CHICAGO – The house is like many others nearby. Blinded by boards over windows after witnessing the worst kind of violence, the white two-story house, its paint chipped and its front steps crumbling, sits vacant behind a rusty iron fence that separates an overgrown yard from the cracked sidewalk.
About the only difference between it and thousands of boarded-up buildings in Chicago's most notorious neighborhood is that Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson grew up here — and her mother, brother and nephew died here, allegedly gunned down by Hudson's brother-in-law, a known gang member. That and the shrine of teddy bears, candles and flowers was bigger than others that sprout up on these blocks when life ends violently.
When the trial of William Balfour begins Monday in the 2008 killings, it will be an all-too-familiar story of death and violence in Englewood on the city's South Side.
At a time when cities across the country have seen the number of homicides fall, sometimes dramatically, Chicago's jumped by a whopping 60 percent the first three months of the year, and Englewood's violence was a big reason why. The 15 slayings there in 2012 are nearly double the number reported during the same period a year ago.
Last year, not only did the number jump to 60 from 40 the previous year, but the total number of homicides reported in this roughly 20-by-20 block community was more than half as many reported for the entire city of Washington, D.C. and a little less than a third of Houston's total for the year.
"It happens here all the time," said Jean Carter-Hill, a community activist whose group helps children and families. "I can't even run to all these funerals, it's just too many, looking at all these dead people in caskets all the time."
In Chicago, Englewood has become synonymous with street crime. Since he took office last May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has used the word "Englewood" as almost shorthand for gangs, guns and the dangers facing the city's children. But the deteriorating neighborhood has presented him with one of his biggest challenges, becoming a focus for his promise to deploy more police officers to the street while cracking down on Englewood's gangs.
"The mayor says very publicly that a murder in Englewood is a murder in the city of Chicago (and) just because it happened there it is not OK," said Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, in an interview with The Associated Press. "People feel abandoned in those neighborhoods and we are saying you are not abandoned."
Residents say they've seen police commanders and anti-gang initiatives come and go over the years, and the neighborhood just gets more violent and the criminals more brazen. Just as in years past when public housing residents slept in their bathtubs to protect them from the bullets that pierced their walls, residents say the fear of gun battles has pushed some of them deep into their homes and away from their windows where they could be hit by stray bullets.
"People don't give a damn, they just shoot you across the street, they come into your house and shoot you," said 80-year-old Homer Wright, who made headlines this month after shooting a teenager who allegedly broke into his tavern, where he'd taken to sleeping to prevent break-ins. The authorities dropped charges against Wright but confiscated the handgun he owned illegally for self-protection.
There are a host of reasons for Englewood's downward spiral. But they mostly boil down to an exodus of families from an area that was predominantly single-family homes, resulting in an explosion in the number of abandoned buildings, and an influx of gang members.
Home to 100,000 residents in 1960, Englewood's population has dwindled. It had dropped to about 40,000 in 2000 and to 30,000 just 10 years later. Part of the reason, Carter-Hill and others say, is that families moved out to safer places and others lost their homes when they lost jobs during the recession.
According to the police department, there are more than 4,100 abandoned buildings in Englewood, nearly 600 of them vacated in just the last 15 months. One study found more vacant homes in Englewood and the community to the immediate west than anywhere in Chicago.
It all has created an atmosphere ripe for a category of people nobody wanted to see: Gang members who left the city's torn-down public housing high rises and found the abandoned houses magnets for crime.
"We've seen gangs come in, run cords from the house next door for electrical service and make it look like a regular house and they're using it as a gang house," said Leo Schmitz, commander of Englewood's police district.
Moore said the Hudson family still owns their now-empty house, but they've apparently stopped trying to remodel it after vandals broke in at least twice to steal construction materials. He sees Hudson's sister come by once in a while, but hasn't seen Jennifer Hudson, who even after she became famous came by to talk with people and even jump rope with kids outside.
But he does see gangbangers on the street all day, every day.
Among those, authorities say, was Balfour, the suspect in the Hudson family slayings. While prosecutors say the killings had a domestic motive, tied to his deteriorating marriage to the singer's sister, his life story is a familiar one in Englewood.
A high school drop-out, Balfour was a member of the Gangster Disciples and had a long rap sheet for drug offenses, stealing cars and ultimately a seven-year stint in prison for attempted murder and vehicular manslaughter. A little more than two years after his release, he was behind bars again, charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Hudson's mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew.
McCarthy said the Englewood gangs are more rigid and territorial than the gangs he saw when he was a ranking member of the police department in New York and chief in Newark, N.J. That means a rival gang member on a street where the drug trade is controlled by another gang can mean only one thing: Likely gunfire.
In response, Schmitz said he has ordered intelligence about gangs distributed to all police officers, not just the anti-gang squad. And he's ordered officers out of their cars and walking the community more than ever before — a practice Carter-Hill said is necessary to build trust where there has long been suspicion of police.
Antie Moore, who lives a few doors down from the Hudson house, said he thinks things have gotten worse since the national media arrived to interview people after the killings. A city clean-up crew came a few days ago, but Moore suspects it had more to do with news crews' return ahead of the trial than anything else.
"They only cleaned up the alley behind (the Hudson house) and a little bit of the lot next to it," he said. Then, he said, "They left."