from nearby gunshots, only to be fatally wounded, as she entered her apartment.  Over 20 children like Heaven have lost their lives so far this year to gun violence, and the summer has just begun.  The murder statistics in Chicago are now regularly compared with US military casualties in Afghanistan, and sadly, it’s more dangerous for black and brown youth than it is for our soldiers serving in a war zone. Over the Fourth of July weekend, there were four more murders, bringing the total to over 275 for the year, a 38 per cent increase from last year at this time. Chicago Public Schools report that over 319 students have been wounded this year alone.  Chicago’s murder rate is four times that of New York and twice that of LA.

Chicago’s gun violence has been attributed to the splintering of gangs due to arrests and the death of leaders, but the underlying causes remain the same systemic social inequities that have plagued urban America for a generation: fractured families, poor schools, poor health services, substandard housing, and of course unemployment. Black male youth unemployment is well over 40 per cent, worse than Haiti’s.  And, in a recent study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, 90 per cent of black male teenagers last summer were not employed.  Chicago’s figures are newsworthy, but violence is an old story in poor urban communities like Baltimore, Flint, Newark and Gary, which never recovered from the economic disaster that swept through industrial America a generation ago, devastating working class families across the country.  The violence in these communities, like the neighborhoods in Chicago where nearly all of these killings occur, reflects a generation of slow and systematic neglect in general of the poor and the unhealthy environments where children live and are expected to survive.

Fifty miles from Chicago, nestled among the massive automated steel and coal burning power plants, and what is left of Gary, Indiana, are the Indiana Dunes. Walking there a few months ago, I was struck by the numbers of balloons I found on the beaches and the windswept dunes.  I decided to count them, and as I did, I took photographs. In no time, I was up to twenty-five balloons, then forty. Curled about the wistful marram grass, caught in the bony driftwood, half-buried in the shale and warm drifts of sand, I found them everywhere.  Attached to the balloons are colorful ribbons, which I imagined were once wrapped around someone’s hands. In fact, ribbons are always what you first see, shining in the sun.

There along the beaches of Lake Michigan tons of flotsam floats onto the shores from Milwaukee to Michigan City. Beachgoers, boaters, illegal dumping, highways, landfills—all contribute to the thousands of tons of trash that are dumped into the lake, which are then washed back on the beaches. Ribbons, balloons, and plastics, however, are hardly the Lake’s worst enemy. For over a hundred years, the lake has been severely damaged by industrial pollution, air pollution, untreated sewage, agricultural run-off and the seepage of toxic metals and chemicals from hundreds of legal and illegal dumping sites (over 200 in Northwest Indiana and southwest Chicago alone).

The Great Lakes contain 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water.  Sadly, however, it is still commonly believed that the Great Lakes are so massive that they never truly could be too harmed by dumping and pollution. But this is not true. Though the Great Lakes have been improved from thirty years ago by  environmental regulations, massive clean-up efforts, and public education, the Great Lakes are still under threat, as it takes decades for the lake’s natural process of filtering to drain and diffuse deadly toxins and pollutants. So what’s a few benign dead balloons among the Old Style cans, Walgreen bags, and Styrofoam cups, when you have global corporations still asking the federal government to go easy on them, as British Petroleum did a few years ago, thinking no one would mind if they increased levels of chlorine and other chemicals into Lake Michigan. They’ve since agreed not to, but who’s to trust BP’s word of these days?

Seemingly innocent like other bits of trash, balloons can be a serious environmental problem for both sea and fresh water mammals and fish not to mention birds. Balloons and ribbons are swallowed or become tangled in feathers or fins, often killing wildlife.  Rubber takes years to decompose, too. Some manufacturers, now aware of balloons mounting menace to the environment, are making biodegradable balloons, for those who don’t mind paying the price.

Among the many balloons I found and photographed as I hiked up the dunes, was one that was dedicated to a young  girl on her birthday, lying among the grasses, over a hundred yards from the shore. Who was this little girl, I wondered?  Where did she live? It occurred to me that many of the balloons probably floated across the lake from the lakefront cities of Indiana and Chicago’s south side.  That is why there were so many here, as the winds move generally northwest to southeast, thus landing along the shores and the dunes. These prevailing winds are in fact why the dunes themselves have formed, as they sweep sand off the shore and amazingly move these great hundred foot mounds of sand inland each year.  The same winds also carry the tons of toxic pollutants that land primarily into the already devastated communities of South Chicago, Hammond, East Chicago and Gary. The classic downwind calculations made by industrialist as to where factories were built follow a pattern all across industrial America. Those who suffer most from asthma, lung cancer, leukemia and any number of other airborne diseases often are primarily the workers who live on the proverbial other side of the tracks, meaning those who live either next to these industries or downwind. It’s not by accident that the wealthy suburbs of Chicago are far to the west and north of the industrial corridor of Northwest Indiana and southwest Chicago, where much of Chicago’s wealth was made.   A few more strings of ribbon and wrinkled balloons are nothing to what’s coming out of the cokers at BP’s new sand tar refinery, or the six coal-powered energy plants from south Chicago to Michigan City, or the plumes of carbon and dust from two of the largest steel plants in the world—ArcelorMittal and US Steel.  Who cares about balloons if a few hundred yards from where you and your family live are several square miles of oil tanks or two expressways or any of the several superfund sites in Chicago’s industrial zone?

Then with the recent wave of violence hitting Chicago’s streets, I saw a news clip of a group of people standing in a circle in an alley on the South Side of the city. Maybe ten or fifteen children and adults holding hands around a shrine of photos, home-made cards and, yes, balloons, tethered to the ground. They were in prayer, commemorating the one year anniversary of a child’s death, shot while playing with her cousins outside in the same alley. At the end of the ceremony, the group let go of their hands, knelt down and untied a balloon. One by one, they released them, symbols of their grief, memorials to another fallen child of Chicago’s streets.

Now when I see balloons on the beaches, I pause and wonder, did it come from a birthday or from a funeral?