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Jun. 21 2010 - 6:39 pm | 1,352 views | 1 recommendation | 28 comments

When ‘They’ Move Into Your Neighborhood…

For the first time in my two years in Chicago, I called the police for the first time last Thursday.

I called because I was fed up, and also because I was a little scared.

Three men were sitting in the alley below my second floor apartment. Listening to one young man have a cell phone conversation with his mother where an expletive was every other word had just annoyed me. But when two others arrived and started shooting dice, I picked up the phone.

I’ve never had to call the police before because I live in a pretty quiet neighborhood. Lincoln Square is no Englewood. The most I’ve encountered in street crime is someone stealing the seat off my bike, and that was my own fault for leaving it chained up outside three nights in a row.

We live in a white neighborhood. Yes, we have some Hispanic neighbors, but by and large, the people of Lincoln Square are white, upper-to-middle class, mini-cooper drivers with medium-sized condos and brick bungalows.

In the last six months, I’ve noticed the neighborhood changing. To be frank, we have black families living on our block now when we never did before. I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t noticed.

I wasn’t upset about it. In fact, I was a little excited. For one, I’ve wanted to live in a neighborhood that’s more diverse. But we’re comfortable here, and I hate moving. Two, I know that it’s not likely a coincidence. Many of these black families are probably using Section 8 vouchers to find an apartment in a nice area of the city that’s low on crime, has good schools and is close to transit.** A two flat nearby even posted “CHA welcome” on their “For Rent” sign. Because I know what a good neighborhood can do for a family, I’m overjoyed that some families are benefitting from our safe, friendly block.

But I also know enough about the urban experience to recognize trouble when I see it, and trouble often comes in the form of young men standing around. In fact, the day I called the police, I was chatting with a Cabrini rowhouse resident for a story, and she was telling me the same thing about where she lives.

“They don’t stand in front of my house,” she told me. “Around here, some people think I’m real mean, and I am to certain people. What are you standing around for? Do you even live here?”

Go to any sketchy neighborhood in the city and you’ll see them – groups of young men, lurking on corners, in entryways, in hallways, on stairs. Certainly, I’m not saying they’re all criminals, but the groups seem to be the primordial soup out of which crime oozes. I’ve passed by my fair share of these groups in public housing, and I’ve learned – be polite, look confident, but most of all, stay the hell away.

Which is why I called the police. Because criminal goo ain’t happening on my block. Across the street, we have a lovely neighborhood park where children play all day during the summer months. It’s lovely now, but 10 years ago, it was Latin Kings territory, prime recruiting ground for young people looking for a place to belong. It’s safe now because of the hard work of police and residents in the area, and as long as I live here, I’ll do my part to keep it that way.

So I called the police and reported three young men of unknown race shooting dice in the alley. The community member in me wanted to be able to go down there myself or yell out the window, asking them politely to move. But I was a young woman alone in my apartment, and I wasn’t about to risk my safety. The police must have come and shooed them away. They came again later in the week, but the freak storm kept them from staying.

The hardest part for me was psychological. I’ve written endlessly about the need for decent housing in nice neighborhoods and the need for people like me to understand that the adjustment – from living in a public housing high rise or on the streets of Englewood – will take time and understanding. I don’t want to be a person who talks about “them,” like all Section 8 voucher holders are one class of people, determined to make my life a living hell. I want to be open, welcoming and encouraging. But I don’t want young men shooting dice and swearing in my alley while I’m making dinner.

I’m hoping there’s a way to do this well – to combat crime and create opportunities in my neighborhood without becoming a person who can’t see the bigger picture. Although if my car had been stolen or house broken into, I know it wouldn’t be so easy to be open-minded.

I’m still excited that there’s more diversity in our neighborhood. I wish “CHA welcome” would appear more places than just apartment signs. Before, this was just a situation I was writing about. Now, it’s one I’m living out. Ultimately, that’s the best thing that can happen to me.

It just might mean a few more calls to the 20th district about shooting dice.

** Technically, I don’t “know” that black families living on my block are Section 8 families. It’s just my educated guess, based on the fact that we live in one of the most segregated cities in the nation and people rarely cross those lines without a really good reason, which is one of the reasons we need Section 8 in the first place. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that all black families are poor or that only black families use Section 8 vouchers – again, these are generalizations that have limitations, but are based on trends.


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  1. collapse expand

    Excellent post. We’ve lived in almost exclusively white Tinley Park for about 3 years now. The town is adjacent to the south side and troubled communities like Country Club Hills, so the level of racial anxiety here is fairly high.
    A proposal to build senior housing, which succeeded, was met with horror by some residents who viewed it as a trojan horse. We regularly have to listen to the complaints of some residents who think the area will be swamped by south-side crime and disorder.

