Drug Trade Fragments in Chicago Neighborhoods

Drug Trade Fragments in Chicago Neighborhoods
Places like the Robert Taylor Homes were notorious for open drug markets. Photo by L via Flickr.
Drug Trade Fragments in Chicago Neighborhoods
Places like the Robert Taylor Homes were notorious for open drug markets. Photo by L via Flickr.

Drug Trade Fragments in Chicago Neighborhoods

Chicago’s drug trade is forming new patterns. Some of this may trace to the dispersal of the city’s public housing high rises. But it also has to do with the incarceration of major drug pins over the past years.

The busy corner of 79th and Ashland is one of several hot spots in the Sixth District. Narcotics, an influx of gang members and turf fighting.

That criminal spillover is distressing neighborhoods known for single-family homes and active neighborhood associations. According to police figures, crime in neighborhoods such as Auburn-Gresham and Chatham have spiked up and down over the last several years.

District commander Eddie Johnson says some of the problems stem from relocation patterns in the city.

JOHNSON: The turf wars are simply when people start migrating to different areas and they settle in and they start living in those areas, quite naturally if they are selling drugs they want to sell it right there. Because demographics have changed a little bit on South Side, I think that people that now coming into these areas want to sell drugs close to where they live.

Police stats show that demographic shift is at least in part related to the tear down of public housing that started in the early 2000s.

JOHNSON: At least 50 percent, people that we have arrested, we will look back at their histories and find they were previously arrested around public housing.

But Johnson is hesitant to lay all the blame on former Chicago Housing Authority residents for crime bubbling up in other neighborhoods. He knows its insulting to former tenants who were law abiding, and those former residents resent the stereotype.

I’m standing at the former location of the Robert Taylor development. Places like this, Ida B. Wells and Henry Horner were notorious for open drug markets. The social isolation and city neglect of public housing allowed for a vibrant and violent criminal playground.

CHA head Lewis Jordan is used to people asking him if the high-rise teardowns contribute to the new patterns of crime taking place in the city. Jordan says there’s no data supporting that belief. But he acknowledges that some developments were cesspools of concentrated crime.

JORDAN: There’s nothing to suggest that that concentration was a result of the good people who lived in public housing. Bad guys tended to congregate there and do their trade. Now that we’ve taken down the developments, that trade, I guess, is spreading out throughout the city. But again, nothing is there to suggest that these are the good people from public housing.

But drug dealers must find another location if their selling post is now vacant land or a new mixed-income housing community.

Worm, as he’s known, is a former Henry Horner resident on the near West Side. He doesn’t want to give real name. He knows drug dealers who’ve gone to new neighborhoods and faced the wrath when it’s another crew’s turf.

WORM: The people that was in the projects, they got get out here now. This was their one building. They was cool, they didn’t have nothing to worry about. Now when they get on the block, somebody might trick on them, now they got to worry about who’s block this is.

One former drug dealer from Henry Horner has served prison time and now does violence mediation with Ceasefire. He’s known as Mr. Brown and also doesn’t want his first name used. Mr. Brown’s drug-dealing nephew got caught up when he tried to open up shop elsewhere.

BROWN: He started selling drugs at the guy’s building. They got down on him. Shot him in his leg. And then once they finta retaliate they find out that’s my nephew. Now it’s like ‘we sorry, we didn’t know.’ Now I got to intervene.

Compounding the problems that ensue from displaced drug dealers is the nature of gang structure in Chicago. There are no longer big-name leaders like Jeff Fort of the Blackstones, Larry Hoover of the Gangster Disciples or Willie Lloyd of the Unknown Vice Lords. And over the years that void has played out on the streets with intra-gang fighting. There becomes a vacuum of leadership when top guys are hauled off to prison.

Maurice McFarlin teaches a “Gangs in Chicago” seminar at Northeastern Illinois University. We sit in a new park across the street from the old Ida B. Wells. In its place on 39th Street is Oakwood Shores – a mixed-income maze of new housing. McFarlin lives in Auburn-Gresham where he sees some of the violence playing out.

MCFARLIN: Sometimes this conflict is what we call intra-gang conflict. These are guys – especially when money is tight and drugs aren’t and the police are cracking down – people turn on each other.

MOORE: Some of the police tactics may be forcing gang members to fight among each other.

MCFARLIN: Yeah, if you drying up the spots. If me and you running a spot and I’m not making any money and you got people to feed we gonna start looking at each other.

At least one other law enforcement official recognizes the drug trafficking changes in the post-public housing era.

Rudy Nimocks and I took a ride around Woodlawn when he was still police chief for the University of Chicago.

NIMOCKS: Sometimes they choices they make as to where they want to go next may be based upon on what they know is drug activity in the area. And how likely it is if set up in another area they’ll be successful, they’ll have enough traffic. And whether or not the environment and the neighborhood is conducive to what they want to do. So these are business decisions for them. And that often determines where they want the secondary location to be after they leave public housing.

The turf conflicts are nothing more than a form of a capitalistic enterprise, albeit an illegal one. The best reminder of that is a freelance drug crew that formed with the name All About Money.