Monday, October 13, 2014

Little Beirut is no longer a warzone: musings on the rehabilitation of Albany Park

This post was originally published on August 11th, 2010 and was one of the few I was able to save via Google Cache after the Windy Citizen closed down. (I didn't know it was closing down until after the fact or I would have saved them all! Including the 8 photos that went with this post) Horner Park West Neighborhood Association president Gretchen Helmreich encouraged me to put up some of my old posts (last year?), so here we go...  

the Albany Park Post logo on the Windy Citizen site

There were two small fires on Albany last Monday. The first one took place in a garbage dumpster in an alley, the other in an apartment building minutes later.

I notice the commotion in the late afternoon and go outside to investigate. The fire is already out by the time I leave my apartment. Four engines have gathered on the one way street and 75 (easily) people mill about watching the firemen, talking in hushed tones. A couple of women clutch their children. "It was started by some kids" passes through the crowd, "maybe they were playing with matches?"

Besides the fire engines, there is a "command van," an emergency vehicle I have never seen before. As the photo illustrates, this "command van" is suited for fires larger than this particular one. I imagine a bathroom inside the van, and maybe a machine to make coffee. The fireman appear busy, so I try to gather information from the English speakers around me.

The English speakers around me are either construction companies advertising their services or insurance agents. One of the window boarding companies tells me they listen to scanners to find out about a fire, and this one was the 3rd (?) one they've been to today. He gives me his card.

The insurance agent stands on the other side of the street, and calls the window boarders "gang-bangers" but I think this was a slip of the tongue and he meant to say "vultures". Right before I speak with him, a fellow I recognize as a "gangbanger" (through other encounters) walks by, scoping out the scene. Said "gangbanger" appears uncomfortable, lowers his gaze and quickens his pace when I wave at him. (I shrug here in real life - he was already doing a bad enough job drawing attention to himself, being as everyone else was milling around, staring at the firemen. I'm no Nancy Drew though, so I will leave this be)

This fire began in a stairwell, and was contained to the third floor apartment and second floor stairwell. The fire immediately before this one happened in the alleyway behind "Big Red," also started by "some kids." When the firemen were done putting out the first fire in the garbage bin, they turned the corner and put this one out. It was most convenient. No one was injured.

Shortly after taking the above photo, it comes to my attention that my bike was stolen. It is this news that prevents me from uploading these photos the same day. But before I go into the theft of my bike, and the string of thefts and burglaries in this Northwest vicinity, I would first like to take you on a quick journey back in time.

In the late 1980's  this area of Albany Park, beat 1713 specifically, had the nickname "Little Beirut".

Little Beirut was referred to as a "war zone" and "the armpit of the [17th] district". Cops with guns and bullet proof vests didn't want to enter 1713 after dark. In the center of all this commotion stood the slum building otherwise known as "Big Red"... and Big Red was as slummy as you could get. In 1988, the back porches collapsed and weren't reparied. Some units didn't have refrigerators or hot water. Water would be shut off because the landlord didn't pay his bills.  Bathroom floors would rot and bathtubs would come crashing down onto the floor below. Toilets leaked regularly, as did the ceiling when it rained. A sweatshop producing surgical scrubs was operated out of the basement.

memorial to Erik "Scarface," a victim of gang violence, 2010  

 I know all this because "Big Red" has been featured in two documentaries -  Dai-Sil Kim-Gibson's "America Becoming (1991)" for the Ford Foundation and "Heart Broken in Half" (1989) by Dwight Conquergood - of which you can watch the first part on youtube here. All quotes about Little Beirut during this time period come from Conguergood's essay "Life in Big Red: Struggles and Accommodations in a Chicago Polyethnic Tenement"  found in Louise Lamphere's collection "Structuring diversity:ethnographic perspectives on the new immigration" (starts on page 95).

If Dwight Conquergood (what a name!) sounds familiar, it's because Mr. Conquergood was heavily involved with the now award winning Albany Park Theater Project until he died of cancer in 2004. While Conquergood's work helped display the inner workings of gangs and urban life, and he himself was personally involved with the youth he befriended in Albany Park (mentoring), he wasn't the only force of good rehabilitating the neighborhood.  

Sergeant Barker (meet her at your district 17 CAPS meetings, people) believes the CAPS program was instrumental in the lowering crime rates Albany Park has seen over the last 20 years. CAPS, Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, began in 1993 and is described by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern as being "the nation's most ambitious experiment in community policing." (If you don't feel like looking over all these theses, I'd recommend glancing at the first and last one. edit: link is now broken)  

Simply, CAPS aims to break down the borders between police and citizens. Barker believes the shift in Albany Park is partly due to less of a "us against them" mentality, as there is more communication between citizens and police. Violent crime as decreased over 40% since 1990, as have robberies, assaults, batteries and rapes. Property crime has dropped by 30%, as has murders. Burglaries are down over 50%. However, gang and drug-related shootings has not steadily decreased.   

