Residents of west Humboldt Park have formed block clubs and worked for years to drive away dealers, but the neighborhood remains awash in drugs and crime. "It's right in your face," says one resident.
Residents of west Humboldt Park have formed block clubs and worked for years to drive away dealers, but the neighborhood remains awash in drugs and crime. "It's right in your face," says one resident. Credit: Todd Diederich

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.”

Credit: Todd Diederich

‘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.

Zeola Horton moved into her home on North Monticello in 1970. "The neighborhood was nice," she says. Then the gangs and drugs moved in.
Zeola Horton moved into her home on North Monticello in 1970. “The neighborhood was nice,” she says. Then the gangs and drugs moved in.Credit: Todd Diederich

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.”

Mick Dumke interviews Zeola Horton –

Records show Richard has been locked up repeatedly for dealing marijuana and heroin. Last year he began serving a six-year term for his latest gun-possession charge.

A few months later, two of his friends were shot, one fatally. Horton believes the prison term saved her grandson’s life.

“Maybe God did that for a reason,” she says.

The rise of gangs, gentrification, and political grandstanding

By the 1980s, a decade into the nation’s war on drugs, gangs had taken over Chicago’s street-level narcotics trade. And politicians quickly became adroit at making dramatic announcements every time they could showcase a drug bust.

In Chicago, Humboldt was at the center of both the drug dealing and the politicking. In 1987, then state’s attorney Richard M. Daley announced charges against 46 gang members for selling drugs in curbside markets in Humboldt Park, West Town, and Logan Square. So smooth was the operation, Daley said, that the dealers sometimes provided customers with free beer as they waited for their deliveries.

Still, admitted a police commander, “I don’t think we really made a dent in the overall narcotics problem.”

He was right. Over the next few years it got worse.

The problem was so blatant that in 1998 Daley, by now the mayor, visited a west Humboldt Park church to propose an ordinance imposing fines and jail time on anyone caught publicly advertising the sale of drugs—that is, calling out “blow,” “rock,” or “weed.” “We have to make it so hot the drug dealers can’t stand on the corner,” said Ed Smith, the area’s alderman at the time.

The ordinance didn’t go anywhere. Nor, unfortunately, did the narcotics trade.

Ironically, by the late 1990s, east Humboldt Park had become a real estate hotspot, propelled first by artists moving west from increasingly pricey West Town and Wicker Park. But the gentrification stayed away from the predominantly African-American area of west Humboldt Park, which instead became a narcotics hotspot.

The area retains some of its proud working-class history. In some parts of the community, such as the 600 block of North Drake, the brick bungalows, two-flats, and cottages are tidy and bright, the yards are well maintained, and children play kickball in the street. Residents call these blocks “the suburbs.”

But elsewhere, such as the 700 block of North Central Park, there are multiple abandoned homes on each side of the street, some of them boarded up and some of them open, where young men sit on the porches, waiting for customers. Earlier this month, the body of a 49-year-old woman who apparently overdosed on heroin was found in a vacant home on the 800 block of North Lawndale; last week another overdose victim was found in an empty building on West Grand a couple blocks north of beat 1112.

If you’re looking—and even if you’re not—it isn’t hard to find places to buy drugs in west Humboldt. Men mill in front of apartment buildings and homes on the side streets, watching for cars to slow up. One warm afternoon this month I saw a shiny new Chevy—driven by a white guy—pull to the side of Hamlin just north of Chicago. Out of nowhere appeared a tall, athletic figure who didn’t break stride as he handed off his parcel through the car’s open window and then continued on his way.

The marketplace was even more open on Augusta, where young men were posted on every corner and outside the convenience stores, some calling out “Rocks! Blow!” like hot dog vendors at U.S. Cellular. Several cars were pulled over to put in their orders. It was 2:15 in the afternoon.

A block and a half away, at Thomas and Springfield, two police officers were leaning on their bicycles, standing guard at one of the spots that’s had a police sentry 24-7 since Emanuel and McCarthy declared their intention to keep the corners from returning to the control of drug dealers.

In fact, the drug business in west Humboldt remains so brazen that dealers have done what other Chicagoans learn to do when they’ve got a problem: they complain to their alderman.

Twenty-seventh Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. recalls a dealer expounding on his plight when the alderman visited the neighborhood with police last year. “He says, ‘Hey man, we’re not hurting no one over here. I grew up around the corner. We don’t let them sell dope over here—all we’re selling is marijuana, and y’all are hurting our money.’ I mean, he felt that he had a right.”

