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Besieged

West Humboldt is one of America's biggest open-air drug markets. What does that mean for its residents?

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Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories that explores policing and the drug trade on Chicago's west side.

In mid-March Chicago experienced one of its most violent periods in recent history—67 people shot and 18 slain in a single week of unseasonably warm weather. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was on a ski vacation at the time, but the Monday after he returned he held a press conference in west Humboldt Park to issue a challenge to residents: it's time they took back their neighborhood.

"The gangbangers and the gang members and the gangs do not own this city—we do!" the mayor proclaimed at Harding playlot, 3917 W. Division, which had been spruced up with fresh wood chips and a mowing for the occasion.

Emanuel reminded reporters that a few weeks before, in late January, he and police superintendent Garry McCarthy had deployed extra officers to the most violent areas of the city, including the west side. Now they wanted everyone to know that the strategy was producing results: police had recently broken up a pair of gang-led drug rings, including one in west Humboldt.

"The idea," McCarthy said, "is to go at it like a ground war."

The war would consist of kicking dealers off the street one corner at a time. And since the police were doing their part, Emanuel said, it was time for residents to step up. "The first line in protecting the neighborhood is the community—it is not the police department," Emanuel said. "Does the community come outside the church, outside the family room, and reclaim those street corners as ours? Nobody here gets a pass."

Whether out of ignorance or political convenience—probably both—the mayor and police chief neglected to mention a key point: members of the community have been standing up for themselves for years, since long before Emanuel and McCarthy were on the scene. Yet the dealers and gangs are still there.

If only it were so simple.

A front-row seat to her block's booming drug business

Annlouise Bishop has developed a sort of grudging admiration for the men slinging drugs around her home on the 900 block of North Homan. "These guys, they're so smart—if only they would use their powers for good."

The drug market is a fact of life for everyone who lives in west Humboldt Park. Some people—scores of them, perhaps more—have a stake in it themselves.

But many others have been forced to find ways to cope with it. These residents find needles in their alleys—or stumble upon people as they're shooting up. They know when dealers have a new product by the crowds that form when free samples are given away. They have to navigate drug traffic every time they go to work or run to the store.

Bishop, 52, sees how the operation works on a daily basis. After more than a decade downstate, she and her husband, Terry, a construction worker, moved back to the neighborhood a year ago when he was transferred to the city and they needed an affordable place to live. Bishop grew up in the Bronx—her accent still bears traces of it—but says she's never seen such "outright boldness."

"Last night my husband and I had just pulled up and we still hadn't gotten out of the car, and I'm out there finishing a cigarette, and a guy came by to pick his stuff up, and he stuffed it right into his pants. And the guys who sold it to him, they took [the money] and stuffed it right in the side of the building. Every day we see this."

She says many of the homeowners on the block are senior retirees who are scared to speak up, while at least two houses appear to be rented out to a rotating cast of characters who use them as a base for their drug operations. As for the corner dealers, it seems they commute or carpool to their jobs from elsewhere. "I've seen them come in their rides and get dropped off," Bishop says. "You get mad, less at the sinner than at the sin. But it's an invasion of your livelihood."

And it's not just an inconvenience—violence follows the drugs. Earlier this year someone was beaten outside the house next door. A couple weeks ago the Bishops awoke to the sound of gunfire. They called the police but still aren't sure what happened.

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