Besides alternative policing strategies and community building initiatives, Richard Mell, who was elected Alderman of the 33rd Ward in 1975, has made some improvements to beat 1713, as any good alderman would. Jaime Andrade Jr, Alderman Mell's secretary (or "right hand" man, edit: and who is now the 40th District State Rep after taking Deb Mell's seat ) once told me he wore a vest when he first started working in 1713, twelve years ago. He brought to my attention the soccer field and park built just 10 years before, which he was involved in. We spoke of Ronan Park expanding with the newly acquired land (edit: now the Global Garden), and past improvements (little things, but many little things) in the beat. In the 2 years that I have lived in 1713, new light poles with brighter lights have gone up, as have police cameras, newly planted trees and a traffic light just last year. 

the Global Garden, 2013 (?)
Conquergood, the CPD, and Alderman Mell's team were not alone in their efforts. 

Back in 1962, the North River Commission (also Albany Park Chamber of Commerce), was formed by the Swedish Covenant Hospital, North Park University and the Albany Park Bank. The North River Commission's mission was simple: revitalize the area. The NRC was instrumental in bringing hundreds of jobs to the neighborhood by pushing for the construction of the Albany Park shopping Center in February of 1987, the Kimball Plaza in February of 1988, The Albany Plaza Shopping Center in May of 1990 and the plaza on Lawrence and Pulaski (which held a Dominic's in 1989). Besides bringing jobs to the neighborhood by developing commercial properties, the NRC implemented a Streetscape Program (1977) and a Facade Rebate Program (1981).  

"Twelve years ago, the officers and volunteers at the North River Commission advanced a premise, then unknown and immediately ridiculed. The premise was  that older, lower income, predominantly multi-family areas that suffer from slum and blighted conditions do so beginning with the commercial strip or main street of the area. Up until then, the accepted wisdom was that decay began with deferred maintenance and ultimately abandonment of large multi-family buildings. Our conclusion was that if you successfully change the look of the main street to prosperity, and if you provide hundreds and even thousands of employment opportunities,then the housing market can be stimulated into rehabilitation." 

NRC's efforts were successful: Property value predictably increased all over the neighborhood...except for district 1713. The reason? Big Red. Big Red was a hotbed of activity for gangs and drug trafficking and it wasn't until the apartment building was taken over in 1989 by the president of the Albany Park Landlord Committee/ Oakwood Development Company that crime levels dropped. (The new owners also displaced half of the tenants in 4 months). A 1.5 million loan was required to rehabilitate the building, but somehow, the new landlords were just as bad as the old one, and were ordered by City Hall to sell the building in 2003.  

Big Red is now owned by Tancor Inc. It took Tancor one year, spending 1 million, to rehab Big Red. The items not replaced in the building are as follows: the boiler (which was new), 50% of the original electrical grid, half the windows, and some drywall and certain floor boards. Everything else in the building was replaced. Iron fencing, intercoms, appliances, and automatic parking gates in the back were added, and the laundry room, stairwells,  back deck, cabinets, and bathrooms were rebuilt, as was the fountain in the front and the walkways. Some of the basement apartments were turned into storage. The intricately detailed steam radiators, handsomely painted silver, are the only visible reminder of Big Red's slum building history.  

I lived in Bid Red for a year and a half, in the same section of the building Conquergood lived in. The floors and ceilings were somewhat slanted (my desk chair would roll) and everyone joked about the building sinking, but otherwise, my experience was pleasant. Ironically,  Big Red is now one of the nicest buildings on the block, or dare I say it, in all of 1713. Big Red also has one of the best on-call maintenance men I have met in my life, named Jose. I grew up in NYC and I've lived in apartments almost all of my life, so I mean it when I say Jose is been the best. 

I enjoyed my corner apartment in Big Red, as it let me keep track of the Albany & Ainslie intersection. Last July, I wrote this bit of prose on the Albany Park blog
Last night, a plastic garbage bin was burned in the intersection of Albany and Ainslie. Its melted carcass, full of aluminum cans, has been lying there all day. There is another garbage bin in the same condition in the alley off Ainslie, and further west, a massive tree branch sits on the sidewalk.

 Property value in Albany Park has risen to such an extent that rumors started by media outlets of a Whole Foods coming to the neighborhood compelled some people to buy property here. Why those rumors were started, I don't know. I was always under the impression Whole Foods automatically dismissed any neighborhood with gang activity.

Tribute to Andre Ephrame, another victim of gang violence, September 2012

Like the fire in July, and the fires last Monday, the criminal activity I see most often in beat 1713 is gang-related. For all the money invested into the neighborhood, no one has adequately addressed the gang problem- not Mell, not the NRC, or the CPD. Each has focused on the symptoms, not the actual disease, as they say. Albany Park has a good number of civic organizations, but programs that would interest gang-prone youth don't seem to be catching on. True, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council has been advocating for more jobs for high school students but in this economy finding a job for teens is equally as hard as finding jobs for other unemployed citizens. The Albany Park Community Center has youth oriented programs but any gang-leaning youth or older rehabilitated gang members scoff at the APCC (this could be the skewed view of my sources though). Young teenagers are still compelled by gang life here.

