Thursday, February 21, 2008

Block Club

So what do you do when 2008 starts with a triple-homicide a block away? If you're me, and you don't sleep much anyway, and you're trying to find that sense of purpose your job routinely denies you, and you're a borderline masochist, you apparently start a block club.

So far I'd say this experience has been about equal parts satisfaction and frustration. Our inaugural meeting was standing-room-only: 26 people from all walks of life crammed into far too small a room, discussing our biggest concerns, worst fears, and lofty hopes for collaborative improvement. Rats, gangs, graffiti, speeding traffic, vandalism, cracked sidewalks, block parties, after-school activities, affordable housing, neighborhood clean-ups, and the lack of organic milk at our local grocery store--we ran the gamut.

The second meeting was quite a bit smaller. At the request of the group, I'd invited three speakers (one a detective for the CPD and two others from the local Ceasefire gang prevention program). It was a strange little meeting. The Ceasefire folks were inspirational, explaining how their organization was founded by an epidemiologist. They approach the gang problem as if it's an epidemic, working to contain the spread of violence and inoculate from within. They hire ex-gang members as outreach workers, do extensive background checks, and have their people working the streets from about midnight to 4am. The express intention is to make connections with current gang members, doing what they can to encourage breaks from the shooting. The workers provide resources, training, and support for affiliates who want to escape the culture once and for all. While Ceasefire partners with police, they recommend police involvement only as a last resort. As the executive director suggested, "Next time you see someone loitering on the sidewalk, why not bring them a cup of coffee instead of dialing 911?" Sometimes the simplest connection is the most profound and effective.

The detective fell somewhere counterclockwise to Ceasefire. Nobody could ever say she hasn't paid her dues--grew up in one of the worst housing projects in Chicago's history before joining the force. She's been doing detective work, primarily on the south side, for at least thirty years, and she's seen things that would surely keep the rest of us awake at night. But she relied more on platitudes and dramatic gestures than on concrete, achievable strategies. She brought along a full bag of props and proceeded to show us how gang members hide drugs in belt buckles, doll diapers, and wigs. But when someone asked if it might be useful for us as a group to spend more time outside this summer, as a way to reclaim and occupy our community, she simply didn't understand the question. Instead she suggested running our sprinklers over people and cars we didn't want near our houses. At one point, with a flourish of her hand, she said, "You say you want to know what's going on. Well you can't know what's going on, because we don't know what's going on." Didn't exactly inspire confidence in the police. Still, as John likes to say, whatever her quirks, she comes by them honestly.

The irony of a group of mostly white folks--who only skeletally understand gang culture and its attendant symbols--coming together to strategize how to reduce crime in our neighborhood, wasn't lost on any of us. But we persevere, buoyed by just getting to know each other, or learning there are folks behind the scenes working on everyone's behalf, including those kids who might rather just be playing basketball--if only there was a godforsaken hoop nearby.


tracy said...

Wow, this really has become a neighborhood watch. The body language experts would have an easy time with the poses in that audience.

leslie said...

I know our neighborhood doesn't compare, but my neighbor Stacy—a saint—would fit into your meeting last night. Two boys across the street (ages 15 and 17) have been in lots of trouble with the police, and she's befriended them to the point that they walk freely into her house as if they live there. The first time it happened, she was startled, but as calm as could be started assigning them chores. Now they regularly help clean, mow, and cook. It's amazing how good it's been for them, though it does make me nervous for her safety. She insists she's fine; I just have to take her word for it and admire her taking one for the neighborhood team.