Frustrated in Washington Park | Bleader

Friday, June 4, 2010

Frustrated in Washington Park

Posted By on 06.04.10 at 08:20 PM

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I heard a Washington Park resident express frustration with the condition of his south side neighborhood minutes after I stepped off the train there Thursday evening.

The block at the southwest corner of Garfield and King is dominated by empty lots with knee-high weeds, and as I walked toward it from the nearby Green Line station a couple groups of young men were milling in them. A man was carrying groceries up the front steps of the one home that still stands on the half-block facing King Drive. When he got to his front door he paused a moment and watched cars slow down to veer around a sinkhole in the street. Someone had laid a bus stop sign over it, pole and support base and all, in an apparent attempt to warn drivers.

The sinkhole on King Drive
  • The sinkhole in King Drive

The park that gives the neighborhood its name is across the street. A park employee taking a break saw the man and shouted something while pointing at the sinkhole. The guy on the porch set his groceries down and hollered back that he'd contacted the office of Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle about it.

"The woman I talked to said they called it in," he said. "They just can't get the streets people down here to fix it."

They shook their heads. I proceeded into the park field house for the community policing meeting for beat 234, where for the next hour other residents went over a long list of concerns about crime, crumbling infrastructure, and the lackluster response they said they were getting from elected officials and the city government.

It's the time of year when Chicagoans have come to expect a spike in violent crime to accompany warmer weather, and beat 234 has had its troubles. One of the officers leading the meeting Thursday noted that someone had been shot and killed in the park a couple weeks ago. She said police were still investigating.

"It's very unfortunate but we're working through it," she said.

None of the dozen residents at the meeting asked any questions about the incident. Instead, they moved on to the other things that were troubling them: men drinking in the park all day, drug dealers and drinkers loitering in a vacant lot on 55th Place, prostitutes working on Prairie.

I've noticed this before at CAPS meetings in areas recently hit by shootings: people alarmed by the violence but far more anxious about the day to day things that make them feel they don't have control of the neighborhood. I don't want to overgeneralize and I certainly wouldn't suggest that the shootings don't matter to those who live near them (not to mention the victims and their families). Yet it's clear that lots of people view violence as the result or companion of wider dysfunction and neglect, and that maybe they can do more about the dysfunction and neglect than the violence.

For example, a few days after a pair of shootings in Auburn-Gresham, residents at the beat meeting spent much of their time discussing how to deal with rowdy parties thrown in the street and in abandoned buildings by neighborhood teens whose parents were never around. In a Garfield Park beat where police made dozens of battery, assault, and armed robbery arrests last month, I recently heard an exasperated woman tell police that every time she called 911 about the guys dealing drugs in her front yard they scattered before the cops arrived. It was evident that they were tuning in to a police scanner.

One of the big concerns at the meeting Thursday was a drug market in an alley off Calumet where dealers have been pretending to work on their cars.

"There's a steady stream of traffic there all day," said a woman who lives nearby.

"And none of them are getting their cars worked on?" said one of the cops present, a tactical officer in a bulletproof vest.

"That's right," said the woman. "I don't know what they're selling but the word is out. I mean, they get to work every morning by ten."

The police said they'd check it out. They went on to suggest that residents contact their alderman for help determining who owns the problem vacant lots. If they could get the names of the owners they might be able to hold them accountable—in court, if necessary—for not maintaining the property.

Several of the residents said they'd contacted the office of 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran, who represents most of the neighborhood, but hadn't gotten any help.

"I never see the alderman," said a woman in the front of the room.

"He should be here or at least send a representative," said another.

"We elected him to do something for us," growled a man in the back. "We'll get him out of there if we have to. Look at the neighborhood—he hasn't done anything."

It was a harsh charge, but no one in the room disputed it.

I left a message for Cochran on Friday. He didn't get back to me.

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