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Lost in Austin: fighting drugs, decay, and the city bureaucracy on the far west side



For a decade or so, the section of Austin that Marceline Rideaux calls home has been deteriorating. When the dope dealers took over the main intersections, Rideaux and her neighbors decided they'd had enough.

"They were dealing right out in the open," says Rideaux, who, at age 60, has lived in Austin for 15 years. "It was curb-to-car service. People would drive right up and make their purchase from the dealers on the corner."

"They also had drug houses, right in our neighborhood," adds Elenna Holloway, a friend and neighbor of Rideaux. "A drug house is an ordinary home right in the neighborhood where people can go and buy drugs. You can pull right up, honk your horn, and someone will come down to serve you."

Since police seemed all but helpless, the Austin residents took the improvement of their neighborhood into their own hands, and in 1984 they formed the Austin Block Watch Committee. The group covers the area bordered by Division on the north, Chicago on the south, and Austin and Central on the west and east, and includes about 3,000 people.

This year, after battling the Department of Streets and Sanitation, the group obtained permission to hang signs at key intersections declaring their neighborhood a "drug-free zone."

"When I came to Austin 15 years ago, it was beautiful," says Rideaux. "You would not have recognized it compared to today."

At the time, Rideaux, an office worker for Nabisco, and her husband, Abraham, were raising six children on the section of North Lawndale known as K-town (after the numerous north-south streets whose names begin with the letter K).

"The area was really dangerous, and we wanted to move out," says Rideaux.

Austin seemed like the logical choice with its clean, tree-lined streets, affordable bungalows, and healthy business strips along Chicago, North, and Division. But as the middle-class blacks moved in, hundreds of whites moved out. "The whites were running," Rideaux recalls. "You would meet moving vans in the alley passing each other: we'd be moving in, and they'd be moving out." Their pursuit of the American Dream (new home, bigger yard, better schools) took them to suburbia, just as Rideaux' led her into Austin.

Unfortunately, many business owners left with the white residents, shuttering storefronts along Chicago and Division. Two waves of economic depression (the first in 1974, the second in the early 1980s) ravaged the area as well. In time, the main business strips converted to rows of taverns, liquor stores, vacant lots, storefront churches, and boarded-up buildings. To buy clothes or groceries Austin residents often had to shop outside their own community. Even more infuriating, city services declined.

"Look at this corner," Rideaux exclaims. "It's a city property and it's a disgrace." Sure enough, the intersection Rideaux points to, that of Chicago and Menard, is cluttered with bottles, cans, and other debris. The grass and weeds have grown as tall as the fire hydrant.

"I've been to Oak Park many times," says Rideaux of the suburb just west of Austin's boundaries. "My children went to Saint Joseph's [High School], which is in Westchester. I know what it's like in the suburbs. They would never tolerate this. You can't tell me there aren't dirty people in Oak Park. The town officials there just work harder. They've got litter laws, they'll fine you if you don't keep up."

Unfortunately few aldermen in recent history have been ousted from office for providing lousy service. As long as race remains the issue of primary interest to voters, there is little incentive for public officials to provide better services. The results of this inattention can be seen in Austin's filthy streets and alleys.

"We had a big alley cleanup, and collected all of this garbage in plastic bags, and then the city didn't even pick up the bags," says Rideaux. "They sat there from Sunday to Wednesday. We had to call a few times to have them hauled away."

"We have to fight just for basic services," Holloway adds. "If you don't know nobody, you don't get nothing done. Why do I have to have a meeting to get something done? Why do I have to fight Streets and Sanitation, and pay taxes at the same time?"

"I know I can't blame all these problems on the city," Rideaux continues. "I know people can be slobs. What would possess someone to just dump his bottle on the street, I don't know. But most people in Austin work very hard to keep their lawns clean. It's the main streets that are disgraceful. If you look at the side streets, you'll see that people are taking care of their property."

Sure enough, the alley behind Rideaux' property, for instance, is virtually spotless, devoid even of graffiti. The lawns on her block are well trimmed and manicured. Her husband tends a garden (one of many on the block) of roses, marigolds, green peppers, and turnips.

"Elenna lives across the alley; if she sees anything funny looking going on, she calls me. We don't mess around," says Rideaux. "Next door lives Pat. She's a nice old Lithuanian woman. She loves it in Austin; she's lived here for years. A boy on the block cuts her lawn. Some of the kids on the block cause trouble with their boom boxes. But if you tell them to turn it low, they usually do.

"We need more cooperation from the city, though. There was this one fellow down the street who was dumping garbage in a vacant lot next door. I told our alderman [Danny Davis] about it, and he told me he had the same problem on his block. I thought, 'Well, if you're the alderman, and you're having the same problems, I'm wasting my time talking to you.'"

The Austin group's scrapes with city officials over garbage, however, pale in comparison to their struggles against drug crime. In October 1986--after having met with their district's community liaisons from the Police Department--the group asked to meet with their local police commander. The group demanded that police disperse unsavory characters who gathered on corners. That's beyond our constitutional authority, the police responded. Then provide more patrols along Chicago Avenue, the group countered. Don't tell us how to do our job, was the response.

But some ground was eventually gained. "It used to be that if you called with a complaint, the police showed up to your door first," Rideaux explains. "That let all the dope dealers know that you had made the complaint. That's scary. Now the police don't do that. State's Attorney [Richard] Daley came out here and gave us a phone number we can call, where anonymous complaints are recorded and then investigated."

Eventually, the group decided their problems required a meeting with the mayor, Harold Washington. "Do you know how hard it is for an ordinary group of citizens to meet with the mayor?" says Rideaux. "We had to call for months. I call at 11:05 in the morning; Elenna calls at 11:10, someone else calls five minutes later, and so on. And then you do the same thing the next day.

"His assistant, Charles Kelly, told us that our problem wasn't important enough to take the mayor's time. But we met the mayor at a neighborhood forum. We just walked right up to him, and asked him for a meeting, and he agreed. When we had the meeting, we were received royally. It made me think that the problem wasn't so much with the mayor as his staff."

Washington instructed the Department of Streets and Sanitation to hang the committee's signs on light poles along the main strips. Most important, soon after the committee's meeting with the mayor, residents say, police assigned regular patrols along Chicago Avenue.

For the time being, the committee members say, there is less drug traffic in the community, although, in all likelihood, the dealers may have moved to other areas.

"We know that the dealers may have moved," says Holloway. "But we had to take a stand. It's up to other neighborhoods to do like we did."

How permanent the peace remains uncertain. There have been no major shootings or fights in recent months. But many residents say they are still afraid to walk along Chicago Avenue.

"If I were mayor, I'd recruit more police and sanitation workers," says Rideaux. "If someone drops a piece of trash, fine them. If they drop another, fine them again. We've got to take control of our neighborhoods.'

"I still go back to K-town. That's where my church is. And the funny thing is, that neighborhood seems to be doing better. They're building some homes there. Maybe it's bottomed out, so it has no choice but to go up. Isn't that something? Where I come from may get better than where I came.

"I think things will get better here too. It's like everything else--all of this bad could move on. But I'm 60; I just don't know if I'll live long enough to see it happen."

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

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