Saturday, June 2, 2007

Country Boy in the Ghetto

In October 1997 I joined the Americorps program as a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America). I was assigned to the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS). Because I was the only VISTA in my batch who spoke any Spanish, I was assigned to Nobel Neighbors, a West Side community organization based in a neighborhood that was roughly half Latino and half black. Depending who you asked, the area was called West Humboldt Park, Hermosa, or K-Town.

My job was to be a community organizer for crime and safety issues. I was to identify problems in the neighborhood, help organize block clubs and events, and groom local residents for leadership roles. I also tried get people to attend local beat meetings as part of CAPS, Chicago's community policing program.

It would be hard to imagine anyone less qualified for the job. I grew up in a typical American small town: rural, quiet, almost 100% white. I had just moved to Chicago from India. I knew nothing about American urban problems, let alone how to help people solve them. And as for my Spanish skills, I had studied in high school and visited relatives in Puerto Rico when I was a kid, but I'd never been immersed in the language or used it practically.

In order to bone up on my Spanish, I listened to a Spanish talk radio station in my car every day. "Cinco seisenta AM: la radio que habla." One of my favorite programs was the Carlos Martinez show. Senor Martinez gave explicit and humorous sex advice to giggling housewives (Oh, Carlos!), often with loud moaning and lewd sound effects. For some reason, this show was on the air at four in the afternoon, when children were returning home from school. Someone must've complained because after a few months the show was moved to 11:00 PM. Another favorite was La Noche de Misterio, a late-night program featuring spooky stories.

At Nobel Neighbors there was Jane, the director, Linda, who worked with housing issues, and me. Linda was sort of a mentor for me and helped me orient myself to my strange new environment. In the afternoons we would drive around the neighborhood and note the addresses of abandoned buildings, crack houses, vacant lots, hot corners, and other trouble spots. She introduced me to potential leaders, brought to my attention a lot of things I would have missed, and gave me advice (like have a safe house on each block where I can retreat to when shooting starts).

There was a lot of shooting. Winter tended to be quiet because it was too cold to stand on a corner and sell drugs. But people dreaded the spring thaw because it usually brought more violence. My year there was no exception.

When the snow melted a new gang called The Insane Unknowns moved onto Karlov Avenue and displaced the previous gang, whose name escapes me. That April, the old gang came back hoping to wipe out their rivals in a drive-by shooting at the corner of Karlov and Hirsch, across the street from Nobel Elementary School. They had firepower, a car, the element of surprise, and lousy aim. All the Insane Unknowns escaped unscathed. However, one of the bullets happened to strike in the chest an eleven-year-old girl named Jeanette who at that moment was running out of her building to greet her father, whose car had just pulled up. She died at the hospital. I went to her wake a few days later with Linda and Jane. It was open-casket. There she lay, in her pretty white dress, while her mother and family stood in the doorway and cried quietly. It was awful.

Even though there were over 800 murders in Chicago that year, this killing drew a lot of attention. For a few days politicians made empty speeches and the newspapers wrote stories about the conditions of the neighborhood until they lost interest and moved on to something else. A spokesman for the 25th district of the police department told the Chicago Tribune that this was the first killing in the area in a year and a half. I was very upset when I read that because that had been the sixth killing in the neighborhood in about a month.

One of the killings that happened that month and on the same block was of a man who had quit his gang. He had a pregnant girlfriend and wanted to get his life together so he could be a good father. He was back in the neighborhood to visit his family when his former gangmates saw him and shot him in an alley after he begged for his life.

At the corner of Potomac and Pulaski was a liquor store called Stooges. Stooges was a constant headache for those unlucky enough to live near it. The parking lot was full of trash, rats, and crack dealers. One day two cops stumbled drunkenly out of Stooges and chased down a Jamaican immigrant named Jeremiah. He was a well-known gangbanger but at that moment he wasn't doing anything wrong, just walking down the street. The cops beat him up so bad they put him in the hospital. The neighborhood responded by marching on the 25th district police station in protest. The police responded by denying the area any meaningful police service for a year. At the end of that year was when I showed up, the idealistic white boy from the country who wanted to help foster cooperation between locals and the police. No wonder I couldn't get anyone to turn out for beat meetings except for a handful of elderly white people who stayed when their neighbors fled to the suburbs.

