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TODAY

Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

There is no empire before your eyes at the 3400 block of West Belden Avenue. Walk the streets and it is squat three flats, recently rehabbed homes and bungalows and porches that show every outward indication that they are commonly used for family cookouts. Yet this is the heart of CPD's Beat 1413, for a long time the deadliest police beat in the city. A den of gang warfare and vice, and the flashpoint for gang warfare despite trends towards decreasing violence. Walk with me down Kimball Avenue to Belden, an east-bound one way street packed tightly with cars varying from the quite dilapidated and probably abandoned to the entirely improbable import with 20" rims and low-profile tires. Cars are slow to creep. A beat cruiser comes by every 20 minutes or so, the cops nodding slightly at the ancient, painted-over gang graffiti on alleyway walls. Painted over and not re-sprayed, because the empires that survive are the stealth empires, invisible empires where the trappings of decadence and bravado have been abandoned for knowing nods, which can never be destroyed. Young adults, high school freshmen, flirt with one another in alleyways just out their parents' sight. No, you do not see an empire.

But Chicago's Beat 1413 is the seat of empire, believe it. Chicago's Beat 1413 is still the beating heart of empires in conflict, sprawling organizations with hierarchies and foot soldiers, captains and officers, and even gods. One auto mechanic's family shares a house with old friends of the family, and they stare down the gang members who huddle next to a car. The mechanic's wife instinctively keeps a hand on her little girl's head, playing tenderly with her hair. The girl hugs her mother's leg out of affection, but it may as well be fear. In Beat 1413, bodies can still drop.

The neighborhood has been of especial interest to the newly invigorated Chicago Police Department thanks to years of publicity as the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. Just two years ago, 10 people were killed in this relatively small area between Kedzie and Central Park, and Armitage and Fullerton. The community, which is strong, banded together and the police worked with them to send a message to the gangs there that there would be no more cowboyism in Beat 1413.

One young lady told me that things have indeed gotten better "since the white people started moving in," and she's probably right: that's a pretty common trend in Chicago neighborhoods recently. But a reduction of violence, like the slow disappearance of gang graffiti, does not refute the existence of the dark empires that reign over Chicago and environs.

In Beat 1413, three gangs primarily vie for control not only of the drug and weapons trade, but also for the respect and allegiance of the neighborhood's young men. The Spanish Cobras, Latin Kings and Imperial Gangsters stake their claims. Nowadays, the days of Stealth Empire, residents have to use common sense: gone are the days of easily deciphered gang colors and tilted hats. To survive you have to know, and to know is to become a part of it all, at least to some extent.

The Latin Kings, the Spanish Cobras and the Imperial Gangsters feature some 35,000 members between the three of them. Between the three easily $60-70 million in profits are generated. And as with any truly American enterprise, the competition between them breeds growth and innovation. The Latin Kings throughout the city themselves control by some estimates $50 million. As a result, our city has become the clearinghouse for heroin and cocaine, bringing in the fine uncut goods that kill untold people in the greater Chicagoland area every year. Chicago and its suburbs sustain an underworld of organized, competing criminal empires that are unrivalled anywhere in the United States.

As gentrification works its cleansing magic, and Chicago is transformed from the Lady with the Broken Nose to the Lady on the Lake, we shake hands and pat ourselves on the back, confident that the gangs are on the run. It is difficult to see them, that's for sure, and as you walk past the carnicerias on Fullerton Avenue, you feel confident at any hour of the day or night. But imagine, if you can, what armies of tens of thousands of young men in control of tens of millions of dollars can do with that money. Imagine where that money must go to get washed. Imagine the havoc it can wreak just below the surface, as these dark empires become more clever, as they do their entrepreneurial duty and adapt to a hostile political environment in order to continue to bring in the profits, they become more effective, more powerful, and more potentially deadly.

How can Beat 1413 exist in Chicago? After decades of crime fighting, billions in federal and state funds to combat crime and poverty, after years and years of community organizing to fight the gangs, how can a nexus like this go on, quieter perhaps but not gone? To ask this is to ask a question about what plagues us in America in general and Chicago in particular: How long will we shrug at the wicked for marginal comfort? How long will superficial, skin-deep solutions to problems assuage us?

Pushing the gangs is not eliminating them. Shouldering them out of Beat 1413 into Beat 2522, the Grand Central neighborhood huddled around Keeler Avenue, is not a solution. There must be a breaking point where we finally stop shrugging our shoulders and instead stand shoulder to shoulder and say, "I guess we are in it together." Yet families need to live, young adults need to mature into adulthood. We as communities can only hope to live in peace. Will we ever catch up to ourselves — will we ever get that breathing space where we can stop shouldering and address the real problems?

Ask the folks from another CPD beat perhaps a world away — Beat 1134, the area around Douglas Boulevard and Kedzie, who saw Gangster Disciple sets from the area around Roosevelt and Washtenaw get pushed further west into their neighborhoods, only to meet with already resident New Breeds, Vice Lords and Black Souls. This balkanization brushed up against the already treacherous area known as the Double Up to the North, and the infamous intersection of 16th and Kostner. The bodies may not be falling as often as they were five, 10 or 15 years ago, but the drugs and money still flourish, the guns pass easily from hand to hand and young lives are routed effortlessly, because by necessity, into grim service to these empires — legion, for they are many.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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