|« The People Speak, Live!||One Day, Two Downtown Protests »|
Crime Fri Jan 20 2012
by Ronnie Reese
Shelly Friede, a single mother of three, looked a high-ranking member of the conservative Vice Lords street gang in the eye and asked a question.
"Are you trying to shoot my children?"
That was seven years ago, when Friede first moved into subsidized housing in the 4400 block of North Magnolia in Uptown. Her 24-unit courtyard building stood in Black P Stone Ranger territory and had been riddled with bullets from a drive-by shooting by the rival Vice Lords.
Two years later, Friede was pregnant with her youngest child, Sebastian, when her family came under fire again. This time, it was an internal dispute among the P Stones as "they shot down the gangway, then shot over my head," she recalled.
The physical landscape of Uptown has changed a great deal since Friede's first run-in with violence there. Wilson Yard, a former CTA rail storage and maintenance facility destroyed by fire in 1996, has been redeveloped to include residential apartments, a Target and an Aldi supermarket. Nearby, a mid-rise residential condominium sits on the former site of the 46th Ward office in the 1000 block of West Montrose Avenue.
Outside observers may see a radically different community, but those who live and work in Uptown know that beneath the surface, long-running drug trade and gang warfare continues to plague the area.
Much of the violent crime, according to some residents, is due to a heavy gang presence in subsidized housing. The community is home to at least three gangs at war over drug territory, and known gang members live in a number of properties that have received tax increment financing from the City of Chicago.
"This is something that is very well-known by all the parties who need to know," said former 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller. "But it's also people [involved] that are sophisticated enough to know how to get around it."
Shiller was alderman for 24 years before announcing last August that she would not run for re-election. She has received criticism for her perceived mismanagement of gang housing problems, but said that a local law center has repeatedly protected residents in some instances. In others, ex-offenders are in continued violation of property bans, Shiller said.
Shiller also suggested that polarization among scattered-site residents and property owners is the real problem in Uptown, and that a family shouldn't suffer for the actions of one member.
"It's not in our interest," she said, "to respond to someone in a family who has engaged in violence or is clearly doing criminal activity by responding to the whole family.
"We're much better off if we can separate the two."
* * * *
In January, Chicago police ended a five-month investigation of a $500,000-a-year drug ring in Uptown by arresting six members of the Black P Stones.
Four of the men live in buildings managed by the Chicago Housing Authority and Community Housing Partners L.P., a partnership between non-profit developer Voice of the People Uptown Inc. and the Chicago Community Development Corp.
Cook County court records show that as of July 2009, nearly 100 residents with addresses at eight properties managed by the Community Housing Partners pairing have faced more than 150 criminal charges.
The two companies have also received a share of close to $21 million in TIF funds and more than $3 million in developer fees since 2006, according to City of Chicago Department of Community Development.
"And yet," said community activist Katharine Boyda about the agency, "they are not responsible for maintaining safe, affordable housing."
Two Community Housing Partners properties with a total of 53 apartment units are on Boyda's block. In a July 2010 letter to Anthony Fusco Jr., president of the Chicago Community Development Corp., Boyda and a group of neighbors expressed their concern about how the neighborhood has "suffered from gang violence and open drug sales that have escalated in the past few years."
Only homeowners signed the letter because other residents of subsidized housing "fear retribution, especially from violent people," Boyda said. At least one individual, a known gang leader, still lives in one of Fusco's properties with his mother, despite one property manager's shared frustration and assurance that the firm wanted the family out "very badly," Boyda said.
During his campaign, new alderman James Cappleman discussed plans to create a building managers' group that he would be "strongarming some building owners who have poor business practices to participate in."
"We'll do everything we can to ensure that the buildings are safe for the residents of the surrounding community," Cappleman said in a debate shortly before the April 5 runoff election.
Representatives from the Community Housing Partners companies - Voice of the People and the Chicago Community Development Corp. - did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
* * * *
CHA policy requires applicants for residency to refrain from drug-related criminal activity.
"The only people that are allowed to be on the lease must meet certain requirements," said Jadine Chou, senior vice president of asset management. "Including, they cannot have criminal backgrounds."
CHA officials acknowledged problems with their Uptown properties, but said that suspects under arrest will often provide false information or the address of a relative.
"Unfortunately, people will use addresses like aliases," said Chou, who monitors CHA scattered-site housing throughout the city. "They might even have them on their identification, but it doesn't mean they actually live there."
From 1993 to 2005, 20 people who listed a CHA property in the 4400 block of North Malden as home were charged with 31 crimes ranging from aggravated battery against a peace officer to attempted first-degree murder, according to court records. Among them is Brayant Rodgers, charged in January's drug arrest, who was already in police custody for a previous charge of first-degree murder.
The CHA has installed surveillance cameras and hired a private security firm for some of its Uptown properties. The objective, according to Chou, is to give residents an opportunity to live safely in neighborhoods across the city.
"If a criminal is tied to the unit," Chou said, "that leaseholder would be in jeopardy of termination. We take that very seriously."
The city's Drug and Gang House Unit/Building and License Enforcement Division works with the CHA and the Chicago police to address problem properties, but according to senior counsel Judy Dever, the division can only prosecute property owners if there is criminal activity on the premises.
Such activity must be proved through a search warrant or through incidents such as narcotics sales or prostitution, said Dever, who handles cases for a number of Uptown nuisance properties. The city must also prove that an owner permitted or encouraged the activity.
If there are no crimes being committed on a property, there is no direct means of enforcing the Drug and Gang House ordinances.
"The biggest hurdle are the gang houses where the gang members live, but they're not conducting the criminal activity," Dever said. "We really don't have an avenue to tackle those."
The city, which files about 2,000 circuit court cases a year against owners and management companies of drug and gang properties where criminal activity is reported, lacks the resources to pursue additional properties under suspicion, Dever said. But if the problem is big enough, the division can call for an inspection or intervene with Chicago police and put a building owner on notice to take action.
And community involvement, according to Dever, is important.
"When we have a case where the community is involved, that's where our biggest success comes," she said. "They help push and then they take over from where we leave off."
* * * *
When Mike Brown took the position of park supervisor at the Clarendon Park Community Center in 1988, his director asked what he had done wrong to get sent to work in Uptown.
"This is one of those places," Brown said, "that no one really wants to work at."
Sandra Reed is a consultant and former ward official working with the anti-violence organization CeaseFire to implement a street-level mediation and gang conflict resolution initiative in Uptown. Many criminals in the area are "just trying to find a place to hide out," Reed said
"And these building owners, they don't want to take responsibility," she said. "They just want to collect the money. Some of them may be scared, I don't know.
"But they need to take a big responsibility because they're housing a lot of gangs."
Ronnie Reese is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker. He lives in Uptown and is currently head of communications for the Anixter Center, a local nonprofit serving Chicago's disabled and special needs community. You can follow him on Twitter, @ronniewrites