One complaint I heard over and over at the beat meetings by those who did come was that it was unsafe to call 911 when people saw trouble in the streets. The reason it was unsafe was because the police would usually stop in front of the house that made the call, shine their spotlight on the door for a moment, and then move on. The people would then face retaliation from the criminals on their block. In response to this, the city came up with a plan: anyone who wanted to remain anonymous when calling 911 had to tell the dispatcher so. The dispatcher in turn would forward the complaint to the officer on the beat without giving the officer any information about the caller. There was no talk about punishing police who deliberately endangered the lives of those who called on them for help.

One man who lived on an especially dangerous corner used to work as a community policing organizer. He had pretty much the same job as me except that he worked for the police department instead of a neighborhood organization. He quit after a few months because he was disgusted by the corruption he saw. He said that drugs that were confiscated were stored in a safe, but each night someone stole the drugs and put them back on the street. In general, he felt that the police hindered his work more than helped it.

One of the first projects I undertook was to establish a connection between Nobel Neighbors and Kedvale Park, the only safe place for kids to hang out. They had basketball, foosball, board games, and two adults in charge. Some kids had such a horrible home life that they were always at Kedvale. When the park director opened the gates at seven or eight in the morning, there was usually a line of kids waiting to get in, even if it was the middle of winter. I tried to teach a drum class there, but all we had to bang on were boxes. I got some of the local music stores to lend us some instruments. I got busy with other projects and didn't have time to do the music classes anymore, so I passed them onto a friend who taught them some Moroccan rhythms.

I tried to organize a block club on Hirsch, with little success. Linda introduced me to a few residents and I got them to come to Kedvale Park fieldhouse for some meetings since no one wanted to have the meetings at their house. There was Cliff and Dorothy, a kind old couple. There was a Mexican man who spoke English and a Mexican woman who didn't. One woman who came to all the meetings was known as The Candy Lady because she sold candy to kids in her living room. At the time I was naive enough to believe that that was all she sold. She usually came with her handyman, Cornbread. All we did was talk. No one was willing to commit to actually doing anything. The only thing we did successfully was organize a block party at Hirsch and Kildare in order to disrupt a crack market for an afternoon. We got the city to close down the street, grilled some hot dogs, had games for kids, and the crack dealers had to go somewhere else for a while.

On the northeast corner of Hirsch and Kildare was a run-down apartment building owned by a car dealer from the suburbs. The guy was a slumlord and did nothing to maintain the building or take responsibility for his tenants. Some tenants ran a pretty large drug business, much bigger than a couple guys standing on the street. Every so often someone pulled up in a shiny black car. Two guys stood on the roof with guns while the car unloaded its cargo. I went inside the building with Linda once and talked to tenants. Everything was falling apart in the building. People complained of constant plumbing and electrical problems. The landlord did nothing but collect rent. After Nobel Neighbors called the landlord a few times to bring the seriousness of the situation to his attention and he still did nothing, we got the city to send in building inspectors. He was cited for dozens of violations. After several months of dragging his heels and doing very little work, we took him to court. His lawyer cursed our organization and the entire neighborhood when the judge fined him a few thousand dollars. Some people in the community hailed this as a great victory, but it didn't feel like one. We wanted the guy to rehabilitate his building, not give his money to the city. Even though he had been a terrible landlord, I didn't want to just stick it to him, and I felt bad.

There was a man named Louis who owned a real estate business called EZ Life. EZ Life would buy beat-up old houses from the Federal Housing Authority, give them shoddy surface repairs, and sell them to poor people. Upon moving in they'd find all sorts of problems and spend all their money on maintenance. Being unable to pay for both repairs and loans, they'd be forced to foreclose and abandon their houses. Neighborhoods across the West Side acquired large numbers of abandoned buildings, most of which quickly became crack houses. EZ Life went out of business to elude investigators and then reopened as Ace Realty. The week of Thanksgiving we got a busload of people from West Humboldt Park and the nearby neighborhood of Lawndale to go Louis' house in the recently gentrified neighborhood of Wicker Park. All of these people had been screwed by EZ Life. The angry but polite mob showed up on his doorstep, much to his shock. Not surprisingly, he didn't want to talk, but he got the message. Someone presented him with a turkey leg and told him it was a turkey-of-the-year award. As dozens of elderly people and parents with children stood on the sidewalk and waited for the bus to come back, a well-dressed man in a convertible pulled up and asked the mostly black crowd, "Excuse me, are you gangbangers?"

