Besieged | Feature | Chicago Reader

Besieged 

West Humboldt is one of America's biggest open-air drug markets. What does that mean for its residents?

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Between 1960 and 1980 Humboldt Park went from 99 percent white to 41 percent Hispanic and 36 percent black. As in so many other neighborhoods in transition, as whites left, investment left with them, and many of the families that moved in were poor.

A succession of mayors—Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne—promised to inject funds into the area, but its economic fortunes continued to slide. A wave of arsons left burned-out buildings and empty lots. Landlords squeezed rent money out of their properties without keeping them up. In the eastern part of the neighborhood, clashes between Puerto Rican youth and the police exploded into riots in 1966 and again in 1977.

During the 1970s, crime rose across the city and the nation. In Chicago, gangs turned more violent, typically over territory or long-standing rivalries, and politicians vowed to stamp them out.

"We are not going to tolerate this type of gang warfare in any area of Chicago," Mayor Byrne said after touring Humboldt Park in response to an outbreak of shootings in 1979. She ordered an influx of police and called on residents to do their part: "We wish to work with citizens and bring this to a halt now."

In 1984, after yet another surge in violence, Mayor Harold Washington emphasized the need for close work with the community and efficient use of police; his foes in the City Council charged that the police force had grown too thin to do the job.

Meanwhile, the bloodshed continued in Humboldt Park, which a University of Chicago gang expert called "the most dangerous neighborhood in the nation."

In fact, no matter how many new tactics and deployments were announced, the gangs seemed to get stronger—especially once they got into the drug business.

click to enlarge Zeola Horton moved into her home on North Monticello in 1970. "The neighborhood was nice," she says. Then the gangs and drugs moved in. - TODD DIEDERICH
  • Zeola Horton moved into her home on North Monticello in 1970. "The neighborhood was nice," she says. Then the gangs and drugs moved in.
  • Todd Diederich

A longtime resident watches the drug trade claim her daughter, nephews, and grandson

"The neighborhood was nice when we first moved here," recalls Zeola Horton, who for the better part of four decades has lived in a brick two-flat on North Monticello. "Then the gangs moved in."

Horton is 76 but it's hard to believe—her warmth and energy, combined with her bob and tortoiseshell glasses, make her seem a generation younger. Despite "retiring" from a printing company a few years ago, she still works part-time at a residential facility for formerly incarcerated and drug-addicted women and serves on the board of the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, a neighborhood nonprofit.

Horton and her husband bought the two-flat with his brother and sister-in-law in 1970. Within a few years, gang conflicts became common. "They'd be fighting in the street," she says, "and then you'd hear the gunshots."

Horton's family wasn't immune. In the early 1980s one of Horton's nephews joined a gang, and not long after, some of his rivals shot up her front window. Another nephew was killed in the alley behind their home because he wouldn't join. "They shot him, and then they told him to get up and fight like a man," she says.

After Horton's husband died in 1983, she moved to suburban Oak Park. She loved the quiet and had no plans to return to the city.

That changed one day in 1991 when her daughter asked Horton to watch her two young boys, and never came back for them. "I couldn't find her," Horton says. "It was drugs."

Children weren't allowed in Horton's building, so she moved back to her Humboldt Park two-flat. That's when she first noticed drug dealers taking over the corners.

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