Gang Kryptonite

My last post was about the dark night of this neighborhood’s soul.  I’ll have to go back to that dark night again as I write, but you should know that the worst of it ended for us about two years ago. I’ll explain that later, probably soon. And I don’t mean that all the danger has ended, but something else has begun. We made a garden.

The corner of St. Louis and McLean has been a gang/drug selling corner since the 1960s. The neighborhood and the cops have been trying to clean it up for almost that whole time. Trying to get rid of a long established sales point is not easy. Buyers know where it is and just keep showing up, ready to buy. So the gangs just keep showing up to sell. There’s a great deal of money at stake. To make things worse, there was a vacant lot on the southwest corner of the intersection. For ten years, after the building at that location burned to the ground, the double lot was a home to weeds, junk trees, trash . . . and gangbangers.

Then Michael, my friend Mac, and our neighbor Olga decided to make a community garden. They were joined by some people they’d met at the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) meetings–Libby, Sean, Gin, Beth, James, and others. They wanted the vacant lot as a garden site, but it took awhile to get permission from the owner, and then he agreed to let the garden group have it only until he sold it.  The group agreed.

Cleanup began in May. Creating beds and planting happened on Memorial Day in the sweltering heat. And the rest, as they say, is history.  Amazingly, everyone in the neighborhood immediately recognized that the garden was, as Michael put it, gang Kryptonite. All the neighbors felt free to come onto the lot, sit on the stumps we provided under the magnolia, plant things in the garden when no one else was around, including tomatoes and a small blue pinwheel. Parents who otherwise kept their children in their own backyards allowed the kids to come down to the garden.

The gangbangers stood and watched. Sometimes, they talked to us as we worked, but they did not come onto the lot.

One day early on, I was talking to a former gangbanger I knew who had got a job so he would be allowed to see his kids. Let’s call him Joe. As we talked, a current gangbanger–let’s call him Jack–came up to join us. Joe and I were talking about fences. We hadn’t put any up, and I explained that some of the kids were worried about the garden. About someone hurting the garden.

Jack, who is big and tough and not the sharpest tack in the box, immediately said, “Why’d anybody hurt this? This is good. This is a good thing.” Shades of Martha Stewart.

Joe looked at me and then at Jack. “Young ones,” he said. “You know, young kids.” We both knew this wasn’t about crazy young kids, but there are a lot of things that don’t get said when you’re talking with gangbangers.

“Oh, yeah,” said Jack. “Kids. But you don’t wanna put up a gate. I hate gates. There’s gates everywhere. You put up gates, nobody can see the good things. They just feel shut out. No gates means trust.” I am not making this up. That’s what he said, in words I made a note of as soon as I got home.

We never did put up any fences. Or gates. And the gang guys never came into the garden.

Then one day it looked as though the Kryptonite might be losing its power. Mac and I were sitting in the garden one morning talking about our next work session when a teenager and his pregnant girlfriend came into the garden. Mac and I smiled and kept on talking. They sat on stumps not far from us and started passing back and forth a Swisher Sweet. The boy tried to start up a conversation. Mac and I were pleasant but went on with our discussion. Then, under the smell of the little cigar, I was 90 percent sure I smelled dope. Mac and I got up to leave and I turned to the boy, who had introduced himself as, say, Charlie.

“Charlie, I’m going to talk straight to you. Nothing bad can happen in this garden, do you understand? It’s important that the parents let their kids come down here, and they won’t if bad things are happening here. Okay?”

He nodded and they left the garden in one direction as we left in the other.

It wasn’t much, but I felt I had to follow up on it. So, the next day, when I saw the gang leader, let’s call him “Jerry,” I invited him to come into the garden to talk with me. I explained what I was concerned about.

“I know that,” he said. “I been keeping the guys out. This place is for the kids. I tell them that. This place is for the kids, not you. You go over to the park.” Then he went on to tell me that he wouldn’t bring his own kids into our neighborhood and said a few very frank things about gangbanging and violence.

