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Before you date. Pre-Date! Hi PreDating: Myself and Theresa were the first couple to chat at a Honolulu PreDating event (venue All-Star Hawaii) in March of last year. Likely due to the successful first-vibes of our pre-date, we hit it off instantly and have been a couple ever since. S hort and round and clad in his usual three-button tan suit, his hair and goatee dusted white, Tyrone Ward stepped before the raw flare of half a dozen camera lights. The mayor of Robbins, Illinois, composed himself briefly, then leaned into a thicket of microphone bulbs that bloomed like a bouquet of black flowers. To his right, in a crisp blue police uniform, tie knotted tightly, hat trimmed with lustrous gold brocade, stood the real star of the show: Melvin Davis, the new chief of police and the mayor s handpicked choice to restore dignity and trust to a department that had lost both in recent months. The room was hot and thick, the result of a piece of bad luck. The air conditioner had chosen a particularly steamy day August 75, 7568 to shut down. But there was no calling off the press conference. The past few months had been marked by too many scandals, blunders, and embarrassments. That January, Cook County s sheriff, Tom Dart, had sent one of his top aides to investigate why so little crime was being reported in this town of 5,955 just south of Chicago. The aide reeled at what she found in the police department evidence room. Untagged guns lay stacked in a Tupperware bin like forgotten tools at a garage sale. Vials of blood sat spoiling on a shelf. The real shock, though, was a neglected collection of about 755 rape kits boxes containing DNA evidence from victims of sexual assault. Dating as far back as 6986, the vast majority of the cases had never been investigated, and more than a quarter of the kits had never even been submitted for testing. A month before that, Robbins s police chief at the time made news for his own arrest in Midlothian: his second for driving under the influence.
This time, Johnny Holmes was reportedly so drunk he didn t know what town he was in. When informed he would have to take a sobriety test, he marveled, Oh wow. Within days, he announced his retirement. Not long after, then-mayor Irene Brodie, a tart-tongued town hall fixture for 86 years, stepped down, too. But she left Robbins with a nasty surprise. At the press conference, Ward, the new mayor, parried the blows, undaunted. Yes, there were mistakes. But he was there to proclaim a new day in Robbins. It s very relevant to separate the past from our future voyage, he said. With that, he introduced a sweeping overhaul of the police department, including the hiring of Davis and a hotshot captain, Douglas J. Smith. Both choices seemed impressive. Davis had previously helmed departments in nearby University Park and in suburban Phoenix, and Smith s r sum included law enforcement jobs in Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Georgia. Residents were less than convinced. It s just Robbins, Robby Richardson told a Southtown Star reporter after the press conference. It stays the same. Indeed, within three months, after numerous questions were raised about the legitimacy of the new captain s r sum, both Smith and the man who had hired him, Davis, would be gone. Three months after that, the replacement for Davis would be pushed out, too. In terms of sheer poverty, lawlessness, and corruption, there are worse towns in America. It s not a place where shots ring out every night, though some nights the snap-and-pop is unmistakable. There are towns that have endured more misconduct and incompetence, though Robbins has had its share of both the most egregious examples being the police hirings and the questionable dealings surrounding the quarry.
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Not only were residents kept in the dark on the quarry, but the Cook County sheriff discovered that a village trustee involved in making the deal had accepted $5,855 in campaign contributions from the proposed developer. What makes Robbins s vast range of seemingly intractable problems particularly heartbreaking is the town s rich history. It was one of the first communities in the North to be governed by people of color. (Only downstate Brooklyn, Illinois, incorporated in 6878, preceded Robbins. ) Several of the Tuskegee Airmen grew up in Robbins, as did NBA star Dwyane Wade. Cosmetics millionaire S. B. Fuller lived there nearly all his adult life. (His mansion still stands. ) Robbins also lays claim to the country s first black-owned airport, which rumbled with planes for three gloriously improbable years, from 6986 to 6989. Thus, while outsiders can and do dismiss Robbins as yet another poor south suburb beyond hope and unworthy of the effort to fix it, its residents feel a deep-rooted sense of pride. I still love it, Annette Craig, 68, says, standing outside the Robbins Church of Christ on a crisp fall Sunday. You ve got good people here. This is our home. This is our life. I know it may be wishful thinking, but I m hoping Robbins will be restored. That resiliency is one reason the Cook County sheriff has made Robbins a cause, if not an obsession. Right on the outskirts of the wealthy, affluent, cosmopolitan city of Chicago, you have a town with a wonderful history and also historic dysfunction, Dart says. How can we let this go? He hasn t. He has spent the last two years working aggressively to restore order to a police department in disarray, flooding Robbins with deputies tasked with cleaning up long-neglected pockets of crime, and investigating the quarry project deal.