  2. collapse expand

    When idealism meets reality it is often an eye opener.

    Diversity in your neighborhood is only good if folks are participating in a positive way. It seems that your neighborhood may be off to a bit of a bad start.

    I hope “They” don’t bring to your neighborhood the bad habits that they cultivated in their prior hoods.

    Call the Police and often.

    • collapse expand

      I feel like mostly, it has been positive, or mainly, neutral. This is really the only negative thing that I’ve noticed so far. Perhaps that’s because it was under my window – I suppose you could take it either way.

      I am going to keep calling the police, like you suggested, and I’m also going to try to make it to my local CAPS meeting. I’ve been to a couple, and I think it can work if people are involved. But by “people” I need to mean myself :)

      Thanks for reading and for your comments.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I think it’s really sad that you don’t realize just how racist this post is.

    You have absolutely no proof that
    1. the black families are there because of Section 8
    2. the black families are even low income
    3. the black families have absolutely anything to do with the neighbourhood going downhill

    Any 1 of those assumptions is insanely racist, and the fact that you have all 3 in one post is mind-boggling. I love the way you wrap it up in a story about doing your civic duty to call the police when you see a crime being committed. What a good job! Pat on the back for you!

    And your little disclaimer at the end about not wanting to generalize does not erase the blatantly racist remarks in the rest of the story.

    I’m gonna follow this up with writing a post about all the racist white girls who have been moving into Lincoln Square in the last couple years. Now I don’t want to generalize and say that they can only afford to live in this neighbourhood because their rich daddies pay they rent. But it does make you wonder.

    • collapse expand

      I think it’s really sad that you don’t realize how wrong you are. Megan is anything but racist. I think that if you read what she wrote again slowly and carefully, you’ll see that that’s the case.

      I also think it’s sad that you feel you have to resort to personal attacks. Assuming that Megan lives where she lives because her “rich daddy” is paying for her apartment is totally uncalled for (and erroneous in this case). Ad hominem attacks, I’d like to remind you, are for when you have nothing substantive to say and just want to tear someone down.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    My god, I’m sorry, but I just caught a line in there again and had to come back.

    “based on the fact that we live in one of the most segregated cities in the nation and people rarely cross those lines without a really good reason”

    Because all black people are poor, and if you see a black person north of North Ave, it must be because they got government aid to cross one of those lines and move into a good neighbourhood.

    Jeez, you seriously make me sick.

    • collapse expand

      Well, as we’ve seen here, it’s easy to make judgments about people. Perhaps you’ve seen my white face and the fact that I’m a woman, and now think that my rich daddy pays for my apartment, when in reality, my dad is dead, and I pay for this apartment myself.

      I can totally see how you would think I’m racist here. I definitely am, as I think every single one of us are racist from living in a racist society. We can’t help but pick it up. You’re racist, I’m racist. That’s our disease. This is me trying to work through it.

      Nope, I don’t know that they’re low income, and I certainly, certainly don’t assume all black families are low income. But I know my city, and I know the racial divide we experience here. I also know about patterns of continued racial segregation – that, even though it’s not legally enforced, we all reinforce it through our choices. We move to neighborhoods where we blend in – that’s what people do. When people break those patterns, it’s usually for a good reason. You’re right – it may be that these families were just looking for a different neighborhood and I’m totally wrong. For the record, and I said this in the piece, either way, I’m happy they’re here. I want black families, Hispanic families, asian families, white families, Native American families in my neighborhood. That’s important to me, and I think it makes the best kind of neighborhood when people live together. Also, I don’t think my neighborhood is going downhill. Not by a long shot.

      Also, just so you know, the title of the piece – When ‘They” move into your neighborhood – the “They” is me being facetious. That’s just what I always hear people say – “they” – and it struck me as funny that I was in the situation. Well, not ha-ha funny, but you know.

      I’ve struggled with the generalization you’re describing for a long time. For example, I spend a lot of time going into public housing buildings, and sometimes I feel nervous there. I used to ask my editor about this, a guy who later became like a father to me. I asked him if I was only nervous because I had been led to believe that all black men were dangerous. He said, “Megan, I appreciate your racial sensitivity and all. I’m glad you care. But I’m black, and I know that many of the people in public housing are f’ed up, and until you know people are okay, you give them a wide berth.”

      At the time, I just did what David said, because he was my boss. Still, I struggle with it. I want to be a person who doesn’t assume and interacts. But also, when I’m a woman alone, my instinct is to distance myself.