Two months later an affiliated West Side group was organizing an action against EZ Life/Ace Realty. We saw in the paper that an EZ Life house was for sale in Lawndale. Jane sent me there with a disposable camera to take pictures of the house. The pictures were to be blown up and put on signs. It was the middle of the afternoon in January and Lawndale wasn't much worse than West Humboldt Park, so niether of us saw any potential problems. I arrived at the house on Central Park and Iowa. There was a group of guys standing across the street. I didn't pay much attention to them. I just walked up to the house and started taking pictures. I started to get a creepy feeling and decided to go back to my car. As I walked to my car, the gang across the street started to walk towards my car too. When I got behind the wheel and turned on the ignition, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that they were now running toward the car and that the guy in front pulled an automatic out of his jacket. I stepped on the gas and realized that I had parked on ice. My tires spun in place and I didn't move. The guy with the gun reached the back of my car at just the moment that I finally started to peel out. Instead of shooting into the car, which he could have done very easily at this point, he just hit the back of the car with the butt of his gun. As my car took off, I looked in the mirror again and saw that the guys were laughing. I ran a stop sign. An old drunken wino leaning against the stop sign waved his hands to tell me to slow down. I took the next right and realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Dodging oncoming traffic, I finally made it onto Chicago Avenue and went back to Nobel Neighbors. I tried to get back to work but couldn't concentrate, so Jane let me go home.

There was a hillbilly family from Kentucky that somehow came to live in this ghetto. They were dirt poor. Their children ran around in rags and bare feet.

The federal goverment launched an investigation into corrupt Chicago aldermen who took bribes for allowing people to illegally dump trash in their wards. It was called Operation Silver Shovel. Eight aldermen were indicted. Percy Giles was one of the aldermen in West Humboldt Park. He was indicted, convicted, and jailed for taking $80,000 in bribes, more than any of the other aldermen. Instead of holding an election for a new alderman, Mayor Daley appointed a woman who was loyal to him.

One night the fifteen-year-old grandson of Leon, one of our board members, was killed while walking his girlfriend home on Kamerling Avenue. He belonged to a gang that was at odds with whoever controlled Kamerling and was shot for being where he wasn't supposed to be. Some of the board members were callous enough to say that he got what he deserved for being a gang member. "He wasn't a gangbanger to me," Leon said. "He was my grandson."

Linda told me that on Potomac Avenue, on the same block as Stooges liquor store, was a group of women who picked up the trash every Saturday morning. This was the closest thing they had to a block club and we decided to encourage them to do more. At the opposite end of the block from Stooges was a vacant lot filled with garbage and occupied by drug dealers. The city was encouraging the rehabilitation of vacant lots as community gardens, so we got the city to deliver a truckload of woodchips one Saturday. A group of young suburban volunteers came from City Year, another Americorps program. They wore matching red T-shirts and started the day off with some embarrasing ra-ra cheers, much to the amusement of the locals. All day long we picked up trash and spread around the woodchips in the gentle spring rain. Someone donated hot dogs, sodas, and sandwiches. We had a lot of fun. In addition to the Potomac women, people from other streets, children, and even the gangbangers came to help out. Over the next few months, the Potomac women kept at it and turned the lot into a beautiful garden. Last year I met someone who still lives in Chicago and told me that the garden at Potomac and Karlov is still being maintained and has become a model for other community gardens around the city.

The women of Potomac didn't stop at the garden. They organized marches through the streets at night with people chanting, "No rocks! No blows!" They joined forces with people a few blocks away at Springfield and Division, where a bunch of neighbors took to the streets in protest every night for a month after two kids got shot. Police came out for these marches as escorts. Cops and residents talked and got to know each other. Some dealers didn't like the attention and poisoned the rottweiler of one of the Potomac women.

They also took on Stooges. They wanted to vote the address dry. This was made difficult by the fact that the line between two voting districts went down the middle of their street, putting them in two different areas and forcing them to organize twice as many people, including many who lived nowhere near Stooges. They persevered and I was told a few years later that they finally did it. Stooges was no more.

At the end of my VISTA year I felt like it had all been a waste. I felt like I had been totally ineffective. I had no idea what I was doing at all. I learned a lot but I didn't think I had contributed anything of value to the community that I was working for. It wasn't until years later that I heard about the successes of the women on Potomac. While they did all the important work on their block and exposed themselves to retribution from dangerous people, it felt good to know that I played a small role in at least one thing that went right. I guess we often have no way of really knowing how we affect others.