By Aamer Madhani
CHICAGO - From the violence-plagued neighborhood where a young Barack Obama cut his teeth as a community organizer, activist Diane Latiker watched the president deliver his election night victory speech. She felt a certain pride as he called for an America that was open to the "young boy on the South Side of Chicago who sees life beyond the nearest street corner."
Latiker also felt a pang of frustration that the president hadn't made addressing the issues of poverty and economic despair, so pervasive in her neighborhood and in some of the nation's most violent cities, a higher priority during his first term in office.
Days later, she decided to tap out a polite letter asking the president - who worked on the same city blocks in Roseland where she assists kids and young adults - to do more.
"Being an organizer from Roseland, I'm sure you understand the need that exists concerning the violence that's taken the lives of thousands across our nation," Latiker wrote. "We need your help, Mr. President."
The situation in Chicago has become worse, despite police beefing up patrols in some of the toughest neighborhoods, including Roseland.
Chicago, which has some of strictest gun laws in the country, ended 2012 with 506 homicides, more than any other municipality in the country. The violence hasn't abated in the new year, and the city finished January with 43 murders, higher than the 40 committed in the same month last year.
The calls for Obama to become more engaged with stemming the violence in his adopted hometown have grown in recent days since the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, 15, an honors student and majorette who was killed days after performing with her school band and drill team at the Inaugural Parade in Washington. Pendleton was gunned down about a mile from Obama's home on Chicago's South Side.
Civil rights leaders in the city, including Jesse Jackson, have called on Obama to return to Chicago to attend Pendleton's funeral Saturday and address the scourge of gun violence in the city. Michelle Obama, as well as White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, will attend, but there are no plans for the president to make the trip.
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Jackson said he supports the broad gun-control agenda Obama unveiled in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., but he said it doesn't address the complexity of the violence facing Chicago and many other cities, where the victims are predominantly young and African-American living in poor and segregated corners of cities.
"It makes a difference," Jackson said of Obama's gun agenda, which includes calling for a ban on assault weapons, limiting the size of ammunition clips and implementing background checks on all gun sales. "But with 300 million guns on the street, if you have not dealt with issues of gun flow, jobs pulling out and rising poverty, you have touched just one leg of a four-legged stool."
The White House declined to comment on calls for Obama to engage directly in the plight of his hometown. He traveled to Minneapolis this week to meet with community leaders who have had some success in reducing gun-related violence in some of the most impoverished area of that city.
In his memoir, Dreams of My Father, Obama wrote in detail about his three years working in Roseland, and he spoke often during his first presidential run about how the experience in the downtrodden neighborhood helped shape his values.
When Obama arrived in Roseland in 1985, there were still working-class African-American families who managed to buy homes or send their kids to college. Obama wrote that the older generation knew their neighborhood was in decline.
"The decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls, kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets - loud congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block - all of it whispered painful truths, told them the progress they'd found was ephemeral, rooted in thin soil; that it might not even last their lifetimes," Obama wrote.
His writing was prescient.
In the past five years, the neighborhood has had 115 homicides, and the remnants of its working-class residents have quickly disappeared as the population declined by 15% from 2000 to 2010. The most recent homicide in the neighborhood came weeks ago, when a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed after a basketball game.
"The problems here run deep," said Gregory Livingston, pastor at Mission Baptist Church in Roseland and the leader of a weekly patrol of the neighborhood. "We're not going to get rid of the guns. The problem is that, as a city, we haven't even begun to address the complicated reasons, why some of these cats think there is no other solution than to pick up a gun."
Barbara Friend, 67, moved to Roseland 40 years ago. She and her husband bought a modest home and raised four boys. Back then, she recalled her block was filled with two-parent, working families that were struggling to make ends meet but managed to make it.
"My block now is widows like me and single women or grandmothers taking care of children on their own," Friend said. "It's hard to imagine it going back to what it was like when I was raising my boys."
Across the street from where Latiker, the Roseland activist, houses her organization, Kids Off the Block, she's built a memorial on a tattered empty lot that includes a headstone for more than 370 young victims who have died in the city. All are from the city's poor neighborhoods on the South and West sides, she says, and almost all are black.
One day this week, Latiker recalled some of the more than 2,000 neighborhood kids who have come through Kids Off the Block - a few have gone on to universities, and several have been caught up in the violence. As she spoke, Tito Keenan, 26, dropped by to see whether Latiker still had a résumé she helped him put together about a year earlier.
Latiker hadn't seen Keenan in a while. He'd just finished a few months in a downstate prison on gun charges and had been spending his time at a nearby community college taking court-mandated vocation classes. Keenan told Latiker he's trying to stay out of trouble but ultimately was plotting a move to South Carolina to get away from the neighborhood.
"It's easy to get caught up in everything that's going on around here," Keenan said. "It's harder to find your way out."