A divided Boystown

Chicago's gay neighborhood beset by spats of violent assaults, delves into city’s heated racial divide.

July 8, 2011

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A stabbing captured on video has been the unlikely spark for a fiery debate on race and class in Chicago’s premier gay neighborhood.

The video captured a large group of black youth getting into an altercation with a 25-year-old victim.  The scuffle in the late hours of Sunday, July 3rd, resulted in a stabbing of the victim – the second that day - and the third within a three-week period in the North Side neighborhood.

The stabbing incidents, which resulted in no fatalities and two arrests, have become tipping points for a community increasingly on edge about crime in recent months.

In early June, a series of robberies involving the pepper-spraying of victims caused the Chicago Police Department to issue an alert, with bars posting warnings at entrances.

An analysis of crime data by WBEZ shows that Boystown has been the location of dozens of assaults, robberies and batteries since April.

Boystown marred by violence on Dipity.

One of the first major incidents to call public attention to violence in the community took place very early on the morning of June 18th in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.

A couple, who lives in Lakeview, was attacked around 3 a.m. Citing safety issues they wished to remain anonymous, but the boyfriend of the victim agreed to be interviewed.

“Some stranger wanted to start a fight. He bumped into the two of us as were leaving Burrito Palace,” said the boyfriend. The restaurant is located on Cornelia and Halsted.

The stranger then followed them to a nearby 7-Eleven where police say he stabbed the victim. The suspect in question, Anthony Bledsoe, was later charged with aggravated battery.

The victim’s boyfriend recently moved to Lakeview, but is a Chicago native from the South Side.  He said prior to the incident, three of his friends were mugged.  “It’s almost like gang violence,” he said.

A few weeks later, a stabbling incident on July 3rd was captured on video by resident Rob Sall, who, with his partner John Cunningham, has sought to address the violent crimes that were brought directly to his doorstep.

The Chicago Police Department announced on Friday morning that a suspect was arrested in connection with the incident.  The suspect, Darren Hayes, 24, of Hammond, IN., turned himself in to police after the investigation began to close in on him. 

The police charged him with four counts of aggravated battery.  Two knives were recovered by police, and are said to be the weapons used in the case.

The father of the victim told ABC 7 in an interview that the victim had suffered a punctured lung as well as wounds to the chest, back and arms.

“It’s one thing when people are getting mugged, it’s another when they are getting stabbed,” said Sall. 

The couple lives on the 3300 north block of Halsted Street in Boystown, the location of the stabbing.  North Halsted is also the site of many of Boystown’s popular gay bars, and the couple’s block has become a hangout at times for groups of lesbian, gay and transgendered teens.

Those groups have become a lightning rod – and some say scapegoat – for the spat of violent crimes.

The extent and duration of those violent crimes and the unsettling nature of the video have anger spilling from Facebook forums into heated townhall meetings.

The young homeless of Boystown

At the center of the attention are homeless youth in the neighborhood, many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered minorities from Chicago’s West and South Sides.

LGBT black and Hispanic youth, like many others, flock to Boystown because of its gay-friendly reputation, its nightlife and its support network.

But many of these youth have been the target of blame by residents who accuse them of loitering along Halsted Street, drinking in public, smoking marijuana, blaring loud music, urinating in public, and vandalizing - as well as engaging in occasional verbal or push-and-shove altercations.

Some websites such as gis.chicagopolice.org or everyblock.com, which utilizes the same data from gis.chicagopolice.org, list a slew of offenses at all hours of the night.

But a common element in a number of the reported stabbing incidents in this predominantly white upper-middle class neighborhood is that many of them were carried out by black men - either individually or in large groups.

Residents have been quick to say their concerns are limited only to crime and don't involve race, but some feel that the loitering and behavior of youth may be leading to the more violent crimes.

Rhaisa Williams is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University who has researched the dynamic in Boystown and argues that race and class divides do play a role in the tension between some residents and youth.

"[B]lack queer youth who do not live nor are employed in Boystown, but come there to "hang out" —which is synonymous to loitering in the discourse— become figures of an inappropriate embodiment that that is antithetical to middle class stability and consumption," she writes.