      Anyway, I’m not going to try to change your judgment of me. I think if you knew me, you wouldn’t think I was racist, but then again, everyone thinks that of themselves.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        interesting article. i def see where someone could take you writings and think parts of it are racist, as they do appear to be. but i understand as well, to a certain point.

        see i am a black man and i have some of these same feelings about people in my own race. upon further reflection i have concluded that i’m not racist, but i am culturally biased as hell. and i think that argument often times gets lost in this debate.

        i imagine it would be interesting, perhaps scary, if 50 cent moved in next door to you. you all come from worlds apart. society has taught you to fear him. but is it because he’s black or a thug.

        say the obamas move in next door. opposite end of the spectrum. well educated, well spoken, polite. you may not agree with their politics but odds are you wont mind them being your neighbor.

        i can tell you from experience the obamas dont want someone like 50 cent living next door to them either. and i bet you dont want someone like kevin federline living next door to you.

        this is probably more of a cultural bias than a racial one. race is just the easiest most obvious target, but if you look deeper there’s probably more to it.

        or, we’re all racists ;)

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    lady you seem a little uptight why didnt you grab a 6 pack and go down and meet the new neighbours.seem like the sort of people who it could be very important to know in the future

  6. collapse expand

    Thank you for your great post. I feel like it is sort of how I felt a few years ago when I (white) moved to a new city, and a black neighborhood in that city. There were moments of unease at first, but now, I am savy enough to spot the real trouble, which I have only seen once in three years, and chalk the rest up to normalcy, even if in some cases it is a different normalcy than I am used to.

    You make no mention in your article if you were able to look outside and see the guys. You also do not mention the relative age of the guys, as this matters a great deal. You also seem hung up on the fact that they are guys.

    When guys are together, they cuss. My friends are college educated, and when we go out as the guys, we cuss. You did mention the fact that the one guy was on the phone with his mother. It is entirely possible that mom turned off the xbox and told them to go outside. In some circles, dice is a way to pass time.

    I mentioned that I hoped you got a look at them. This is because, in most instances, the police are the absolute worst remedy. Even if a cop is just telling you to move along, it can be upsetting in your own neighborhood. Certaintly, depending on the reasonableness of the officer dispatched, it could be much worse. If you got a good look at the guys, you could recognise them again if you see them on the street (not just in your alley) and say hello or engage them in a brief conversation and get a little more of a feeling for what you are dealing with.

    A reasonable, respectful neighbor asking for something to happen or not happen wins way more cooperation than edicts from community meetings and run ins with the police.

    This is not to say that you acted unreasonably in any way, because only you were truly able to assess the situation you were confronted with, and it seems like you are very open and introspective about it. It is only to say that I hope a mother/wife/girlfriend temporarily banished the guys from the apartment, and they were merely killing time, and not that they were looking for trouble.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Craig – Thanks very much for your comment.

      I totally agree with you here. I know that cops can be the worst solution, sometimes, especially depending on the cop. And you’re right – even being told to move along makes it seem like they don’t belong here.

      The guys were young, but not teenagers in my opinion. I only got a glance of the three of them – they were sitting directly below me so it made it impossible to see, something which the officer I talked to also was annoyed by.

      Here’s my beef, though. I know people who have asked nicely, and all it’s earned them is a reputation for being a hard ass and retaliation for that. I’ve talked to people in this situation before, and the outcome for community building was not always happy.

      But that’s definitely what I want to do. And as far as being hung up on the fact that they are guys – yes, I am. I can’t speak for every woman, but most women I know – any race, any age – get a certain feeling when they walk past or near a group of guys/men. There’s an uncertainty there and a fear – maybe not founded, but there nonetheless. We all try to push past our fears and stereotypes, but it doesn’t always work.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    I’ve never lived in the city, but were these men really dangerous?

    You live in a low-crime area. Three men are standing around, cursing and shooting dice. Not shooting heroin; shooting dice. And yet you feel that talking to them – even calling from a window – would jeopardize your personal safety? I don’t really get it.

    Maybe men like this stand around because they don’t know how else to interact with community, and thus the community becomes suspicious of them, and thus interaction becomes even harder, and it’s a vicious cycle that leads to isolation and, eventually, criminal activity.

    If gangs recruit from “young people looking for a place to belong”, mightn’t it help to be more welcoming to young people, rather than calling the cops on them simply for shooting dice? Could it be that our suspicion indirectly leads to gang membership?

    Think about it. The simple, nonviolent act of *standing around* draws suspicion.

