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West Humboldt is one of America's biggest open-air drug markets. What does that mean for its residents?


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When cars pulled up, they'd quickly make an exchange. It went on for months.

"I said, 'We've got to get these motherfuckers out of here'—excuse my language. The next day, we just moved the hoop, down to the other end of the alley. And that was the end of that episode—just the fact that a group of us cared and we weren't afraid."

The trouble is that when the dealers do leave, they simply go somewhere else. Simmons sometimes sees 11-year-olds riding their bikes calling out "5-0! 5-0!" to warn dealers the police are coming. There are buildings where women deal out of first-floor windows, like it's a drive-through. "It's a constant battle," he says. "It's heartbreaking."

On the one hand, he says, the drug trade involves a small minority—on his block, maybe three or four families. On the other, if three families are in it on every block, it's hard to stop. "Jobs, education—that's what we need," Simmons says. "Some of these guys, they say, 'I'd love to have something else.'"

Simmons says that ten years ago, when the housing market was booming all over the city, west Humboldt Park looked ready for an upswing—young people started moving in and businesses began expressing interest in empty spaces along Chicago Avenue. One of them was CVS, which made plans to open a store on Chicago and Pulaski. But the company decided on a site further north when project costs grew and the recession set in.

To Simmons, that's become a symbol of what could have been. "It would have changed the complexion of the area," he says.

He says there are still reasons to be hopeful—the city just repaved the street and sidewalks along Chicago Avenue, and a new restaurant is supposed to open near the corner of Chicago and Central Park later this year.

But Simmons admits that he's tired when he thinks about what else it's going to take.

"All this stuff we've done, and we have not been able to break through," he says. "I don't know where we go from here. "

Rebecca Cohen helped research this article.

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