And with so many strong-armed robberies and assaults - and few arrests - many residents have focused their anger on the Center on Halsted, a local social services organization that serves the LGBT community.

A Center of controversy

The Center, located at Waveland Avenue and Halsted, opened its doors in 2007 with a mission “to provide a safe and nurturing environment," according to the organization's website.

A former worker at the Whole Foods grocery story that sits adjacent to the Center, however, created a Facebook page originally named “Citizens Demanding Center on Halsted ‘Youth Program’ Shutdown,” that later changed to “Center on Halsted FAIL.” (Click on right image for original page).

"I had to call in police for shoplifting on many of the kids I'd see loitering all day in front of and inside the [Center on Halsted]," said the former Whole Foods employee.  "I'd say at least half of them were white. Maybe more. Again, not a racial issue.”

The page as of Friday afternoon had 42 “likes.”

Another Facebook page, “Take Back Boystown,” is a different story. With over 3,400 fans, it has served as an organizing forum for concerned residents and, at times, has featured posts by those using pseudonyms with racial overtones, though they have later been purged by moderators.

Tyler Roberts, 34, frequents the "Take Back Boystown" Facebook page and says it occasionally contains racist remarks.  He also insists that the Center on Halsted shouldn't be singled out for the actions of others. 

"I don't believe for a second that [closing down the Center on Halsted] would solve any problems," Roberts says. "I do however believe they should be holding the youth that frequent the Center accountable for their actions."

Many youth also believe the Center is being unfairly singled out, and note that it's one of the few organizations providing services to transient LGBT youth.

"All we have is the center," said a 28-year old Center member and health educator who goes by the name Peanut Butter.  "If they take away the center, they’re going to have a bigger problem."

Kloe Jones, 23, who is transgendered, came to Chicago from St. Louis. “Where I’m from, we don’t have this. We don’t have Boystown. We don’t have a Center on Halsted.”

“There’s a lot of people coming from the South and West Side," said Jones. "It is a predominantly white neighborhood, but this is all we have.  There have been muggings and robbings up here, and [white residents] look at the African Americans who come to the Center, as if somehow it’s their fault. There are kids, who are messy, who do things on purpose, but some of us actually do need these resources,” she said.

When asked if there was any connection between the transient youth who occasionally get cited for loitering or other infractions on Halsted Street and the string of muggings in recent months, police have repeatedly said they have yet to find any correlation.

"There is no connection," said Chicago Police Sgt. Debra DeYoung.


'If they want to talk about the youth? Let's put everything on the table.'
--Peanut Butter, 28

 


Peanut Butter and other minority LGBT youths, however, report being frequently approached by white men in the area for sexual favors or drugs, creating dangers and a double standard.

“They take advantage of the young ones, saying ‘You sleep with me, I’ll pay you some money.’ If they want to talk about the youth, let’s put everything on the table,” said Peanut Butter.

Koko, 17, is another North Sider who frequents the Center and is concerned about sexual exploitation.

“Some of them have to prostitute,” she said.  "They’re trying to get their money and find a place to stay, and see if they could stay with the person they could sleep with at the moment."

Tension brews, nerves frayed

On July 2nd, Rob Sall and nearly 60 others participated in a “positive loitering” session.  This was the third summer for the event, with the Commander Kathleen Boehmer from the Chicago Police Department's 23rd District and a number of police officers also participating.

“We would divide in groups of 6-12 people, canvas the neighborhood. Police would issue citations for violations, prostitution -- citing people for small infractions, confiscated knives, violation of parole,” said Sall.

At 11:30p.m. that evening, a group called GenderJUST began protesting the event, claiming purpose of the event was to drive out LGBT youth from Boystown.  The protest was covered in detail by the Windy City Times. Sam Finkelstein, the organizer of the “counter-protest,” was arrested later for disorderly conduct.

A few hours later, around 2 a.m., a 27-year-old Lakeview resident was stabbed on Wilton Ave. and Addison —one block west of the Chicago Police Department’s 23rd precinct headquarters.

That stabbing was eclipsed by the infamous video-taped stabbing, some 21 hours later.