    I’m sure some of the standing-around people are just ordinary people, yet apparently all the people who stand around are treated with suspicion. When we start treating ordinary people like criminals, we indirectly encourage them to *become* criminals. Right?

    • collapse expand

      I totally, completely agree with you. In fact, I stood there thinking the same thing. I thought about calling from my window, and I thought about going down there.

      And your comments about treating ordinary people like criminals has definitely made me think. I may do something different next time.

      What I was writing about was this scenario that I have written about hundreds of times. And I’ve always been on your side when I wrote about it. But when you’re in the situation, when you’re a small woman alone, it is definitely difficult to make yourself known and confront someone. Even nicely.

      But, your thoughtful words have made me think, and I may choose differently next time.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    When you’re unemployed without much hope of getting employed, you stand around and shoot dice, or marbles, or jack-knives, and talk “shit.”

  9. collapse expand

    Oddly enough, I just posted about a similar topic on my block in Woodlawn.

    http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/i-hate-my-developer/2010/06/judgment-day.html

    http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/i-hate-my-developer/2010/06/judgment-day-the-case-of-the-missing-numbers.html

    At least other parts of the city—and when I say other parts of the city, I mean the north side—get to see what the south and west sides have had to go through for years. It can take as little as one bad building to ruin a whole block. I’m interested in seeing how this develops in Logan Square. Keep us posted.

  10. collapse expand

    Actions speak louder than words. The community member inside of you sounds like a very nice person, but the path you took with the information you had, in my opinion, was both racist and sexist.

    I’m sure you had good reasons for doing what you did, most notably your perceived vulnerability. A member of a community usually has neighbors they can turn to for help, which may help ease your mind in the future.

    However, if you truly are trying to work through the racism disease you picked up from a racist society, I hope you choose a different course of action in the future. Yes, there will be risks and there may be negative consequences. But, the negative consequence of your chosen course of action is a perpetuation of both the racism disease and the racist society.

  11. collapse expand

    I think we all need a reminder that everyone’s a little bit racist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc5ztwJvfUA

  12. collapse expand

    I am not sure what to make of this. While I appreciate your work on the final days of public housing, I was troubled by this piece. It is a very depressing statement about the community you live in. While I have appreciated your work on One Story Up, this piece is uncharacteristically conflicted and defensive. While I’m really sympathetic to your response to the situation. I’ve done it a few times myself when I thought the situation called for it. But, in general, I don’t think it is a very creative or effective way to deal with this kind of a situation.

    I don’t know if those guys were criminals or not. But at worst, cursing under your window on the phone and shooting dice is a nuisance. While you call them criminal goo, what I hear in your story is just some regular, idiotic human beings who don’t know any better than to gamble in your alley and need something to do.

    What threat did they pose, exactly? Were they getting heated? Did you hear them talking about having guns, or being violent? Were they threatening you or anybody else? I mean that seriously: It makes a huge difference.

    It bothers me quite a bit that you didn’t wait to watch the police response. You know that by calling the police you are rolling the dice. Maybe those guys get sent away, or maybe they get their asses beat. It seems irresponsible, as a citizen and even more as a journalist, to call the police and then tune out of the situation, trusting that the cops will be professional. At least 95% of the time, they will be professional. But you called, and you need to see the situation through and make sure the response is commensurate with the “crime”.

    If the neighborhood is “safe now because of the hard work of police and residents in the area”, then you need to do your part in that hard work. Calling the cops the first moment you see something distasteful ain’t hard work. Does your downright mean friend from public housing call the cops, or does she approach the people who are bothering her?

    Here’s what I would do:

    Wait at *least* half an hour (given that nobody has hurt each other or doing anything major wrong, I can’t imagine your dinner-making was *that* disrupted). Then I’d make sure a neighbor has my back, pretend I am their mother in the dark recesses of my imagination, and go and have an honest conversation with the dudes:

    “Look, you fellas in this alley makes a couple of the neighbors real nervous. I used to work in public housing on police brutality shit — I’m worried about your plight, but a couple other motherfuckers in this building most certainly aren’t. I don’t have a problem with y’all hanging out, as long as you are peaceful. But I also don’t think it’s wise to linger here, unless you want five-oh in your ass. There’s other places in this neighborhood where you aren’t gonna draw so much interest. I’m Dave — you fellas need anything?”

    Are they cruising for trouble, deep in their heart of hearts? 95% of the time, probably not. Are they bored, depressed, and frustrated? Very likely. In my experience, as long as you can convey that you recognize that, but also convey they still need to respect their neighbors and move along, then most of the time, “they” will. And maybe you’ll know their names the next time you see them.

