At three on a Monday afternoon a couple guys are openly dealing drugs on the corner of Marshfield and Jonquil. One block south, on Howard Street, at least a dozen storefronts sit vacant, and the remaining businesses struggle to stay open.

This corner of Rogers Park–roughly 12 square blocks bounded by the el tracks on the west, Sheridan on the east, Howard on the south, and Calvary Cemetery on the north–is one of the last big concentrations of poverty on the north side. Yet the city and the local alderman, the 49th Ward’s Joe Moore, are contemplating a zoning change for the block of Paulina just north of Howard that many of the neighborhood’s residents fear would encourage the construction of more low-income housing. “Everywhere else–Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor, Henry Horner–they’re breaking up the concentration of poverty,” says Gary Fuschi, a local condo owner. “But not here. Over here it’s ‘Let’s just cram in some more poor people.'”

Throughout the 60s and into the 70s the neighborhood, known as North of Howard, was a working-class community anchored by a busy Howard business strip that extended a short distance north on Paulina and included a movie theater, several restaurants, meat markets, shoe stores, small department stores, and the Wisdom Bridge Theatre. But over the years the neighborhood gradually became poorer, and by the early 90s many of the old businesses, including the movie theater, were gone, some of them casualties of misguided city development schemes.

Moore wants to change the zoning on the 7600 block of Paulina as a way to encourage residential development–the Howard end of the street is now occupied by two social service agencies and a huge weed-filled vacant lot. He says the idea for the change came from a study overseen by the Metropolitan Planning Council. “They enlisted volunteers to go throughout the ward and do an inventory of our building stock,” he says. “We’re trying to determine the zoning code that’s best for the community.”

Under the current B1-3 zoning, developers have to make the ground floor of any new building retail space unless they get a special-use permit from the city. If the zoning is changed to B2-3 they’ll be able to make the entire building residential without a permit. “There’s a lot more retail than we really need in the area,” says Moore. “This would give the developer an option–commercial or residential. The theory is that we would get more development if they didn’t have to put in retail for which there’s no market.”

Moore’s critics say he’s wrong to suggest that residential developers aren’t interested in the neighborhood because of the zoning restrictions, especially since he could get them a special-use permit. “Developers see abandoned lots and vacant storefronts and they stay away,” says Mike Luckenbach, who’s lived in the area since the 70s. “It’s got nothing to do with the requirement of first-floor retail.”

Fuschi, Luckenbach, and other residents would like to see more development, but they’re suspicious that what Moore really wants is to let North of Howard continue to be a dumping ground for the poor. They think the zoning change is intended to give social service providers the green light to build more low-income housing. “Right now they would have to have a public hearing to build without retail,” says Luckenbach. “But if you let folks build housing without retail, around here they’ll build low-income housing. I guarantee you that.”

The residents believe that more low-income housing would only make developers more reluctant to build the kind of retail and higher-end housing that would help turn the neighborhood around, which is why they’re also worried that Moore wants to encourage a developer to build an SRO, a single-room-occupancy hotel. Under the current zoning SROs can be built only with a special-use permit. Under the proposed zoning they could be built without one. “Whatever leverage we have is thrown out the window with the zoning change,” say Fuschi. “Someone could put up an SRO tomorrow if they change the zoning.”

Moore insists he doesn’t know anyone who’s planning to build an SRO. “I have no horse in the race,” he says. “There is no secret plan to bring in any project.”

His critics are adamant in their opposition to the zoning change largely because they see a clear correlation between a high concentration of low-income housing and a high rate of crime. North of Howard is poor. According to the 2000 census, about 34 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and the median family income is $29,965. Moore estimates conservatively that half of the neighborhood’s 2,200 or so housing units are home to low-income residents (about the only thing on which the two sides agree). In addition to the two social service agencies, the neighborhood has a shelter for abused women, a food pantry, a soup kitchen, and a hotel for transient families.

