Yesterday, the battle against gangs in our neighborhood entered a new phase because of a smart, brave woman and a plumber.
Maria, down at 3506, had the idea to get permit parking in our neighborhood. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Chicago, this simply means that people who are residents of a block get stickers to put on their windshields, and cars without stickers are banned from parking on the block for all or part of the day. I believe this was originally instituted because of parking problems near busy commercial or entertainment areas, like Rush Street or Broadway. But it works just as well to keep gangbangers from parking their vans, opening the side doors and setting up camp on the parkway. Or pulling in and hanging out until a drug customer drives up and begins negotiations.
Now, Michael and I have been working against the gangs for eleven years and we never thought of this. Olga and Obed have fought the good fight for eighteen and they never thought of it. Noel and Carolina . . . you get the idea.
Maria had already proven her dedication to the campaign. A few years ago, the guy who lived in 3508 put in a large raised garden bed around the tree on his parkway. In addition to dooming the tree, this provided a bench where hardworking gangbangers could rest and chat with each other and their girlfriends. And drink and smoke dope and carry on loud, obscenity-filled conversations.
Well, after a particularly rough Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, Michael and Mac and I went to talk to the alderman. Maria, on the other hand, took apart the bench and moved the wood over to the community garden to provide a border for the vegetable beds.
She simply took it apart. Her husband and her sister helped her. And they did ask the current resident of 3508 for permission, which was gratefully given. But, if you’ve never lived in a gang-infested neighborhood, you may not appreciate the courage this act required.
I remember sitting on the front porch one morning back in about 2005, talking with one of my book kids, Erika. She asked me whether I’d heard the shooting the night before. I told her that I had and that I’d called 911. She looked at me earnestly and said, “You can’t call the cops. The gangs will kill you.”
I assured Erika that the gangs were not going to kill me, but she believed what a lot of other people in the neighborhood believe. That’s because gangs are terrorists. They create an aura of violence around themselves, using language and gesture and appearance. Gang signs scrawled on neighborhood buildings contribute to the effect. Sneakers hanging from electrical wires are not just a signal to potential customers, but a way of flaunting the gang’s presence. And then there’s minor vandalism. We find a fair number of hyacinths and lilies beheaded in our front garden every season.
They augment all this with an occasional genuinely violent act, usually against one of their own but sometimes against a young woman who has not been sufficiently protected against them or someone who has no recourse against them, such as an illegal alien. But most of the atmosphere of violence is created by cowardly acts committed undercover. As Michael once said, “These guys are really tough. They can cut the blooms off tulips.” That’s the thing about terrorism. It’s one percent violence and ninety-nine percent scare tactics.
At any rate, when we talked to the alderman, he told us we could get permit parking–and speed bumps (Tony’s idea)–if seventy percent of the neighborhood would sign a petition asking for them. We got the petition forms and left, wondering whether our neighbors would sign. One of the first people we went to was Maria, since it was her idea. She took a page of the petition and, about an hour later, her daughters returned it completed. Twelve signatures from the northeast quadrant of the block.
A few days later, Alberto from across the street at 3519 stopped in to look at a small plumbing problem we had. He signed the petition and then asked us if he could please take it with him to get the people on the south side of the street to sign. Yesterday after our community garden picnic, he brought his page back. Another twelve signatures. And he took another page.
By next Monday, when Alderman Maldonado has his office hours, we expect to present him with the petitions. Wish us luck.
Oh, and here’s a little reminder of why we have to keep doing all this.