Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that explores policing and the drug trade on Chicago’s west side.
In mid-March Chicago experienced one of its most violent periods in recent history—67 people shot and 18 slain in a single week of unseasonably warm weather. Mayor Rahm Emanuel was on a ski vacation at the time, but the Monday after he returned he held a press conference in west Humboldt Park to issue a challenge to residents: it’s time they took back their neighborhood.
“The gangbangers and the gang members and the gangs do not own this city—we do!” the mayor proclaimed at Harding playlot, 3917 W. Division, which had been spruced up with fresh wood chips and a mowing for the occasion.
Emanuel reminded reporters that a few weeks before, in late January, he and police superintendent Garry McCarthy had deployed extra officers to the most violent areas of the city, including the west side. Now they wanted everyone to know that the strategy was producing results: police had recently broken up a pair of gang-led drug rings, including one in west Humboldt.
“The idea,” McCarthy said, “is to go at it like a ground war.”
The war would consist of kicking dealers off the street one corner at a time. And since the police were doing their part, Emanuel said, it was time for residents to step up. “The first line in protecting the neighborhood is the community—it is not the police department,” Emanuel said. “Does the community come outside the church, outside the family room, and reclaim those street corners as ours? Nobody here gets a pass.”
Whether out of ignorance or political convenience—probably both—the mayor and police chief neglected to mention a key point: members of the community have been standing up for themselves for years, since long before Emanuel and McCarthy were on the scene. Yet the dealers and gangs are still there.
If only it were so simple.
A front-row seat to her block’s booming drug business
Annlouise Bishop has developed a sort of grudging admiration for the men slinging drugs around her home on the 900 block of North Homan. “These guys, they’re so smart—if only they would use their powers for good.”
The drug market is a fact of life for everyone who lives in west Humboldt Park. Some people—scores of them, perhaps more—have a stake in it themselves.
But many others have been forced to find ways to cope with it. These residents find needles in their alleys—or stumble upon people as they’re shooting up. They know when dealers have a new product by the crowds that form when free samples are given away. They have to navigate drug traffic every time they go to work or run to the store.
Bishop, 52, sees how the operation works on a daily basis. After more than a decade downstate, she and her husband, Terry, a construction worker, moved back to the neighborhood a year ago when he was transferred to the city and they needed an affordable place to live. Bishop grew up in the Bronx—her accent still bears traces of it—but says she’s never seen such “outright boldness.”
“Last night my husband and I had just pulled up and we still hadn’t gotten out of the car, and I’m out there finishing a cigarette, and a guy came by to pick his stuff up, and he stuffed it right into his pants. And the guys who sold it to him, they took [the money] and stuffed it right in the side of the building. Every day we see this.”
She says many of the homeowners on the block are senior retirees who are scared to speak up, while at least two houses appear to be rented out to a rotating cast of characters who use them as a base for their drug operations. As for the corner dealers, it seems they commute or carpool to their jobs from elsewhere. “I’ve seen them come in their rides and get dropped off,” Bishop says. “You get mad, less at the sinner than at the sin. But it’s an invasion of your livelihood.”
And it’s not just an inconvenience—violence follows the drugs. Earlier this year someone was beaten outside the house next door. A couple weeks ago the Bishops awoke to the sound of gunfire. They called the police but still aren’t sure what happened.
Bishop worries about violence striking her home. As she and her husband returned from church on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, an argument broke out at one of the houses that she suspects is a drug-dealing base. From her porch, Bishop asked one of the young men involved to please clean up his language.
“This guy was belligerent—he said, ‘Mind your own business! People who don’t mind their own business get killed.'”
Now she’s left wondering how far she should go in trying to “reclaim” her block. “Do I give in to the fear of them, or do I stand up and raise the standard? If that behavior goes unchecked, it will never get better.”
Bishop says she’s started talking to the neighbors about organizing a public prayer or some other kind of positive loitering, but she hasn’t yet found enough support. She also calls the police regularly. Sometimes they stop and make busts—there were 11 arrests for dealing or possessing heroin on her block in just the first three months of the year. But other times they drive past, disrupting business only momentarily.
As we spoke by phone recently—about 10:30 on a Friday morning—Bishop said a deal appeared to be going down across the street from her home. “I see two buyers, both Caucasian. One guy looks like a roofer or something. The other’s dressed like a student, with a backpack. It’s right in your face. And this is what we live with.”
‘The most dangerous neighborhood in the nation’
For much of the last 20 years, the neighborhood where Emanuel held his press conference has been a staging area for the flailing war on drugs.
On the police map, it’s known as beats 1112 and 1121—the part of west Humboldt Park stretching from about Franklin north to Division, and Kedzie west to Pulaski. Beat 1112, the western half of the area, consistently ranks in the top three beats citywide in narcotics arrests, while 1121 is always in the top ten.
