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Drug-free zone: Bucktown neighbors take back their block

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For months the gangs had been dealing cocaine and heroin from the weather-beaten nine-flat and the two-flat across the street, when the residents of Bucktown rebelled.

They marshaled their forces--a Catholic brother, whose light-brown beard barely conceals his baby face, an Alinsky-style organization, and a lot of gumption--and waged an attack replete with protest marches, signs, and T-shirts.

Amazingly, it worked. The gangs have left; the drug dealing's stopped--at least on this one block.

"I won't say we've stopped the drug problem in Chicago," says Brother Ed Howe, from Saint Hedwig Church. "But we've started something. We've forced the dealers to move off of this block. We've shown other neighborhoods what they can do."

"The most important element in the fight against drugs is community involvement," adds Ronald Garcia, commander of the 14th Police District. "Drug dealers can intimidate a handful of people. But if a whole community like this one gets involved, the dealers will move. They don't want all of the attention."

Bucktown is an economically and ethnically diverse near-northwest-side community, just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway near the intersection of Damen and Armitage. In the last few years home prices there have soared as young couples--attracted by the area's bungalows--moved amid older Poles, Hispanics, and blacks.

"Bucktown does not have the worst drug-dealing problem in Chicago," says Howe. "But it's there. I got a few calls from people in the neighborhood who were scared. One call was from a family whose son had been on the edge of joining a drug-dealing gang. The family got so scared they moved the boy back to Puerto Rico."

Drug dealers had established a base in two buildings at the intersection of Shakespeare and Hoyne, one block from Howe's church.

"There was dealing inside and out of the buildings," says Garcia. "The arrests we made there concerned curbside service. Dealers would come out and exchange drugs for cash. They were very open. We can only speculate about whatever transactions went on inside."

"Their customers drove right up to the buildings," says Howe. "A lot of them drove nice cars too. I'll bet they came from all over the city and suburbs."

On April 30 there was a shooting.

"A fight broke out between members of two different drug houses," says Howe. "Someone pulled a gun, and an innocent bystander was shot. He was not seriously hurt; the bullet lacerated his liver. But the shooting occurred while people were leaving Mass. That was the final straw."

Howe called for a community meeting and enlisted the aid of David Cristeal and Peggy Wood, director and president respectively of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network, a community organization affiliated with the United Neighborhood Organization. Over 100 residents attended that meeting.

"We knew that there were deep frustrations and fears about gangs and drug dealing, but we never could have imagined such a high turnout," says Cristeal. "People wanted to do something."

At the meeting, police warned residents of the obstacles they faced. Police intervention has limitations. As fast as police arrest alleged drug dealers, the dealers are back on the street: there's simply no room in the jails for them.

Some residents--particularly those who lived near Hoyne and Shakespeare--feared retribution should they publicly confront the dealers. Figuring there is strength in numbers, the group decided to round up as many Bucktown residents as they could find. They would confront the dealers all right. They would hold a protest march with a rally in front of the drug houses.

"We went to [Alderman Terry] Gabinski's office and told him we'd like to conduct this protest," says Howe. "He was in agreement; he said we'd need some kind of permit--a block party permit. Isn't that something? We're fighting the drug dealers and we need the permit."

The first protest was Friday, May 19. It rained.

"We got a great turnout in spite of the rain," says Cristeal. "There must have been 150 people there, chanting. We got good media coverage. We even got mentioned in Kup's column--I still don't know how that happened. The drug dealers didn't do anything. They just peeked out the windows."

The drug activity did not end with that protest, so the residents, feeling emboldened, organized another march for July 21. This time they wore bright red "Drug Free Bucktown" T-shirts. The skies were clear; over 200 residents attended, including Garcia and State Senator Miguel del Valle.

"This time the gang tried to intimidate us," says Cristeal. "Some hung out the windows and smiled, like they were mocking us. Some even wore our T-shirts. I think there was a little nervousness behind the smiles."