North of Howard also has plenty of crime. In July and August, for instance, police reported 33 narcotics busts, 15 assaults, 14 batteries, 12 criminal trespasses, 9 thefts, 6 robberies, 3 car thefts, 2 burglaries, one weapons charge, and one gambling bust–a sidewalk dice game outside Gale Elementary, on Jonquil, at 11:30 PM. On August 6 a man was shot to death at 1:30 AM while standing on the sidewalk in the 7700 block of Paulina. On August 28 a man was wounded in an afternoon drive-by shooting in the 7700 block of Marshfield. And on September 17 a man was shot and killed at 3 AM while he sat outside Gale Elementary.

Many residents say they feel under siege. They tell terrifying stories–posted on several blogs–of gunfire, drive-bys, drug dealing, late-night police sirens, and unruly neighbors partying into the wee hours. “I heard the gunfire on September 17,” says Fuschi. “You hear gunfire all the time.” George Sullivan, who gained national recognition for the energy-efficient rehab of his three-flat, the subject of the March 18 Reader cover story, says, “On August 28 I had a couple of visitors coming by to look at my building. As they were waiting for my wife to open the gate for them, there was gunfire coming from an SUV tearing up the street. They all hit the sidewalk. Thank goodness they weren’t hit.”

“Were all the perpetrators residents here?” says Carl Steward, who’s lived in the area since 1986. “I can’t say that. But the social service providers keep a steady influx of people coming into our community. If they finally get evicted from one unit, they’re still here. We see them on the street.”

He and other opponents of the zoning change also complain that many of the existing low-income housing complexes are poorly managed. “There’s either no screening or poor screening,” says Fuschi. “You’ve got people openly dealing. You’ve got guys on the corner harassing women as they walk by.” He says that when they complain to building managers they’re ignored: “They won’t even meet with us.” And he says Moore too has largely ignored the zoning-change opponents.

Moore and his allies accuse their critics of exaggerating the neighborhood’s problems. They say that it has pockets of prosperity, particularly on Juneway Terrace, and that overall the community’s on the rebound, noting that at least ten buildings have converted to condos, with units selling for as much as $300,000. Moore says the area is on the brink of gentrification–think Lakeview in the 70s or Wicker Park in the 80s–and it’s only a matter of time before residents are howling about congestion, overdevelopment, and soaring property taxes. “It has improved tremendously over the last ten years,” he says. “That’s not to say there aren’t serious problems in the area. But statistically it’s improved dramatically.”

Low-income-housing activists echo those observations and say that’s why it’s important to encourage the development of housing for their clients now. “I think we need more affordable housing, not less–there’s certainly a demand for it,” says Bud Ogle, president of Good News Partners, a Christian organization that manages several low-income buildings in the area. “I can understand that people say it’s healthy for a community to be less than 50 percent low-income housing, but this has been a good place for brokenhearted people to find respite and get their lives together.” According to him, the neighborhood isn’t nearly as dangerous as some residents contend. Yes, there’ve been five murders since May 2004, but, he says, “Almost all the people murdered are murdered for specific reasons–they knew it was coming.” He adds, “I certainly respect the anxiety and fear people have about too many low-income people. You don’t want to have more poverty in your area, OK? But I invite those folks to review ways we can get rid of poverty, not just get more poor people out of the neighborhood.”

Such comments infuriate the opponents of the zoning change. “We’re supposed to be relieved because during the drive-by shooting we didn’t get killed in the cross fire?” says Steward. “That’s insulting.”

Steward and his allies think Moore and the city should be putting their energy into encouraging developers who want to build upscale housing and retail in the neighborhood and discouraging those who want to put in more low-income housing or social service agencies. “The first thing social service types will say is, ‘Oh, you’re against the poor,'” says Luckenbach. “We’re not against the poor, and we’re not against social service agencies either. We’re against great concentrations of the poor. That’s not good for anyone–especially the poor.”

Moore says he’ll make a decision on the zoning change in the next few weeks, after at least one more community meeting. “It’s a community process,” he says. “I want the community to decide what’s best.”

Many of his critics think he’s already made up his mind. “Oh, I suppose it’s only a coincidence that the new zoning allows SROs without a permit,” says Steward sarcastically. “I think it’s more of the same for the area. They’ll change the zoning, and watch–someone will come in with an SRO. You can’t tell me that it’s not a planned thing.”

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