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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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Eventually Horton's daughter got clean and moved out of state, but her grandsons didn't make it to adulthood unscathed. She says the oldest, Eura, finished high school and, at 30, is back in college. The other, 28-year-old Richard, is in prison.

Horton says Richard's troubles began when he started hanging out on the next block. "I think they were selling weed over there," she says. "I'd say, 'You keep going over there, I'm going to have your funeral over on Lawndale.' He wouldn't listen."

Records show Richard has been locked up repeatedly for dealing marijuana and heroin. Last year he began serving a six-year term for his latest gun-possession charge.

A few months later, two of his friends were shot, one fatally. Horton believes the prison term saved her grandson's life.

"Maybe God did that for a reason," she says.

The rise of gangs, gentrification, and political grandstanding

By the 1980s, a decade into the nation's war on drugs, gangs had taken over Chicago's street-level narcotics trade. And politicians quickly became adroit at making dramatic announcements every time they could showcase a drug bust.

In Chicago, Humboldt was at the center of both the drug dealing and the politicking. In 1987, then state's attorney Richard M. Daley announced charges against 46 gang members for selling drugs in curbside markets in Humboldt Park, West Town, and Logan Square. So smooth was the operation, Daley said, that the dealers sometimes provided customers with free beer as they waited for their deliveries.

Still, admitted a police commander, "I don't think we really made a dent in the overall narcotics problem."

He was right. Over the next few years it got worse.

The problem was so blatant that in 1998 Daley, by now the mayor, visited a west Humboldt Park church to propose an ordinance imposing fines and jail time on anyone caught publicly advertising the sale of drugs—that is, calling out "blow," "rock," or "weed." "We have to make it so hot the drug dealers can't stand on the corner," said Ed Smith, the area's alderman at the time.

The ordinance didn't go anywhere. Nor, unfortunately, did the narcotics trade.

Ironically, by the late 1990s, east Humboldt Park had become a real estate hotspot, propelled first by artists moving west from increasingly pricey West Town and Wicker Park. But the gentrification stayed away from the predominantly African-American area of west Humboldt Park, which instead became a narcotics hotspot.

The area retains some of its proud working-class history. In some parts of the community, such as the 600 block of North Drake, the brick bungalows, two-flats, and cottages are tidy and bright, the yards are well maintained, and children play kickball in the street. Residents call these blocks "the suburbs."

But elsewhere, such as the 700 block of North Central Park, there are multiple abandoned homes on each side of the street, some of them boarded up and some of them open, where young men sit on the porches, waiting for customers. Earlier this month, the body of a 49-year-old woman who apparently overdosed on heroin was found in a vacant home on the 800 block of North Lawndale; last week another overdose victim was found in an empty building on West Grand a couple blocks north of beat 1112.

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