Fight heard round Chicago

On July 3, Sunday at 11:45 p.m., the much-publicized fight broke out after what some say was a verbal altercation among two groups of young people near the intersection of Halsted and Aldine.

In response to the fight, the police shut down much of Halsted, but left the sidewalks open.  The bars were letting out, leaving patrons guessing what had happened.

Media reports at the time were scarce. 

The Fourth of July holiday weekend in Chicago saw six murders and 28 violent assaults, two of which were in Boystown. Most news outlets such as the Sun-Times, Tribune, CBS 2 and ABC 7 covered the holiday violence in a single, citywide roundup.

But when the video was posted online, the incident garnered widespread attention on major television newscasts and social networking sites despite having no fatalities.

And the video wasn't the only one to surface from the weekend. 

 

The video, on the left, was uploaded to YouTube the same day of the incident at Halsted and Aldine. This attack occurred on Addison and Wilton earlier that day --one block from the area's police station.

In response, Ald. Tom Tunney (44) on Wednesday called for an “entertainment detail” to be formed to assist in beat officers.  He said it’s unrealistic to expect beat officers to cover areas where there are high concentrations of entertainment and hospitality venues.

Heated exchanges in a hot auditorium

Outside the Inter-American Elementary Magnet School Wednesday evening, the mood seemed peaceful. An hour before a scheduled Chicago Alternative Police Strategy (CAPS) community meeting, several residents sat on steps and mingled with their Lakeview neighbors.

Teenagers in yellow shirts gathered, prepping for their planned demonstration as members of GenderJUST.  The same group that had protested a peace loitering event a few weeks prior.

Just four days after the video-taped beating of a black youth shocked the neighborhood, the community was gathering for a discussion about how to address violence.

 

GenderJUST gave a few brief speeches lasting only 20 minutes, before they broke into song and made their way into the auditorium. 

Nearly 600 attendees filed into the auditorim in an orderly fashion. Some spilled out onto the floor and into the hall. A handful attempted to reach the balcony of the auditorium, which led to a brief and light-hearted exchange with Tunney and a constituent.

Cmdr. Boehmer and Sgt. Beth Giltmier were both in attendance, as was Ald. James Cappleman (46). 

Behind a series of mics at the center of the auditorium floor, stood a long and ever growing line of people waiting to comment. The line and the temperature in the room seemed to grow in tandem, with many using their placards to fan themselves.

As the mic was turned over to the crowd, the first boos came out within moments.

One woman asked: "What is CPD doing to examine the role of race in this violence? How are Boystown and its residents welcoming diversity?"

One man angrily accused the gay community of being elitist:

"These kids have slept in cars, have eaten out of garbage cans, have been molested. I was one of those kids. I grew up in this neighborhood.   Don’t attack the kids.  You are to blame!  This community was not always a gay community. When I grew up here, gays were getting beat up. My friends were beating up gay people. Now you own the community. And what do you do? You turn it on kids who are troubled because their parents can’t afford to feed them. So they throw them out on the street. Not on your doorstep! Not on your doorstep! You guys better wake up now!…All of you guys need to make a difference and stop blaming these damn kids."

Many residents called for an increased police presence in the neighborhood, with some directly attacking Cmdr. Boehmer and Ald. Tunney as they stood mere feet away.

Another speaker suggested that the city install collegiate-like alert boxes along the street.

Such requests aren't new.  Northwestern University scholar Raisa Williams notes that calls for increased police presence have been a common theme in discussions about neighborhood tensions over the years. 

"Boystown property owners reason that they need heightened levels of policing and surveillance to control black youth's actions, which are seen as one of the main disturbances in the maintenance of Boystown," Williams writes.

One after the other, residents came forth to admonish police, aldermen, teens, gangs -- and themselves.  Pleas to limit the soliloquies fell on deaf ears.

But at the end of the night, the boyfriend of the June 18th victim took to the mic.

“Us working together as a community –this is how we’re going to get past this.  We don’t need to hate each other. We don’t need to point fingers.  We need to come together, sit together like civilized adults, respectable youth and people of the future.”

--Landon Cassman and Meghan Power contributed to this report.

Email Elliott Ramos at: eramos@wbez.org