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Nasty boys: Clifton-Belmont neighbors want their block back

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Night after night, week after week, voices tore the thick summer air and crashed through bedroom windows all along the block.

"Hey motherfucker gimme that you dumb motherfucker."

'Who you be callin' a motherfucker?"

"You you motherfuckin' motherfucker."

And then, together, "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA."

The voices, most deep, a few still cracking, belonged to teenage boys. They were not nice boys. And they did not live here.

The boys came to the street nightly for two sisters, ages 14 and 17. Their mother insisted her girls be inside by 10 o'clock on school nights, 11 weekends. The girls, polite and softspoken, minded their curfews.

But the boys, 5 or 10 or 20 of them, stayed. Midnight would come and go. The racket--cursing, breaking bottles, slamming car doors--would keep the entire street awake.

It got so that dusk made everyone edgy. Come sunset, the character of the 3200 block of North Clifton would go from light to dark. People walked faster. They stared straight ahead and headed straight for their front doors.

Days, North Clifton is an easygoing street. Big, old trees line much of the block. Neighbors nod hello from their porches. They water their patch lawns and struggle to pick up the garbage left by Belmont Avenue barhoppers.

The block, like so many others in Lakeview, is gentrifying. Up-and-coming white couples are moving in. Someone is always painting or hammering. But North Clifton has maintained a good mix of people. There are renters and home owners. A variety of classes and races are represented on the block.

Everyone had been getting along fine. Except with the teenagers.

"So why doncha move if you don't like it, huh?" one of the nastier boys asked a neighbor lady late one evening.

"Look, buster, I live here. You don't," she shot back. "You don't belong here."

Yet the boys were winning control of the street. No one could stop them. They laughed off the police, several assault and battery reports, and their girlfriends' mother. A man who took his complaints directly to the boys got a fist in his back and a brick sailed at his head.

The boys defended themselves by saying boys will be boys and all kids make noise. "Why don't ya'll chill out," advised Chris, 15, who lives on Clifton, but across Belmont. "We ain't be messin' with nobody."

Chris and his buddies insisted the whole conflict was racially motivated. They are a gang of school friends, not a street gang. If 15 white boys were hanging out, the kids said, no one would mind. No one would be scared.

Anyway, the girls were here first. They have lived in their first-floor apartment for seven years. Their friends have always come around. They haven't changed. The neighborhood has.

Color. Yeah, that has to be it, said an indignant Rona, the 17-year-old sister.

But Rona's family is not the only black family on the block. The others resented the kids as much as the white families. They couldn't sleep either. The noise tormented them just the same.

No, this was not about black kids getting in trouble for simply being kids. It was about kids getting in trouble because they deserved it.

Something had to snap.

Finally, on a muggy Monday night, a few of the boys went too far even for them. They chased a woman walking her dog down the block, hurling bottles at her for the fun of it.

Within minutes, people were all over the street. The cops were there and the kids were there, one up against a squad car in handcuffs. Everyone was talking at once, jabbing fingers in faces, trying to figure out why this was happening on their block.

"What exactly do you want me to do?" asked the girls' mom, Loretta, who is studying to be a medical assistant. "They're not mine. I can't be responsible for them. Don't you lay it all on me. There's nothing I can do."

The neighbors, however, had a few suggestions. Don't let the kids come around. Don't let them hang out in front of the house. Don't insist on keeping the girls home. A young cop urged the neighbors to talk to Loretta's landlord, who lives above her, and their alderman. He mentioned something about threatening to call out a building inspector.

Even before he finished speaking, something clicked. The neighbors said, "Enough!"

Paper notices went up the very next day.

The first urged neighbors to call their alderman, Bernard Hansen of the 44th Ward, and the mayor's office. Phone numbers were provided. The second notice announced that the block was calling a meeting. A neighborhood watch group was about to be formed.

The kids would not be pushing these adults around anymore. The grown-ups would be taking back their block, thank you.

"Everyone turned against us," Rona said the day of the meeting. "But I don't feel like the adults around here are being fair, not fair at all.

"I understand they have complaints, but they carried it too far with this meeting stuff and all. OK, I know my friends are loud and everything. But god, they're making so much of it."

The afternoon was getting late and Rona, a pretty girl who doesn't need or use any makeup to accent her huge doe eyes, was sitting on her front steps. She was there to keep an eye on her friends. The front door to the apartment was open and kids were wandering in and out.

Someone flipped on the stereo inside. Whitney Houston's voice floated by:

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be."

Just a few hours later, the adults were gathering across the street at Reba's house to discuss the neighborhood children.

"It makes me happy to see all of you here in this weather. This weather really stinks," Jose Rosa told the neighbors. "It tells me you have problems, real problems."