We shook hands and he went back to his group. Later that day, I was limbing up junk trees on the west side of the lot. Jerry crossed the lot and asked if I needed some help. I told him I only had one pair of loppers, but thanks anyway. He hasn’t come into the garden since.

I don’t think we could have made the garden two years ago, when the worst of things were happening. But the gangs came back this year after a quiet year and a half, and the people were ready for some way to show that it was not okay, that this was their place. In fact, the day I was limbing up those junk trees, two teenaged girls were weeding the sun garden a little ways away. A mother went by pushing a stroller and said something I didn’t hear. I went over and asked Veranice and Vanessa what she said.

“She thanked us,” said Veranice, “for making the garden to show the gangbangers its our place before its theirs.”

Everybody  knew. The garden wasn’t about tomatoes.

If there’s any point to this blog at all, it’s to say that people actually can reclaim their neighborhoods. The gangs do not always win. They’re nowhere near as powerful as people who are willing to keep fighting them. And the weapons are as varied as murals, 911 calls, visits to the alderman, CAPS meetings, and gardens.

And to give you a taste of the garden, here’s a little video of one of our early workdays.

If you want to see more about the garden, you can go to Green on McLean.

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A question for Just Another Writer readers

I would really appreciate any response to this. Do you want more about the other players in the story. I know you’ve had a lot of me and Andra. But what about James, Paul, Kathryn, Eunice and all the others? I’ve been trying to focus on the writing and not invade the privacy of the people I shared my life with. But I’m getting the sense from some of them that they wouldn’t mind at all if I told more. And some people have indicated curiosity about one or another of them. What do you say?

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Like Mercury . . . and Just as Toxic

Something very strange is going on in the neighborhood. I don’t want to jinx anything, but it looks as though the whole new batch of gangbangers is gone. Gone. Not here anymore. This is not to say that we are now a gang-free neighborhood, but . . . Let me explain.

If you read my last post, “The Start of the Gang House Era,” you know that the police, some years ago, got the gangs off the corner of St. Louis and McLean at last. Unfortunately, they then moved into a house four doors east of us. The way it works is that a woman, often with children, rents the apartment. Then, she allows the gang to use it as a hangout and drug-selling post, in exchange for whatever–drugs, rent money. Starting in the summer of 2004, this is what happened at 3506 McLean.

There are a lot of things the Chicago police can and will arrest someone for. Sitting on your front step is not one of them, even if everyone in the neighborhood knows you’re on the lookout for drug buyers. Drinking all day, if you stay in your yard, is not one of them. Standing on your porch and yelling obscenities at each other is not one of them, even if you can be heard a block away, even if you don’t stop when the parade of mothers walking their children home from school passes by.

The irony was painful. It was as though a doctor had cured a bad skin rash only to have the disease move into the vital organs. When the gang left the corner and moved into 3506, life became almost unbearable. With the exception of a few hours just after dawn, the gangbangers were on the porch day in and day out, drunk and stoned and mad as hell at each other and the world. They hardly ever actually fought, but they pushed each other a fair amount and yelled like you wouldn’t believe, and one of them got shot in the leg in a drive-by.

Then the same thing happened at 3519, just across the street and down two doors. There, it was the gang leader’s mother who rented the apartment and let her son, Buddha, run his drug-selling business from there. Buddha was a hugely fat man who smiled a lot. Once, late at night, I saw him passing out oversized white tee shirts to his guys out of the back of a station wagon. “What were they wearing?” “Uh, white tee shirts and baggy jeans.” “Thanks. That helps.” The guys moved back and forth between the two houses all day.

One night I heard a commotion on the porch. I opened the door to see one of the older gangbangers lying on our steps. A couple of others were high-tailing it away. The guy on the steps was clutching his stomach and moaning. I called up to Michael, who was upstairs. He started down the stairs just as the guy forced himself into the front hallway and onto the bottom of the stairway. This meant the guy was between me and Michael, and he kept trying to get me to rub his stomach. (When I think about it now, it’s almost funny. Big tough gangbanger asking me to rub his tummy.)

