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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 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.