The volume of drug busts here is astounding: more than six a day, for everything from low-level pot possession to dealing crack. But the neighborhood is probably best known for heroin. In those two beats alone, there were more than 1,000 arrests for dealing or possessing heroin last year, accounting for one of every six heroin arrests citywide.
This is one of the city’s most violent areas as well—hardly a coincidence, since, police say, the drug market is tied to most of the area’s bloodshed. Last year at least 17 people were murdered in the two beats, more than the three- or four-year totals of many of the city’s quieter neighborhoods.
Still, numbers can only hint at what’s happened to the community.
Humboldt Park was historically a working-class, immigrant-dominated enclave—home to Norwegians and Germans in the 19th century, then Lithuanians, Jews, and, for decades, Poles. In 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson chose the neighborhood for a speech in which he promised a crowd of thousands that the Kennedy administration would seek to improve relations with communist Poland.
By that time, thousands of Puerto Ricans were moving into the northern and eastern parts of the neighborhood, and, in smaller numbers, African-Americans began buying homes to the south and west. Even then, police had to cope with gangs and crime—though the problems were on a scale that’s almost laughable today. In 1964 the Tribune ran an interview with the commander of the “tough” police district west of the park, who talked frankly about the kids who’d been breaking windows at local schools. When fights broke out among rival gang members, the commander said, “I usually bring them in my office and have a talk with them.”
Between 1960 and 1980 Humboldt Park went from 99 percent white to 41 percent Hispanic and 36 percent black. As in so many other neighborhoods in transition, as whites left, investment left with them, and many of the families that moved in were poor.
A succession of mayors—Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne—promised to inject funds into the area, but its economic fortunes continued to slide. A wave of arsons left burned-out buildings and empty lots. Landlords squeezed rent money out of their properties without keeping them up. In the eastern part of the neighborhood, clashes between Puerto Rican youth and the police exploded into riots in 1966 and again in 1977.
During the 1970s, crime rose across the city and the nation. In Chicago, gangs turned more violent, typically over territory or long-standing rivalries, and politicians vowed to stamp them out.
“We are not going to tolerate this type of gang warfare in any area of Chicago,” Mayor Byrne said after touring Humboldt Park in response to an outbreak of shootings in 1979. She ordered an influx of police and called on residents to do their part: “We wish to work with citizens and bring this to a halt now.”
In 1984, after yet another surge in violence, Mayor Harold Washington emphasized the need for close work with the community and efficient use of police; his foes in the City Council charged that the police force had grown too thin to do the job.
Meanwhile, the bloodshed continued in Humboldt Park, which a University of Chicago gang expert called “the most dangerous neighborhood in the nation.”
In fact, no matter how many new tactics and deployments were announced, the gangs seemed to get stronger—especially once they got into the drug business.
A longtime resident watches the drug trade claim her daughter, nephews, and grandson
“The neighborhood was nice when we first moved here,” recalls Zeola Horton, who for the better part of four decades has lived in a brick two-flat on North Monticello. “Then the gangs moved in.”
Horton is 76 but it’s hard to believe—her warmth and energy, combined with her bob and tortoiseshell glasses, make her seem a generation younger. Despite “retiring” from a printing company a few years ago, she still works part-time at a residential facility for formerly incarcerated and drug-addicted women and serves on the board of the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, a neighborhood nonprofit.
Horton and her husband bought the two-flat with his brother and sister-in-law in 1970. Within a few years, gang conflicts became common. “They’d be fighting in the street,” she says, “and then you’d hear the gunshots.”
Horton’s family wasn’t immune. In the early 1980s one of Horton’s nephews joined a gang, and not long after, some of his rivals shot up her front window. Another nephew was killed in the alley behind their home because he wouldn’t join. “They shot him, and then they told him to get up and fight like a man,” she says.
After Horton’s husband died in 1983, she moved to suburban Oak Park. She loved the quiet and had no plans to return to the city.
That changed one day in 1991 when her daughter asked Horton to watch her two young boys, and never came back for them. “I couldn’t find her,” Horton says. “It was drugs.”
Children weren’t allowed in Horton’s building, so she moved back to her Humboldt Park two-flat. That’s when she first noticed drug dealers taking over the corners.
Eventually Horton’s daughter got clean and moved out of state, but her grandsons didn’t make it to adulthood unscathed. She says the oldest, Eura, finished high school and, at 30, is back in college. The other, 28-year-old Richard, is in prison.
Horton says Richard’s troubles began when he started hanging out on the next block. “I think they were selling weed over there,” she says. “I’d say, ‘You keep going over there, I’m going to have your funeral over on Lawndale.’ He wouldn’t listen.”