Devon Tims grew up in a family of west-side drug dealers. "Our house was getting shot up one or two times a week," he says. "I had to sleep on the floor."
Devon Tims grew up in a family of west-side drug dealers. “Our house was getting shot up one or two times a week,” he says. “I had to sleep on the floor.”Credit: Todd Diederich

Three generations in the drug trade

Devon Tims says he understands why guys stand on the corner selling all day: most of them need the money, and they don’t know anything different. And in some cases—like his own—”people inside your household, they might be the ones persuading you to do these things.”

Tims is a dense, thick-chested 23-year-old with a squarish face, tattooed arms, and a raspy voice. He now works as a youth mentor and tutor at a social service agency in west Humboldt Park. But he says he grew up in a family of west-side drug dealers.

When he was five his father was sentenced to prison on gun and drug charges. While his mother worked and went to school, he spent time with cousins and uncles who were also involved in the drug trade.

“It’s not like I was set in another room, like it was hidden from me,” Tims says. “It was put directly in front of my face.”

Tims was ten when he started hanging on the corner. “My grandmother, she was like a queenpin with what was going on. So she wasn’t short-stopping from not letting it happen. She was more involved with OK’ing it.”

By the time he was 14, Tims says he was making $300 to $400 a week. “The money, the respect, everything was tremendous,” he says. “There was bundles of money around the house. They had money machines, counting money on the table. There was guns all through the house.”

Tims himself carried a snub-nosed .38 special. At one point, he said, his family was dealing from a corner that was “owned” by another gang. “Our house was getting shot up one or two times a week,” he said. “I had to sleep on the floor.” The family moved often.

Tims knows he was lucky—he was never seriously hurt and never caught a serious case. And even though the money was good, he says he just grew weary of dealing. “At some point I was blessed to have the mind to step outside the box and see what was going on,” he says.

His break came in the form of a job at Subway. Even though he was making a fraction of what he had as a dealer, Tims says it changed his life—he didn’t have to worry about being robbed, shot, or arrested, and it deeply impressed his parents. “That encouraged me, seeing how proud people could be of a man who worked hard.”

Three years ago he got a job working with kids, many from homes like his own. “I sometimes ask myself, is it even possible to get inside the minds of the next generation? So many, they’re at a loss for hope—they don’t see much beyond what they actually see.”

Mick Dumke interviews Devon Tims –

The vast majority of the violence that breaks out isn’t the result of territory, gang disputes, or even money, he says. “There’s too many people under stress, and with that stress people seem to lose it. Their minds are going in so many different directions they just lose it. And I was at that point before, where I felt I had nothing to lose and everything I had was going down the drain.”

The view from the squad car

Superintendent McCarthy’s current strategy on the west side focuses on increasing police presence in designated “violence zones,” where shootings have been common, and “narcotics spots,” the corners police are intent on holding in the “ground war.”

Many cops in the 11th police district privately have little faith that it’s going to help long-term. “The superintendent is pursuing this scarecrow strategy,” says one veteran. “You’re really doing nothing but pushing it to another corner a block or two away.”

The cops assigned to the corners and the violence zones aren’t available to respond to any other calls. “So they’re doing nothing except sitting there and looking pretty, and the other cars are just running from job to job. And a lot of these calls are just sitting on the back burner.”

I had a brief glimpse of what beat officers are up against when the police department let me ride along in the squad car with five-year veterans Fred Pacheco and Rick Martinez as they patrolled 1121 last week.

We hadn’t left the district station at the start of their shift before two calls came in reporting narcotics sales in two separate spots. Neither officer was surprised that both were empty by the time we got there. “See, they must’ve moved on already,” said Pacheco.

Many dealers are thought to listen closely to police radio, and warnings are also issued via phones, texts, hand signals, and, of course, shouts of “5-0!” But Pacheco and Martinez didn’t have time to mull the possibilities. Nor did they have time to do much in the way of preventive or proactive policing. The next call was already in—a report of shots fired on the 900 block of North Homan (Annlouise Bishop’s block, in fact).

Another squad car beat ours to the site of the reported shooting. We pulled up next to it and the officer rolled down his window. “I’ve been sitting over here,” he said. “It’s bullshit.”

The block was quiet and empty except for five people on a porch several doors up the street. As we rolled slowly past, collecting glares, a small boy jumped up and shouted after us: “Vice Lord nation!”

“Geez,” said Martinez. “What was he, five?”

Martinez told me that it’s not uncommon for reported shootings to end up being nothing. Sometimes the calls are from residents who want to get them over there faster, other times from dealers creating a decoy. “But you’ve got to go, because you never know.”

The calls kept coming: loitering in front of a store, a man on an electrical pole trying to connect a wire to an unoccupied home nearby, more narcotics sales at corners that were empty when we arrived, and, late in the afternoon, suspected “gangbangers” fighting in the street at Ohio and Avers.