Meanwhile, police pressed the owners of the two buildings to evict the troublemakers. The owner of the two-flat immediately cooperated, even though he feared the dealers would retaliate by vandalizing his building (which they did).

The owner of the nine-flat, however, insisted that no drugs were being dealt from his building. According to Howe, the landlord threatened to sue the residents if they did not drop their campaign.

"The Monday after the first protest the landlord confronted me in the rectory," says Howe. "It was awkward. I was standing there with my laundry in my hand. He denied there was any drug dealing. I asked him to attend the meetings, and he said he lived outside of Chicago and didn't want to drive an hour for a meeting. He was yelling, and didn't listen to what I said."

The state's attorney's office wrote the landlord a letter, warning him that he could be held legally responsible for drug dealing on his property if he did not begin eviction proceedings against suspected dealers. A meeting was arranged between the landlord and police, who notified the landlord of the drug arrests made from his building.

"The landlord fits the mold of a lot of absentee landlords," says Garcia. "What they don't know can't hurt them, so they choose not to know. They should screen their tenants better; a lot of these guys, if they get their rent, they don't care. But, all in all, this landlord has responded. Some of the troublesome parties have been evicted. We're still watching it, but things have improved."

Indeed, the only persons moving outside the building on one recent bright and sunny Thursday afternoon were the landlord and a husky young woman known by locals as "Crazy" because she often stands on the corner and shouts.

"During the second march, Crazy yelled at us," says Howe. "We were chanting 'Drug dealers out,' and she was yelling 'Drug dealers in.' That only made us chant louder."

The landlord--a thin elderly man--continues to insist that there was no drug dealing in his building when the protests started.

"There was a woman here who quit her job and started dealing dope," says the landlord, asking that his name not be used. "I won't stand for that. I gave her a five-day notice and she left. That was two weeks before these meetings. They marched here and there was nobody selling drugs. Nobody."

The building--at least 60 years old--looks no worse for wear than a lot of other vintage west-side units. Rotting newspapers, broken bottles, and beer cans, attracting flies, have piled up in the basement stairwell; the landlord does not remember when the stairwell was last cleaned; and unknown hands have scrawled gang graffiti inside the hallway.

The landlord says he's invested $60,000 in rehabilitation fees. He won't say how much he charges in rent, or how many of his units are rented. He did show one recently remodeled unit with new tile floors, but he would not show any other units.

"Of course, I don't allow drug dealers," he says. "When I rent an apartment, it's good."

Out on the street, he spots Ed Howe and gets angry.

"You're spreading lies," he tells the brother.

"That's not so," Howe says. "There were reports of drug dealing."

"Who made the reports?"

"Residents."

"Which residents."

"They don't want their names known."

"You've got nothing. If you know something--point a finger."

By now, the landlord is standing face-to-face with Howe, yelling at him.

"This is not a conversation," says Howe, his voice calm. "You're not listening to me. You're just shouting."

Howe walks away.

"The real estate brokers are behind this protest," says the landlord. "They're the ones who put these lies about drug dealing into the residents' heads. Bucktown is changing. You don't have many yuppies moving here yet, but you've got liberals moving away from the lake. Liberals are like yuppies only they make less money. After the liberals, you'll get the yuppies. That's why I don't want to sell my building right now. I want to get what it's really worth. That's why the brokers are doing this. They think they can force me to sell for less by turning the neighborhood against me. As soon as these protests started, I got calls from brokers asking me to sell."

Howe dismisses those charges as "totally ridiculous."

"We have no contact with the realtors," says Howe. "I'm not even sure the realtors would want us doing what we're doing. They might be afraid the publicity about drugs would give Bucktown a bad name."

Despite the landlord's bad feelings, peace reigns. If drug dealing returns, the residents vow to stage more protests.

"In certain areas of the city--which I will not name--conditions are such that this type of activity would not work," says Garcia. "There are so many poor people that selling drugs is the only staple. The residents would not cooperate with police in the way residents here have. But if more communities respond this way, they'd be telling the world that this is a neighborhood where drug dealers can't go."

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

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