Rosa is with the Chicago Police Department's 19th District beat rep program. He came to help the neighbors galvanize their anger into action. So did Officer Nelly Figueroa of the Gang Crimes North unit. Hansen aide Mike Quigley was there, the only one in long sleeves and a tie. But he left before the meeting got around to the reason it had been called.

About 19 neighbors showed, too. That's a big number for a small block. The crowd was mostly female, but then women were the ones being baited by the boys after dark. Even Marge, who owns the 7-Eleven nearby on Belmont, came. (None of the neighbors wanted their last names used.)

The night was a broiler. Reba, an insurance administrator, doesn't have air-conditioning. Her living room was stifling. But nearly everyone stayed the full hour.

Like Rosa said, they had problems. They wanted answers.

First, though, Rosa wanted to talk about posting signs in every apartment along the block. In bold blue lettering, they read:

Warning

This is a Neighborhood Watch Area

We Call Police

"The program is as good as you make it," said Rosa, dressed casually in brown slacks and a beige guayabera shirt. "If you only get ten people involved, forget it. You need numbers. You need dedication. I am telling you I will come back to check. Lots of times I give out these signs and I come back and everyone has thrown them in the trash.

"Remember, the more signs, the merrier."

Kim volunteered that several years ago the block tried the same thing. Lots of folks signed up. Not one of them posted the signs.

This time, though, it looked to be different.

"Yeah, you have to follow through. You have to call the police. You have to dial 911," Officer Figueroa said. "Your main reason for getting together should be crime prevention. But it also has to be social. You have to get to know one another."

At that, the neighbors looked at one another. Few people had had to be introduced. The block has always been tight. People watch out for one another. But that didn't help them stop the boys, which is what they wanted to talk about. They wanted to know who had what rights. Could the boys stay on the street all night long? Could the cops be expected to chase them off?

"They do have the right to be there," Figueroa said.

The neighbors did not look pleased.

"Is that something new?" asked Marilyn, a small wiry woman in shorts and tank top. She was the one who had called Hansen's office, organized the meeting, and got the police to attend.

"One night I called the cops and they told me 'They're just kids. We can't do everything,'" interjected Lois, a nurse who works the night shift. "They didn't even go talk to them."

"Can you explain the legality of all this? I remember when I was a kid and there was trouble, the cops would always come by and ask for our IDs. Well, we heard an officer say they can't do that because they're all over 17," added Bob, who owns a used-books store. "How do they know that?"

"Well, you can pretty much tell how old someone is by looking at them," Figueroa said.

The kids say they are 13 to 17. Only a few are older. That means their curfew is 10:30 PM weekdays, 11:30 PM weekends. Legally, they're supposed to be at home, off the streets.

"OK, if there's a complainant, you can have them taken in after curfew," Figueroa said. "But any time after dark, when they're disturbing the peace, you can call and say you want it stopped. But you have to sign a complaint."

None of the neighbors had a problem with that. Actually, their biggest problem seemed to be with police. By the time the cops show up, they said, the kids have hightailed it out of here.

The meeting quickly turned into a bitch session about the police.

"The kid isn't going to be stupid enough to hang around," said Bob.

From Marilyn, "He's gone."

"We're having a lot of trouble getting the police to pay attention to us," said Kim.

"Look, we can only do so much," Figueroa said. "You don't know why they didn't respond. There could have been other calls. A crime against a person always takes precedence. But they should respond immediately."

"Well they sure don't," Ron said. He told a story about witnessing an assault, calling the cops, and waiting more than 20 minutes for them to arrive. In the meantime, he said, three squad cars drove down School Street without stopping.

Suddenly Figueroa started looking defensive. She is not responsible for dispatching police to trouble spots, but she was taking the heat for it. Figueroa, in a sleeveless black shirt, white slacks, and black shawl tied around her waist, twisted and retwisted her fingers. She fidgeted with her gold necklace. She was breathing hard.

Follow-through, Figueroa said. She said it three times. Ask the 911 operators for their names, she said. Jot down the time of the call. If there are problems, call the next day and ask to speak with a supervisor. Follow-through, follow-through, follow-through.

"I can understand your frustration," Figueroa said. "But unless you report it to a supervisor, we don't know about it. There is no reason on earth for poor police service. I am the first to say that."

Figueroa promised to put special attention on the problem address right away. The cops would watch the kids. But it would be up to the neighbors to watch the cops watching the kids.

At that point, the meeting started breaking up. Neighbors collected their blue-and-white signs. Everyone said goodnight, let's talk again soon, and walked out onto the street.

It was dark. It was still. The kids were nowhere around.

They weren't dummies. They had heard about the meeting. And, finally, they had given the neighbors a night off.

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

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