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Beating the bad guys: how one block dealt with its dealers

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They used to gather under the streetlight with the shot-out bulb--looking tough, blocking traffic, selling drugs. There were about a dozen of them, most younger than 21, and they acted as though this little chunk of Humboldt Park near the intersection of Pierce Street and Kedzie Avenue belonged to them.

No one challenged them, no one got in their way--until one day in the summer of 1988, when the residents of the 3200 block of West Pierce Street decided they'd had enough. They formed a block club and decided to stand up to the bullies. After two years of perseverance--of calling the police for almost every transgression, minor or major--it looks as though they have forced the dealers to relocate. It's a small victory, but one that other neighborhoods, besieged by gangs and drug dealers, can emulate.

"I don't say it was easy and I'm not saying we didn't take a risk," says Roberto Colon, the block club president. "What we did takes persistence and a core of committed neighbors. But you can beat the bad guys. If the alternative is selling your home and moving, you really don't have a choice."

Colon's home on Pierce Street is less than a block west of the park for which the community is named. He first moved to the block as an eighth-grader, back in 1976, when his father bought a two-flat on Pierce. In those days, the community was a flourishing working-class enclave of well-kept graystones and courtyard apartments.

"We felt we had achieved the American dream," says Colon. "Until then, we had never owned our own home. Isn't that the American dream--to own your own home? The neighborhood was very calm and peaceful. We had all kinds of people: Indians, Hispanics, Poles, Italians. It was a big step for our family."

Eventually Colon (who works for the Board of Education) saved enough money to buy his own two-flat, just a few houses down from his father's. His sister, Magdalena Martinez, and her husband also own a building on the block.

In the early 80s a recession kicked in. Many of the nearby factories closed, and the community, without its economic base, began to decline. Many residents lost their jobs and fell behind on their mortgage payments. Others lost their motivation to maintain their property. A sense of hopelessness set in. Why bother to repair your roof if the house next door is falling apart?

"It gets discouraging when your neighbors can't keep up," says Colon. "I understand: it's not always their fault. But it's still discouraging."

Even more frustrating was the fact that so many buildings were owned by absentee landlords who didn't seem to care what happened to their property. Lovely graystones deteriorated from lack of care or were destroyed by vandals or abusive tenants.

"Some property owners don't have the money to take care of their buildings; others figure they can make more money out of a building by not keeping it up," says Colon. "There's this one big apartment building [nearby]; most of its tenants are poor Mexicans who work in restaurants or factories. The place is falling apart; there's not enough Dumpsters; there's no lights in the hallways. People don't even use the Dumpsters they have. They just throw their garbage out of the window and into the alley. It's awful, yet I hear they pay $300 a month for rent. They don't know any better; a lot of them are illegals who don't speak English. If you say anything to the landlord, he'll tell you, 'Hey, I'm providing a service. I'm giving them housing. Don't complain to me.'"

In the mid-1980s the area got a boost when an organizer named Maria Bass made the rounds on behalf of Neighborhood Housing Services, a not-for-profit group that offers low-interest loans for home acquisitions and improvements.

"Basically, Maria went door-to-door, telling people of our services," says Mike Reardon, director of the group's Humboldt Park office. "Banks will lend us money at low interest rates, and then we lend out to eligible residents. In a sense, we're helping to get banks to expand into communities they have traditionally avoided."

Using loans from NHS, several residents (like Colon, his sister, and their parents) were able to tuck-point their buildings and front their lots with stately wrought-iron fences.

But despite their efforts, nearby properties continued to decline. In 1987 the drug dealers began gathering on the corner.

"They just sort of took over the corner," says Martinez. "They were very bold. They came out in day or night. They didn't care who saw them. They dealt drugs out in the open. No one challenged them."

Many residents were afraid to take a stand against the drug dealers. But one day in 1988, a man sitting in his car at the intersection honked his horn in frustration at the traffic jam the dealers were causing. The dealers "dragged the guy from his car and started beating him up bad," says Colon. "Then they took his car and drove it into a telephone pole. It was awful. Our kids were outside; they were terrified. You have this feeling of helplessness. We decided we had to do something after that."

Led by Colon and Martinez, several residents decided to form a block club; 13 showed up for the first meeting on October 13, 1988. So did 31st Ward Alderman Ray Figueroa.

"I give Figueroa credit; he was a major resource," says Colon. "He told us, 'I can get you services, but the best thing you can do is to be empowered and learn to do for yourself. That way, you won't have to depend on me or any alderman.' And that's what we decided to do."

They tried to meet at least once a month. "At first we just had to get to know one another," says Colon. "It was the typical thing. There's not much you can accomplish if you don't even know your neighbor. Some people had lived here for over 20 years and still didn't know each other."

They exchanged phone numbers and vowed to call each other and the police in the event of an emergency or any suspicious activity on the block. Their first goal was to make sure that the streetlight on the corner near Kedzie was permanently repaired.

"We needed a winnable goal so that we could feel better about ourselves," says Colon. "We needed a victory so we could say, 'Yeah, we've accomplished something, now let's accomplish something else.' The streetlight was an important goal."

The light had long been a source of tension. As fast as the city repaired it, the drug dealers shot it out. The city hadn't even tried to repair it in months. "As long as the drug dealers felt they could knock it out, they felt they controlled the corner," says Colon. "We were determined to keep it on." They invited Don Ryan, the city's deputy commissioner in charge of the bureau of electricity, to a meeting.

"Ryan promised to have the light fixed whenever it was shot out; and he kept his word," says Colon. "The dealers would shoot it, and he had it fixed. That went on about six times. Finally, the city put a protective meshing around the bulb and they got tired of shooting it out. It may not sound like much, but that was a major victory. They didn't like doing their drug business underneath a bright light. They knew we were watching. They knew we called the police. Maybe it was their turn to feel a little intimidated."

The residents took to calling the police at all hours of the day and night. "If we saw something funny going on, we called the police," says Martinez. "I called once and the [dispatcher] said, 'Lady, you're the tenth caller from that block.' I said, 'Don't worry, there will be more.'"

Soon their reputation for vigilance spread to the point where local drug dealers painted "ojo" ("eye" in Spanish) on garbage bins in the alley. "That was their way of warning other gang bangers and drug dealers to stay away because we were watching the neighborhood and we would call the police," says Colon. "We took that as a compliment."

Perhaps most remarkable, the dealers never attacked any of the block club members. "One guy called us a snitch--as if we're supposed to feel bad for calling the police--but that's about it," says Colon. "We made it clear that everything we did, we did as a group. That's important. You can't fight a gang on your own. But you can do it as a group. And we never confronted them. We always called the police, and let the police make the confrontation."

For the moment, the future looks a little brighter, at least on their block. One or two of the dealers might wander by on occasion. But they've moved their base of operation elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the block club has started organizing other activities. Last summer, they got together with about 50 volunteers from NHS to plant a garden in one vacant lot on their block. (A developer is also using an NHS loan to rehab a two-flat on the block.) And they oversee a monthly neighborhood cleanup.

"You can get a little angry having to clean up someone else's mess, but you have to set standards," says Colon. "You have to show people that there are limits to what you will tolerate. I'm not saying we can stop all the problems in the world. But we're going to try and get them off of our block."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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