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Retaking the street

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Retaking the street

Ed Kuske says positive loitering drove drug activity away from his neighborhood.

WBEZ/ Odette Yousef

Even though the frigid cold has driven drug dealers and gangs indoors for the next few months, many Chicago neighborhoods can expect those problems to return once temperatures rise again. But this past summer and fall, two communities on Chicago’s far North Side took measures they hope will have a lasting impact on keeping trouble off their street corners. They took very different approaches. 

One of those strategies puts tired pedestrians on Devon Avenue in the West Ridge neighborhood out of luck.
“They asked me to remove the benches west of California,” said 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone. Stone said he’d received enough complaints from residents and business owners who said gang members were congregating around the sidewalk benches at night. “I wish we could find a way to have the benches go into the ground at night, but we can't,” said Stone. Stone had Chicago’s Department of Transportation remove all the sidewalk benches, except a few advertising benches, between California Ave. and Kedzie Ave.
Richard Trumbo, owner of The Music House, a children’s music and dance school on Devon Ave., said he hadn’t noticed that the benches were removed. But he confirmed they attracted types that he didn’t need near his family-oriented business. “I've seen prostitutes, I've seen drunkards,” said Trumbo. “It just seems as I drive up and down Devon that it's a place for people with nothing better to do to sit or sleep.”
But Trumbo doesn’t necessarily think removing the benches is the best solution for West Ridge.
“Proper policing might be a better one,” said Trumbo. “(The benches) kind of look attractive. Makes the neighborhood look friendly.” 
Lots of neighborhoods in Chicago struggle with loiterers and rowdy youths, but not all of them take the approach that Devon Avenue did. In fact, in the North Side neighborhood of Uptown, residents have decided that they could get criminals off their corners by making the sidewalks more friendly at least to law-abiding residents. 
Ed Kuske helps organize what he calls “neighborhood watches,” or “positive loitering,” for his block club near Lake Michigan. During the summer he and his neighbors stake out spots on the sidewalk, in a sort of peaceful stand-off with ruffians.
“What we saw during that first week we were all I'd say 20-35 calls to 911 during that hour,” said Kuske.
The neighborhood started the effort in 2008 because homeowners felt that sidewalk drug sales were on the rise on nearby Sheridan Road.
Kuske said after a solid week of standing watch for an hour per night, the number of gang members loitering in the area began to wane.
“Once we broke that, we can go a couple months before we see somebody doing something now,” said Kuske.
Now the block club only arranges one positive loitering event each week during the warmer seasons.
Experts say positive loitering can go a long way toward helping residents feel like they are gaining control of their neighborhood’s street activity. It can also promote a lasting community cohesion that brings other benefits, according to Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.
But Skogan said nobody’s formally studied how such community efforts affect criminal presence in a neighborhood.
“In the welter of things that make crime rates go up or down,” said Skogan, “it's hard to tease out the exact impact of these programs, which are modest.”
Skogan said there are  few data on how changing the physical environment, as was done on Devon Avenue, affects crime. Until someone does study these differing approaches, these two Chicago communities are sticking to them, hoping that their streets this summer will be as orderly as they are this winter.
Maserati, "The World Outside", from the CD Inventions for the New Season, (Temporary Residence)

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