We sped over to find the intersection empty. Not a minute later another squad car pulled up. The cop behind the wheel thumbed toward the east. “There’s a shitload of them over on Ridgeway,” he said. “Let’s go push them all out and move them to the next corner.”

We did a U-turn and two blocks over found at least 50 people—from small children to middle-aged adults—shouting and milling in the street, apparently in anticipation of another round of the fight. But even before the officers jumped out of the car, the crowd began to disperse, some more grudgingly than others.

“Leave us alone—we ain’t doing shit!” hollered a woman of about 20 in a pink sweatsuit.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Martinez. “Move along.”

Across the intersection, a chiming ice cream truck had pulled over in search of customers.

Activist Jimmy Simmons has been trying to push gangs and drugs out of west Humboldt Park for nearly 30 years. "It's a constant battle," he says. "It's heartbreaking."
Activist Jimmy Simmons has been trying to push gangs and drugs out of west Humboldt Park for nearly 30 years. “It’s a constant battle,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking.”Credit: Todd Diederich

A community activist contemplates a dead end

Jimmy Simmons wasn’t notified about Emanuel’s press conference, and he’s irked about it.

Simmons is a heavyset fiftysomething. He has a neatly trimmed goatee, wears dark-rimmed glasses and loose print shirts, and is generally so unflappable and slow-moving that it’s easy to miss his intensity.

Simmons owns a construction firm and a health food business, and for 15 years he’s served as a community policing facilitator in beat 1112, where the press conference was held. He says he wasn’t there because no one told him about it beforehand. To Simmons, that shows how little the mayor and police chief know about the communities they’re challenging to step up.

“If this thing is going to work, they’ve got to work with us,” Simmons says. “But the mayor doesn’t know who we are.”

Mick Dumke interviews Jimmy Simmons –

In the late 1980s Simmons and other neighborhood leaders founded the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council to spur economic development. The nonprofit teamed with a developer to open a shopping center at Chicago and Kedzie, and for a time convinced the police department to put an officer on foot patrol up and down Chicago Avenue. Simmons remains a board member of the council and several other neighborhood organizations.

But in the 1990s the drug dealers started showing up, and they’ve been there ever since.

When they first appeared outside Simmons’s home, on the 1000 block of North Harding, they set up on both sides of the street so they could be more efficient at catching all the traffic off nearby Pulaski. They didn’t live on the block—they just showed up there to sell. “It was atrocious,” Simmons says. “They would urinate on the trees and throw their garbage right on the ground.”

Finally Simmons and a couple of neighbors told the guys they had to go. “The dudes, they kind of stood there, and then finally the captain came by to drop something off and he saw us out there, and one of the lieutenants said something to the guy. He looked at us, and then they left—without any incident.”

But within a month another group set up shop in the alley behind Simmons’s house. They were more creative about their sales techniques. “They’d set up a basketball hoop in the alley or the street to make people think they were playing ball,” he says.

When cars pulled up, they’d quickly make an exchange. It went on for months.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to get these motherfuckers out of here’—excuse my language. The next day, we just moved the hoop, down to the other end of the alley. And that was the end of that episode—just the fact that a group of us cared and we weren’t afraid.”

The trouble is that when the dealers do leave, they simply go somewhere else. Simmons sometimes sees 11-year-olds riding their bikes calling out “5-0! 5-0!” to warn dealers the police are coming. There are buildings where women deal out of first-floor windows, like it’s a drive-through. “It’s a constant battle,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

On the one hand, he says, the drug trade involves a small minority—on his block, maybe three or four families. On the other, if three families are in it on every block, it’s hard to stop. “Jobs, education—that’s what we need,” Simmons says. “Some of these guys, they say, ‘I’d love to have something else.'”

Simmons says that ten years ago, when the housing market was booming all over the city, west Humboldt Park looked ready for an upswing—young people started moving in and businesses began expressing interest in empty spaces along Chicago Avenue. One of them was CVS, which made plans to open a store on Chicago and Pulaski. But the company decided on a site further north when project costs grew and the recession set in.

Mick Dumke interviews Jimmy Simmons –

To Simmons, that’s become a symbol of what could have been. “It would have changed the complexion of the area,” he says.

He says there are still reasons to be hopeful—the city just repaved the street and sidewalks along Chicago Avenue, and a new restaurant is supposed to open near the corner of Chicago and Central Park later this year.

But Simmons admits that he’s tired when he thinks about what else it’s going to take.

“All this stuff we’ve done, and we have not been able to break through,” he says. “I don’t know where we go from here. ”

Rebecca Cohen helped research this article.