Investors can build as many condos as they like in Albany Park, but if people are still shooting each other over "ocular confrontations" (see last CAPS meeting recap) then the real estate value of the neighborhood won't go up... and no one will move into those newly built condo units.

Flash back to Tuesday of last week with me.  

It is late morning, early afternoon, and it is after a friend has informed me of bike thefts in her area too, that I feel somewhat positive enough to go outside. Folks over at the Center Square Journal have been complaining of thefts and burglaries as well and I remember Officer Glascott's words from the last 1713 beat meeting -a portion of the crime along the northwest Brown line stops are caused by youth from Lawrence Hall Youth Services. A "crime wave" is really only a couple of people, a sentiment also echoed by Sgt Sacks.

I am out in the street taking this picture of the fire-stained building all boarded up and wondering who got the boarding contract (my money is on the spanish-speaking guy who gave me his card), when I am approached by "Loco," a local youth about to graduate from Lawrence Hall Youth Services.

Loco shoveling snow for cash, February 2011
"Loco" is dressed in a suit today, and accompanies me on my coffee run. He tries to help me negotiate with Maria (of the fruit truck on Lawrence and Ainslie) in Spanish over the price of some sunflowers, and tells me he is looking for a second job so he can get custody of his "kids" back (he already works at a bakery off Lincoln Ave). His "kids" are his brothers and sisters. He shows me the pictures of them he carries in his wallet. He has no father and his mother is in a mental institution, he says. Loco has a large scar from when he was stabbed in the neck before he was 15 years old (he was mistaken for a gangbanger, he tells me), and has always been a ward of the state. Loco is really into Glenn Beck.

The only thing Loco wants to talk about, besides Glenn Beck and bicycles (Loco tries to sell me a girl's bike with a busted back wheel for $20 that day, and I've had him tune up my bike before for the price of 2 cigarettes), is Lawrence Hall Youth Services. He tells me it is pretty common for youth to just go rob some white people. (All white people are rich to the kids of Lawrence Hall, apparently...)  

Speaking of Lawrence Hall, Loco tells me of this isolation room "riled up" students are put in, and he describes it "like a prison". All white walls, with nothing to do. Everyone goes in there at some point or another. He tells me about this gym built for students that was supposed to be finished years ago (Uh oh. Is there a parallel universe going on here?)

"Oh, and we do a lot of art... a lot of art" Loco says.

Lawrence Hall Youth Services is known for their award winning art program (one teacher specifically, might I add). Rebecca Rico, of the NRC, had nothing but nice things to say about the art program over at Lawrence Hall. Loco too, except, he thinks they should have other things to do there besides art... at least a gym? He wants a working gym. Loco spends a lot of time talking about how underfunded Lawrence Hall Youth Services is.

Ironically, the new Chicago Vehicle City Sticker was designed by a student at Lawrence Hall Youth Services. The city has stated plainly that the only purpose of these stickers is to raise revenue. If we lived in a better world Lawrence Hall would receive some of that money given the nature of the sticker.

I don't mean to be harsh with Lawrence Hall Youth Services, but with all the money already spent rehabilitating the neighborhood, it makes no sense that Lawrence Hall Youth Services (which offers a solution to the actual gang problem) is so underfunded that it can't do its job properly. If Lawrence Hall was doing its job properly, ALL youth sent there would break the cycle of mugging, stealing and gang violence. (I wonder, is Lawrence Hall working on breaking down the "us versus them" mentality too?)   

CeaseFire & neighbors positive loitering after a boy was shot in the leg, Spring 2011
Looking at the city wide budget cuts, it appears as though the city doesn't care about preventing gang-related crime. Funding for Chicago public schools is abysmal and staff continue to get laid off, and after school programming has been completely eliminated. I don't know about the rest of Chicago but I would rather wait an extra 10 minutes for the train or have my garbage picked up less frequently, than be mugged while exiting the Brown line stop at Francisco by some punk with low self-esteem and parental issues.        

I know I've praised Congressman Mike Quigley (of the 5th Congressional District) before in the past, but he seems to be one of the few IL politicians I respect. Included in Quigley's project requests for the fiscal year of 2011 was a half a million dollar request for Lawrence Hall:
 Funding will be used to support Lawrence Hall’s Youth Violence Prevention Program. The students at Lawrence Hall’s school are amongst the highest-risk for engaging in violence. This is a valuable use of taxpayer funds because it will go to help underserved communities. Lawrence Hall serves a population that is predominantly living in economically disadvantaged communities and has a history with family and community violence, gang involvement and other behavioral issues that require special education and behavioral modification services to address violent and aggressive behaviors, emotional disorders, leaning disabilities, and other disorders. 

To conclude, with the millions invested into this neighborhood by both the government and private institutions, it is ridiculous that youth related services are neglected, and continue to be neglected. Street beautification can only go so far in deterring gang-related crime.