Michael grabbed the upstairs phone and called 911. In the meantime, I realized what was wrong with the guy. There had been a story on the news about some bad heroin making the rounds in Humboldt Park, just across Armitage from us. I reassured the guy that we would get him to the hospital, but he was almost out of his senses with pain. He heard nothing. Fortunately, the police and ambulance got there in just a few minutes. Three or four people died from the brown heroin. I don’t know whether he was one of them.

One afternoon, I was moved to write a poem about what had just happened.

Gunfire

I was almost home when the shots
rang out. I’d gone to the thrift shop
for more books to give the neighbor
kids, then taken the bus west
on Armitage. It was windy.

Trash had blown into the parkway
barberries at the corner house.

Isaac and Ishmael sat on their
bikes, in front of the house next door.
They don’t ride their bikes much, just sit
on them, with a hand on the fence
for balance. Sally, their mother,
sat on the steps talking to Stella,
watching them.

I had almost reached my own steps
when the gunfire started. “Run, run
inside,” Sally shouted to the
children as the two bikes clattered
to the ground. I dropped the books
on the porch on my way inside
to call 911. Michael passed
me in the doorway, going out
to see.

I dialed the phone and reported
the shots. “How many were there?” “Four,
I think. Or five. I saw some boys
running west.” I went back out
to the front porch to get the books,
then into the kitchen to put
vegetables into the steamer

Michael went back to his laptop
to look at a blog. “Welcome home,”
he said.

Two days later, Joey came by
for books. “Did you hear the shots then?
I was at the playground. There was
a paddy wagon and a black
and white. I been reading that book
you gave me about Merlin.”

This is when we started making 911 calls in earnest and going to the CAPS meeting. And this is why, when things get quiet and the gangs seem to disappear, I look around and wonder. Where will they turn up next?

Oh, and just to remind you to keep laughing, here’s the latest outfit on our yard art goddess.

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The Start of the Gang House Era

For the first couple of years we lived here, the gangbangers were at the corner. They seldom came to the middle of the block, where our house is. But they were a constant presence, affecting our lives in many ways beyond the obvious. My friend and collaborator, Mac Austin, didn’t feel completely comfortable walking to and from our house in the evening. There was often a cloud of marijuana smoke between us and the corner store. And then there were the kids.

For a time, the kids in the neighborhood came running into our backyard when they heard us there, showing off their latest skills or looking for praying mantids (Michael attached an egg sac to one of our bushes). A friend threw a bridal shower in our backyard and the children invaded it. After being fed petit fours, they ran away and then reappeared with notes and pictures for the bride-to-be. When one of the boys, Julian, found a wounded bird, he brought it to our yard to recover. From time to time, one of the kids would just come in and sit.

Sometimes they drove us crazy. I liked to have an occasional cigarette with my friend Mac, but I was completely unwilling for the kids to see the booklady smoking, so I crushed more than one three-inch butt into the sod as I heard kid feet in the gangway. Michael yearned for a little more peace but never had the heart to shoo the kids away. All in all, though, they were our main connection to the neighborhood, and we enjoyed them.

And then we figured out that our gangway was the only escape route on the block for gangbangers fleeing the police. Everyone else had a fence or a locked gate, so the bangers ran down our gangway and through our backyard to the alley, usually in the middle of the night. If we didn’t want to abet the gang, we needed to put in a locked gate. We did, and life changed. The kids lost the freedom of the garden, we lost the kids in the garden, and the gang may have had a little more trouble getting away from the cops. Hard to tell.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Michael and I experienced the same range of shock and horror that the rest of the country did. Since both of us are free-lancers and didn’t have an office to go to, we went to LifeSource blood center. Many, many others had the same impulse. The parking lot was full of people lined up to give blood. I bought a disposable camera at the Walgreen’s across the street. Black and white. It seemed right to me to record history with a black and white camera. I took pictures of the college students, old hippies, and others who didn’t know whether their blood would be needed or not but who had to do something. We stayed there all day, waiting to give, and then we went back to the neighborhood.