    And what about the 5% of the time they DO turn out to be genuinely bad people? Hypothetically, it is your choice to live in this city. And living in the city means people are going to pee on your lawn and have loud conversations in your alley, and sometimes, you are going to see some tough shit. Many (perhaps most) of our fellow citizens have experienced worse. It should be humbling that this is an anomaly for you, unlike for so many other honest citizens, far more often.

    This story points to the fear and confusion white people feel about brown people (and vice versa), and the lack of a communal street culture in your neighborhood that could address these situations without having to turn to state power. You are “excited” your neighborhood is diversifying, but you reflexively call the cops to thwart a crime that has yet to be committed by the brown guys in your alley. By calling the cops, you confirm “their” worst fears about the neighborhood, and in turn, they confirm yours.

    I know it is scary to confront these situations. I’m deeply sympathetic to the gender dynamics in play. But we all need to have some courage: Before calling the cops, get the support of your neighbors, speak to them respectfully, and find what what they’re all about. If they’re on some bullshit, call the cops right away. If they’re not, you now have new friends and allies.

    • collapse expand

      Hey there -

      I just want to say that I really appreciate your thoughtful response. I’m not going to respond to everything you’ve written here because if I did, it would be a whole new blog post of it’s own.

      One, I didn’t “not wait” to find out what happened with the cops. I called, went into my bedroom to fold some laundry, and when I came out about 15 minutes later, they were gone. I didn’t hear anything happen at all. Perhaps I should have sat by the window and listened. Also, by the time I called the cops, the guys had been sitting there talking and shooting dice for about an hour.

      Two, shooting dice is a crime. In fact, there’s research that shows gambling and violence are really closely related. Cops ask community members to call about gambling because, like marajuana being a gateway drug, it’s a gateway crime.

      Three, I didn’t call the cops for an hour because I was sitting there thinking about what I should do. I wrote this post because I am still thinking about what did do/should have done. I think I should be allowed to process that and be a part of my own community in the ways that I choose.

      Four, I wonder if you would tell your sister, mother, wife or significant other to go down to the alley alone to confront three men. Would you? If so, that’s fine, but I just wonder.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  13. collapse expand

    Great article. I can say that growing up in inner Philadelphia, I know exactly the type of guys that are mentioned in this article.

    They’re almost always unemployed, which is the root of the problem. People without gainful occupation, of any kind, be it paid or otherwise, will flock together with like minded individuals and waste time.

    The Section-8 connection is there as well, not that you should assume that black or hispanic families who move into mid-upper class areas are Sec-8, but it happens. When it does, no matter how hard the parents of those families work, I’ve found more often than not that the teens/20-somethings bring their friends from the old neighborhood with them.

    It’s a problem in society in general where the influx of one group causes the exit of another through these small pockets of undesirable activity, making a really diverse neighborhood work harder to achieve.

  14. collapse expand

    Why is it illegal to hang out in an alleyway?

  15. collapse expand

    This is the kind of story we need to revive journalism…personal experience, emotional pulls, objectivity, and straight facts.

    I enjoyed reading this piece. I’m from a a white, upper class town outside of NYC. It’s as homogeneous as it gets around here. I do enjoy your Chicago perspective on this issue though, since the racial tensions seem to be excessively higher than in NYC.

  16. collapse expand

    I love all the brave guys advising Megan to just go down and nicely ask three men she doesn’t know to stop cursing and shooting dice in the alley. I have a suggestion: why don’t you go ask them? I guess it’s easier to show how liberal and not racist you are by advising Megan to take a calculated risk and do it herself.

    Megan, listen to your gut, or your boss before you listen to these folks. The former care about you; it’s pretty obvious the latter care only for polishing their tolerance creds.

  17. collapse expand

    I think it’s really sad that birdseed cares more about whether Megan is “racist” than whether she feels and is safe. Gotta keep our priorities straight!

  18. collapse expand

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  19. collapse expand

    I remember when I worried that fearing for my safety made me a racist. It seems such a luxury now.

    As a resident and community activist in Uptown for the past 15 years, that dice game is a bad portent — not because they were black, but because they were doing something that can turn violent. It’s not just a way to pass a the time. Here are just a few of the times this turned ugly.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=chicago+woman+shot+at+dice+game&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

    Two weeks ago, a dice game two doors down from me drew gunfire. Luckily the two little girls playing in another part of the yard didn’t get hit, and the bullets missed my neighbor sitting on her porch. The race of everyone is irrelevant.

    Megan is/was in no position to take matters into her own hands. Calling the police is the right thing to do.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

    Follow me on twitter @mmcottrell.

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