In early June, shortly after a drive-by shooting near Estes and Ridge, Rogers Park residents declared war on crime. But instead of targeting gang members or drug dealers they've gone after Marty Merel, a landlord who owns or manages about ten apartment buildings on the far north side. Residents blame Merel for everything from litter to crime, saying he doesn't screen his tenants or properly maintain his properties. They've picketed Merel's home in Skokie and complained about him to his mortgage holders--all in an attempt to force him to sell his buildings.
"We decided that we could take a big step toward improving Rogers Park by concentrating on Merel's bad buildings," says Jack Wuest, who's lived in Rogers Park most of his life. "It's nothing personal. I don't know the man. He may be a terrific guy. But he's a lousy landlord and he should get out of our community."
Merel says his buildings are well kept, and he accuses residents of blaming him for problems that are beyond anyone's control.
"It's easy to attack Marty Merel because I'm an individual, not a corporate facade," says Merel. "I put my name on my buildings. I list my phone number. I don't run. I don't hide. They know where I live. They can go to my home. They can harass my neighbors. They can try to make my life miserable. It won't change their lives or make Rogers Park what they want it to be, but maybe it will make them feel like they're doing something good."
Both sides agree that Rogers Park has changed over the years. Some residents, like Wuest, recall an idyllic ethnically mixed community, where children could play in the parks and on the streets after dark. As they tell the story there was no fear of crime, and the closest thing to gangs were the neighborhood bullies, their hair greased back, who smoked cigarettes and lurked in alleyways trying to look menacing. They might have beat each other up, but they rarely hurt anyone else.
"It was a great neighborhood to be a kid," says Wuest of Rogers Park in the late 50s and early 60s. "Everybody got along fine; we didn't have any ethnic squabbles. There were all kinds of kids, but we never thought about who was what. My Little League team was like the United Nations. John Moy played first, Billy Samartino played shortstop, Mike Eckdish caught, and I played third. There were a lot of Jewish kids on my block--I was the only goy. I remember one kid, Richie Schwartz, his mother was Irish and his father was Jewish. He got to take both sets of holidays off."
Nowadays, Wuest continues, it's not uncommon to hear gunfire or see dope peddled openly. "The other day the police came by, warning us to move our kids inside because they were expecting a drive-by shooting in retaliation for some other attack," Wuest says. "People shouldn't have to live this way."
To an outsider just passing through, Rogers Park appears to be a curious blend of vibrancy and decline. The lawns on most side streets are trimmed, the houses well tended. But here and there a building stands shuttered. The windows in local schools are not broken--a very encouraging sign--but the once-bustling business strips are ailing. As for Merel's buildings, some do have litter in the front, and most could use a scrubbing and painting. Residents have complained of boisterous men congregating in front of some of Merel's buildings, but what I saw were bunches of noisy grade-schoolers running about.
Perhaps Rogers Park's greatest problem is one of perception: a fear that things will rapidly decline if the residents don't band together and act quickly and decisively.
"I take it as a healthy sign that people want to fight for their neighborhood, although I'm not sure that things are as bad as people say," says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. "People have a tendency to glorify the past as the good old days. But the good old days weren't all that great, and these days aren't all that bad. It may be hard to believe, but I know for a fact that we had more abandoned buildings here in the 70s than we do today. We have some of the most active community groups and school councils. Loyola University is a strong anchor. I'm optimistic."
For his part, Merel says the residents are using him to camouflage their real fear--of racial change. Since 1980, Rogers Park's white population has declined from 72 to 45 percent, and its black population has increased from 10 to 27 percent (19 percent of the community is Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian). "I note that many of the leaders of the so-called movement against me are white," says Merel. "You don't see many African Americans at their protests and demonstrations."
Residents dismiss such talk as race baiting. "Marty's being ridiculous when he talks like that," says Thomas Honn, a long-time resident. "We like the fact that Rogers Park is integrated. That's one of the reasons we live here." Adds Wuest: "This is not a black or white problem, this is a landlord problem. All people--black, white, or whatever--want to live in a safe, clean neighborhood. Plenty of black residents show up for our meetings."
Moore says that residents, black and white, have been complaining about Merel for several years. "We met with him several times in 1991, but nothing came of it," says Moore. "He made a lot of promises, but we felt he was stringing us along."
The problem with Merel's buildings, residents charge, is that he doesn't outfit them with enough Dumpsters to handle all the garbage, which winds up overflowing into the alleys. Worse, they say he doesn't screen his tenants. "I live across the street from one building where we have guys sitting in the front drinking," says Wuest. "They are loud and intimidating. That kind of behavior should not be tolerated."
In late May, the windows on Wuest's van were blown out in a drive-by shooting. "It was ten o'clock at night and I heard a bunch of pops," says Wuest. "I was shaking, I was so scared. The first thing I worried about was whether my kids--who were sleeping in the front bedroom--were all right. The gun used was a semiautomatic."
Merel says it's outrageous to blame him or any of his tenants for the shooting, which has still not been solved. "There is a shooting on the street in which I happen to own a building, and somehow I'm to blame? That doesn't make any sense," says Merel. "It doesn't have anything to do with me. These people are swinging madly."
The shooting became a rallying point for residents, however, who started picketing Merel's home.
Merel says the residents are harassing him. "They picket my house. They smear my name. They bother my neighbors. They have the media call me up. The day of one of their marches, when I got home there were a bunch of calls from media people on my phone machine. I returned every one of those calls, but most of those reporters didn't call me back. They just wrote that I was unavailable for comment. One guy called to say that it was too late to work my side of the story in. He said that if they were to do a follow-up, he would call me back. But they never did a follow-up. Reporters look for something interesting and exciting, but they are not always fair."
Merel says he screens his tenants and that each of his buildings is managed by a janitor. "One of the callers said I should check criminal records and I should check school records, but these things aren't public information," he says. "There are certain laws relating to privacy. And besides, if a student is not a good student, why should I use that against his parents? We do check on public records. We check on previous residences. Sometimes we do home visits."
Some of the residents contend that Merel, who operates his properties with the help of his wife and son, is in over his head--that he's taken on more buildings than he can handle. But again Merel disagrees.
"When I started out doing this, I was working full-time as an accountant," says Merel. "Now I do this full-time. My wife left her job to help me. In 1991, my son quit his job to come with me. Right now he's out checking on buildings. We work hard. But these people get all their facts wrong.
"They called a meeting with one of my mortgage holders and said that there were papers all over the yards of my buildings and that the grass was never cut, and that there were no Dumpsters behind the building. Well, the president of the bank went over to take a look and--surprise, surprise--the litter wasn't there, the Dumpster was in the back, and the lawn was cut. I didn't know the president was going there. It just shows you that we take care of our buildings."
Merel says he is eager to meet with a few of the residents to try and settle their differences, but the residents say they don't trust him.
"I think it's time for someone else to give it a try with these buildings," says Moore. "Someone who understands what we're doing to make Rogers Park even better than it is."