Credit: John Gress

“I don’t come by myself when I come to Boys Town,” 21-year-old Joshua McCool said last week at a press conference outside of Inter-American Magnet School. He stood in front of a multiracial phalanx of activists who one by one complained about the treatment they’d received in the neighborhood. McCool, who’s black, called the area “white boys’ town.” He and the other speakers, members of the LGBT youth group Gender JUST, said they feel racially profiled when they visit the neighborhood.

McCool grew up on the south side and in the south suburbs—he lives in Richton Park now. He says that when he and his friends travel to Boys Town, they “come in numbers.” He said they’ve been harassed—one man called him “the n-word” while a nearby police officer did nothing—and have experienced more subtle discrimination as well. “People snub their noses at us and turn away,” he said.

The press conference preceded a community policing meeting that did little to quell an ongoing, racially charged debate in this busy gay-nightlife district. Some residents here attribute a rise in crime to young people—often African-American—hanging out in the streets. And young people like McCool see that accusation as evidence of racial animosity from white Boys Town residents.

Chicago Police Department statistics indicate that in the 23rd district—which includes Boys Town as well as parts of Uptown and Lincoln Park—crime has increased the last five years. But in eight categories tracked by the CPD including robbery, aggravated assault and battery, burglary, and theft, the rates are lower than they were a decade ago. Crime rates also dipped slightly between January and May of this year.

Since May, however, some widely publicized violent crimes, including robberies and at least two stabbings, have alarmed residents. A man was beaten and stabbed in a melee on Halsted Street just before midnight on Sunday, July 3, and the incident was captured on video and posted online. A Hammond, Indiana, man has been charged in the attack.

The night before the stabbing, a group of residents held a vigil to draw attention to their concerns about rising neighborhood violence. They faced a counterprotest organized by Gender JUST, whose members claim that residents are scapegoating the LGBT youth of color who hang out in the neighborhood. Those kids aren’t responsible for the violence, Gender JUST members say—they look to Boys Town as a haven. Places like the Broadway Youth Center and the Center on Halsted offer after-school drop-in programs, counseling services, and STD testing. Activists say those spaces are safer for queer kids than their south- and west-side communities.

Members of both groups were among the several hundred people who jammed the auditorium at Inter-American, on Waveland Avenue west of Halsted, for the community policing meeting.

Boys Town—generally considered to be the section of Lakeview between Clark and the lake, and Grace and Diversey—got its name because of the many gay men who moved there in the 70s and 80s. Rising real estate prices had pushed them out of Old Town and other neighborhoods farther south. Gay-owned bars, bookstores, and other businesses were established on and near Halsted. At the time of the 1980 census, the neighborhood had a small but significant black population—the census tracts that would come to make up Boys Town were about 16 percent African-American. But as property values rose in the 80s following extensive commercial and residential redevelopment, the area grew wealthier and whiter. According to recent census estimates, the area’s population is now about 83 percent white and 5 percent black. In the census tracts adjacent to the Halsted commercial strip between Addison and Belmont, the population is 1.5 percent African-American.

“When we moved in there was a lot of low life around,” Louis Hemmerich, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, told me outside the CAPS meeting. As real estate prices rose, the neighborhood “improved drastically,” he said. He’s still concerned about crime, though, and said he’s noticed drug activity, prostitution, and loitering near his home on Sheffield. The week before, a man being chased by police was apprehended on the roof of Hemmerich’s building. “We’ve gone to CAPS meetings in the past,” he said, “and been promised assistance and so forth, but it needs follow-up.” The crime stops for a while “and then it starts again.” It spikes in the summer and when the bars close, he said.

Hemmerich attended the meeting with a friend visiting from Miami, Tom Lander. “I’ve been spending nine days walking the neighborhood at night,” Lander said. “I felt OK!” He said he didn’t know there was “a problem” until others told him. Lander, who’s white, said he was surprised by how few minorities work behind the counters at Boys Town bars. Better hiring practices, he said, might diffuse some of the tension.

Racial tension in the area isn’t new: two years ago the Coalition for Justice and Respect organized a “Unity March Against Racism and Harassment” on Halsted. Participants complained about discrimination by police officers, residents, and proprietors.

During last week’s raucous meeting, Tom Tunney, alderman of the 44th Ward, referred to the neighborhood’s history as he tried to calm the crowd. “We as a community have gone through a lot together, and tonight is another chapter,” said Tunney, who’s been alderman since 2003 and a local business owner since 1981. (He owns the Ann Sather restaurants.) Earlier in the day he’d asked the police department to consider placing more officers on the street during the district’s busiest hours.

More than three dozen people lined up to speak, and crowd members met their comments with applause, cheers, boos, and whistles. Proposals included police call boxes, neighborhood bike patrols, curfew enforcement, and, most frequently, more police on the street. That last idea was roundly rejected by the youth activists. When McCool spoke about racism, a white man in the back of the room said, loudly, “I date black men, so . . .”

Outside, Aisha Truss-Miller, a black 30-year-old, took a cigarette break. “Them booing each other and disrespecting each other—it just took everything out of me,” she said. Truss-Miller works at Affinity Community Services, a south-side organization for black LGBT people. While there’s a heavy police presence on the south side, she said, it’s on the north side that she feels she’s treated like “a suspected criminal.”

The community meeting, Truss-Miller said, was “just a bashing party” for the two sides: “those who are supporting the queer youth of color” and “those who live in this neighborhood and have privilege and want to say it’s strictly about violence.”

Which is exactly what the debate inside came down to: whether the area’s problem is violence or racism. One woman, after introducing herself as “straight and obviously white,” said that while she had “compassion” for the protesters because of the issues they’d raised, “I have the most compassion for the people who got stabbed.” Another white woman exhorted the audience to put aside talk about race for now. “Look at the diversity here,” she said of Boys Town. “This is wonderful! The problem is: we’ve had two stabbings in the neighborhood.”

A couple people in the audience raised signs: Diversity is welcome. Crime is not. The most resounding response of the night came when a black man said he wanted Boys Town to be safer. “You do not want to see what we’re facing on the south side,” he said. He received a standing ovation. 

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