I had the camera in my hand when the kids ran up to our porch, laughing and wanting me to come up with a game for them. At that moment I could think of nothing I wanted more than watching them play circus animals. As the elephants swung their trunks and the lions roared, I took pictures of them. This was the real historical moment, the last evening these children would have before they went to school and were told that the world had changed forever. I didn’t know that’s what it was until the next day. They came home from school with solemn faces and all used the same words. “The world will never be the same.” That evening I just held onto their innocence as to a lifeline.

Somewhere along the way–I think it was 2003–the police finally got the gang off the corner. When winter came that year, we sank with relief into the quietness. When summer came, and the gang was not on the corner, we believed they were gone. But we soon found out otherwise. They had moved into a house four doors east of us, off the street and into a house. We entered a new stage.

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The Senora and the Plumber

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.

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Surviving is a Form of Resistance

Junior’s sunflower had brown petals and a yellow center. Lizette’s red tulips stood in a row like sentries. Laura painted a white rose with full, open petals. Michelle contributed the Mexican flag and a rainbow, even though we had specified flowers only on our garage mural. This is how, when we first moved into the neighborhood, I decided to deal with the Almighty Imperial Gangstas.

We became aware of the drug dealing on the corner of St. Louis and McLean almost as soon as we were moved in. It quickly took the bloom off the first, and so far only, house we have ever owned.We didn’t have a clue what a gang neighborhood was like. We simply assumed that there would be a higher level of crime than we experienced in Andersonville and Edgewater and that some of it might easily be directed towards us, as white interlopers. I think we imagined rocks through our windows and gang signs on the sides of our house.

It did not occur to either Michael or me that we would ever actually engage with the gangbangers, that we would actively battle, alongside our neighbors, for the soul of our community. Long nights of 911 calls and watching drug deals go down in front of our house were still in the future and not something we could conceive at the time. So I decided to go about protecting ourselves in a different way. We would engage with the neighborhood. If we carved out a place for ourselves and actually came to belong here, perhaps we would not be a target for hostility and, possibly, violence. Since many of the adults in the neighborhood did not speak much English, and we spoke absolutely no Spanish, I decided to start with the children. Besides, I’m more comfortable with children.

Michael had little faith in this approach. All right, he had no faith in it. But we’re a partnership and we back each other up.

My first move was to go out onto our front porch with some paper and magic markers and start drawing. It was near Halloween, so I drew a scary face. I had scarcely taped it to the front door when I had three kids looking at me from my stairs. Our door was covered with drawings in a hour or so. From then on, any time I wanted to draw a crowd of kids, I went onto the porch with art supplies.

Then, my friend Mac told me about a man in Boston or Philadelphia who gave away books. He had a basement full of them and just gave them to people. I was pretty sure I couldn’t pull that off, but I decided I could buy books in thrift shops and give them away to the neighborhood kids. A theory began to form in my head.

My theory was that children who live with poverty, crime and violence can make a different future for themselves only if they can imagine a different future. Reading is what allowed me to imagine a future outside Oklahoma City, a future as a writer. So perhaps, if could encourage these children to read, I could help them imagine good futures for themselves. Let me be clear on one point. There were and are a lot of kids in my neighborhood whose families provide them with plenty of books and faith in the future. They come to the “booklady’s house” anyway, because they just like books. Others, though, are clearly in danger, including the children of the gangbangers themselves.

So I bought books at nearby thrift shops for a dime or a quarter and began handing them out–one book per kid per day. No snatching books from each other. No hitting. No swearing. No skates on the porch. I soon had a batch of kids who came by regularly. My friend Mac joined us often. Michael passed out books when I wasn’t around.

