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Getting the thugs out: in Edgewater, a building manager fights back

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It wasn't so long ago that dope dealers and prostitutes were peddling their wares from the front entrance of the Rosemont Apartments, a nine-story building at 1061 W. Rosemont, in Edgewater.

Then Candace Howell, a 39-year-old grandmother of three, moved in and started managing the building. Even in the face of death threats Howell never backed down, forcing a tough crew to retreat.

"So far, so good--I'm here and the thugs are gone," says Howell. "I don't want to say I'm lucky, because if I am, I don't want my luck to run out. I just believe that you got to fight back."

Local activists and police call her tale something of a 1990s version of High Noon, updated by themes of community policing and neighborhood empowerment.

"I don't think many people could do what Candace has done--she's a remarkable woman," says John McDermott, a community organizer for the Edgewater Community Council. "But there is a message here for other communities. Candace created a problem-solving partnership with the police to crack down on a local trouble spot. That's what community policing is all about."

Born in Chicago in 1952, Howell was one of eight children raised by her mother, Lucille Buckner, a seamstress and cook.

"My father died when I was ten and my mother had to work two jobs to support us," says Howell. "She had a restaurant in the old Roberts Motel on the south side. I waited there for a while. I was always tall for my age. When I was 10 I looked 14."

To get away from inner-city crime, Howell's mother moved the family to Niles, Michigan.

"This man needed someone to live in his house, so he rented it to us and we took care of his grape fields," says Howell. "We cut and packed the grapes and sent them to the Welch's factory. It was country--real country. An outhouse and everything. First time I ever got chased by a cow was in Michigan. I didn't like it at first. I tried to run away. Actually, I tried to walk away. Me and my sister just started walking up the country road. We wound up in Paw Paw, Michigan, before the police drove us back."

Howell went to high school in Decatur, another rural town in Michigan.

"I wanted to be an entertainer," says Howell. "I wanted to sing like Dinah Washington. But it didn't work out. My family didn't have the money for me to take lessons. Instead, I got married at 16. I was just a kid, a sophomore in high school. My husband was 22. He was a blue-collar worker--the all-American kid. He hated the big city. He'd been to Chicago once, got mugged, and said he was never coming back. He was really into hunting and fishing. We had a gun rack in our house."

Within a few months, Howell was pregnant and had dropped out of school. "When I look back, I realize I got married 'cause I wanted to get out of the house," she says. "My mother worked all the time and we were being raised by my older sister. I guess all of us kids resented that. We were always defying her. I wanted to be on my own. For a while my husband picked me up at school, but he got embarrassed doing that so I dropped out. We bought a little three-bedroom, a cute cottage with a white picket fence. We had a dog. I was playing house. I didn't know what I was doing."

At 17, she got a cashier's job at the local grocery store and joined the retail clerks' union. Within two years she was a union organizer.

"I'm the organizing type--ask a lot of questions, don't back down," says Howell. "The big movement at the time was organizing health workers. I got a job in a nursing home and I started organizing nursing-home workers. I saw things there that shocked me. It was understaffed. You had nonmedical personnel, like me, treating people. I remember straddling a person whose heart had stopped. I got on him and hit his chest as hard as I could. He gasped for breath. I had to call a patient to call a nurse's aide who called a doctor."

In 1977 she quit her union job, got divorced, and moved with her two daughters (her son stayed with his father) back to Chicago. She lived in Evanston then and worked in telemarketing. She wanted a job as a police officer, but the Evanston police department didn't accept her into the academy (she eventually initiated a class-action suit against Evanston, which did not then have any black women officers).

In 1986 she started working at the Rosemont, built in the 1920s for an upscale clientele, as a part-time assistant manager. "My mother and grandmother were living here, that's how I found out about it," says Howell. "It wasn't so bad at the time."

But then the Rosemont started to decline. Its location--at the intersection of Rosemont and Kenmore, in a high-crime section of Edgewater--scared many would-be renters. "In about 1988 the owners sent out the word: rent it up," says Howell. "We got 122 units, but a lot of them were empty. So we took anybody. And I mean anybody. No credit checks, just give us cash. They were desperate for tenants.

"We went from about 40-something empties to about 4 in four months. We had a tough crew. This was known as the place north of Granville to buy dope or find a prostitute. Some of our rooms were used as smoke houses. We had people smoking weed in the hallways. One of our seniors got mugged in her apartment by a guy who had followed her in from the street."

The worst of the hoodlums, says Howell, blatantly broke the law. "We had people break the glass in the front-door enclosure. Steal the pictures from the lobby. You'd find rubbers in the stairwell. The laundry room was always getting broke into. One time these guys came in through the lobby and walked right past me with burglar tools in their hands. They went right over to the laundry room and started trying to break in. They never even paid me any mind--like there was nothing wrong with what they were doing."

Howell says the owners asked her not to file any official complaints with the police. They didn't want any trouble because they wanted to keep the place filled. "I was calling 911 all the time, but I wasn't pressing charges," says Howell. "Finally, this one policeman tells me, 'Listen, if you don't file a complaint, we aren't coming here anymore.' That's when I made my stand."

By 1989 it was clear that the old owners weren't going to spend anything to maintain the building, says Howell. They owed money to utilities, an elevator-repair firm, and at least one construction company. "In 1990 the building was turned over to a court-appointed receiver," says Howell. "By then I was determined to turn it around. I started evicting some of the bad tenants. I told them, 'You smoke dope, you bring in prostitutes, you gang bang, and I'm giving you the five-day notice.' I was in court all the time. I was always talking to the police. I knew them by name. I started sleeping in different rooms and walking the halls at all hours, to see what was going on. The ninth floor was the worst. I wish we could have just closed that floor down.

"I've been threatened. One guy walked up to my door and said, 'I'm gonna blow your fuckin' brains out.' I had him arrested. He never came back. Another time I was sitting in the office and I heard one guy telling this other guy how he got out of jail but he couldn't stay here 'cause "the lady is rappin' on me.' The other guy said, 'Well, shoot the bitch.' So I walked out and said, 'I'm the bitch.' And he apologized."

By the start of this year half the Rosemont's units were vacant, but crime was down. In time, word of Howell's efforts spread through the community, and organizers from the Edgewater Community Council contacted her.

"The unique thing about Candace is that she is a manager who organizes her tenants," says McDermott. "She was using her union-organizing skills. She was telling people to press charges and to show up at court." Working with ECC, Howell joined forces with other block clubs in the area. She also kept ECC informed about who was interested in buying the building.

"The bank foreclosed on the original owner, and Candace was the one who showed prospective buyers around," says McDermott. "One interested buyer was a man who had a terrible reputation as a slumlord. She told us that he had visited the building, and we were able to organize a whole campaign to pressure the bank not to sell to him."

At this point a northwest-side developer, Peter Holsten, is negotiating to buy the building. "Peter has a good reputation and I think he's going to improve the building," says Howell. "The tenants we have are good folks of all races and religions. I'm sure [Holsten] can do the kind of tenant screening you need to make a building like this work."

In the meantime, ECC organizers and Howell have been relating her story to community activists throughout the city. "I tell everyone to stop feeling victimized, join your block club and stop sitting back," says Howell. "This one woman said to me, 'I won't take my kids to the park 'cause of the gangbangers.' I told her, 'Get a hundred other parents and take the park back. Make the gangbangers move.' You've got to fight back. You might not always get justice, but you'll get even less if you just do nothing."

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

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