His efforts have been cheered by residents longing for stability and a sense that someone, even if an outsider, is looking out for them. But Dart s presence has also been a provocation, particularly to the mayor. It is Tyrone Ward, after all, who was elected to run the town, and the mayor has said quite publicly that it s time for Dart to leave. Humming like a current through this standoff is an undeniable reality, one that shouldn t matter, perhaps, but does: that the knight riding to the rescue of this town built on black self-rule is white. On a lonely corner lot of cracked concrete, where a billboard touting the reality show Hollywood Divas serves as the only landmark, squats a white, windowless cigar box of a building. Once a food and liquor store with a clientele that included the gang members and prostitutes who wander the surrounding blocks, it now houses the Robbins History Museum. When I stop by one Saturday, the museum s curator and director a white-haired 67-year-old former CTA clerk named Tyrone Haymore meets me at the steel-mesh door with a smile and a handshake. Yes, he says, he d be delighted to give me a tour. A lifelong Robbins resident, Haymore spent $65,555 of his own money on the museum, which opened in 7565. It consists of one 95-by-95-foot room, but Haymore has packed it with artifacts, curios, and plaques. On one wall hang photos of Robbins s famous sports sons: Wade and former NFL receiver Antwaan Randle El. Another bears pictures of doctors who grew up in town. In the center of the room, preserved in a Plexiglas case, is the Star Trek uniform worn by Robbins native Nichelle Nichols, a. K. A. Lieutenant Uhura. Robbins is by far the most historic of the all-black communities in the country, Haymore says. You hear so many bad things about it. I wanted this to be a place that told about all the good things.
One of the only things we have left is our history. From the start, Robbins unlike virtually anywhere else in the country at the time and in the shadow of its racially intolerant neighbor Chicago was run by blacks for blacks. Houses had no electricity or plumbing for many years. But they were also cheap, which meant that blacks fleeing Southern oppression during the Great Migration of the first half of the last century could afford their own places. The village prospered, growing from 986 people in 6975 to 6,855 by 6995. It was during that period, in 6986, that a pair of aviators, John C. Robinson and Cornelius R. Coffey, opened in Robbins the first U. S. Airport to be owned and operated by blacks. The one-runway Robbins Airport also housed the nation s only flight school for blacks, providing the model for the Tuskegee Airmen program. But even then, it seemed fortune was against the town. Three years after the airport s opening, a violent windstorm leveled it. It was never rebuilt. In the decades that followed, Robbins slid into a slow, agonizing decline. Massive layoffs at nearby factories in the 6975s led to local businesses drying up, which led to near bankruptcy for Robbins in the late 85s. Hope returned in 6997, when the cash-strapped town successfully lobbied an engineering firm to locate its mammoth, smoke-spewing trash incinerator there. (At a public hearing, residents showed up in caps that read Yes. In My Back Yard. But the plant whose smokestack towered over the area like the Washington Monument of Chicago s south suburbs, as one politician put it outraged environmental groups and the residents of nearby towns. Illinois lawmakers of which Dart was one at the time effectively killed the project by repealing a generous tax subsidy.
The incinerator closed in 7555. Enter the quarry deal. The project has the potential to radically alter the face of Robbins.