And then, at the beginning of the first summer in our new house, the gangs got louder and more threatening, something we would become accustomed to with the first warm days each year. We had moved into the house in October, and the gangs had been much quieter then.We talked about whether to stay, but we knew we couldn’t face another move. (I won’t tell you how many boxes of books and audiotapes and accumulated treasures we still had in the basement, not yet unpacked.) That’s when I had another idea. I told Michael I wanted the kids in the neighborhood to paint a mural on our garage.

He had some qualms.

You see, Michael was about to transform a flat, empty stretch of grass into his first real garden, where he could do anything he wanted and plant anything he wanted. It was a blank canvas with sun. (The garden Michael was allowed to plant at our last rental had what he called”3-flat shade,” or “can’t see my trowel in front of my face shade.” He craved sun, although he would eventually plant six trees in our new yard and create a woodland fantasy.)

In the meantime, Michael wasn’t sure he wanted the backdrop for his dream garden to be paint slapped on a garage by a bunch of strange kids, but I explained that we could always paint it over when the garden began to take shape.

So my idea might be silly, naive, and ultimately futile–“The gangs are getting louder, so let’s paint a mural”–but at least it was an idea. I put the word out, and nine kids showed up to paint.

And this is the mural a few years later, right before we began painting it over. We did frame a number of flowers and paint around them, including Junior’s sunflower.

As for the kids, Jennifer’s parents sent her and her brother back to Mexico a year or so later, to keep them safe. Lizette’s family moved to the suburbs, as did Michelle and Junior’s. Carolina was kidnapped, taken to Mexico and impregnated. I don’t know what happened to the others.

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Life with a Gang

We were not young. Call it early middle age. Baby boomer free-lance artist types, we had rented apartments in every lakefront neighborhood in Chicago. We’d just lost another great place to increasing property values and increasing rents and decided it was time to buy our first house. We looked carefully, found a place we could afford in an “improving” neighborhood, and moved in.

We chose the wrong block. We had just moved in with the Almighty Imperial Gangstas.

In this blog I’ll be talking about our first eleven years living in “Devilside,” one of the AIG neighborhoods in the area known to more innocent Chicagoans as Logan Square. Our cross streets—McLean and St. Louis—are featured on the Chicagogangs.org website, and drugs have been sold here since the 1960s. If the real estate boom had gone on a few more years, the block might have been worth more as property than as a drug shopping mall. As it is, the wall of money stalled a couple of blocks east of us before it subsided altogether. Because of the glut of foreclosures on the market, our house is worth considerably less than we owe on it. So we and the Gangstas are stuck with each other. They’re not any happier about it than we are, but they don’t have any more choice than we do, either.

I’ll be talking about drugs and shootings and thousands of 911 calls. About one girl murdered in a playground and another kidnapped and impregnated. About a Gangsta dumped on our porch by his pals after he’d done some of the toxic heroin that was going around a few years ago.

I’ll also talk about sharing the evening of September 11, 2001, with a bunch of neighborhood kids who had not yet understood what they would be told in school the next day—that life had changed forever. About thousands of books handed out to hundreds of kids in the faint hope that kids who read will be a hair less likely to become kids who kill, and anyway reading is better than not reading. About foot races on the sidewalk and standing-on-one-foot contests and anything else I could come up with to occupy children on a hot summer night.

I don’t plan to do much analyzing of causes. Our story is far too close and personal for that. Let those who have never watched a young woman hurl a brick through a car window while she was talking on her cell phone try to understand what massive failure of our social and economic system has led to this dark world my partner Michael and I are living in. We’re trying just to survive it.

But when you’re standing in your bathrobe in the dark at the bottom of the stairs looking out at eight or nine guys who have just wakened you at 2:00 AM with shouted obscenities, you can’t help wondering. You pick up the phone and dial the cops because every 911 report gets your block a little more attention when the cars are scheduled. But you also think about why life has to be like this.

Then you take a walk and run into something like this and you laugh your ass off.

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