Stand in the place where you live

High-profile crime on the North Side inspires citizens to take positive loitering to the streets.

Photograph: Brad BretzCORNERING THE MARKET Positive loiterers in Uptown keep watch over their ’hood.

At 11pm on a recent Friday night in Uptown, about 100 people, including state Sen. Heather Steans and her husband, literally took a stand against crime on several street corners along Sheridan Road between Wilson and Lawrence Avenues. Chatty residents held up signs that read WE LIVE HERE. WE CALL THE POLICE. And that’s exactly what they did. One group dialed 911 to report some squatters who’d entered an abandoned building on Leland Avenue. Another called to complain of a man drinking alcohol on the sidewalk.

On everyone’s mind was the video of a large gang spat on Sheridan at Leland that, in mid-August, went viral on YouTube. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Richard Thale, who helped organize the ’hood’s positive-loitering events as a beat facilitator in the 23rd District’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) group. “As a positive loiterer, you’re the eyes and ears of the police department,” Thale says. “Spend an hour out there and you’ll notice things: people hanging out on a corner for a long time and cars keep pulling up to talk to them—it’s probably narcotics.”

In Boystown, positive-loitering events along Halsted Street and surrounding alleys began in response to recent muggings in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. But last week at a jam-packed CAPS meeting (it moved from Nookies restaurant to the adjacent Sherwin-Williams parking lot due to high attendance), a group of mostly white residents also expressed interest in using positive loitering to combat traditional loitering. Several speakers indicated an ostensible trouble spot: the Center on Halsted, the two-year-old LGBT community center, which has become a meeting place for mostly nonwhite teens seeking an accepting environment. But when the Center closes at 10pm, residents say the teens—too young to patronize Halsted’s bars and clubs—loudly linger on corners and stoops. “They’re out there in droves, 20 or 30 people, making noise,” says Stu Zirin, who owns Minibar, located in the heart of Halsted’s gay nightlife district. “If you’re not clients of the stores and bars, you shouldn’t be here.”

Along with 23rd District police commander Kathleen Boehmer, Zirin, who helped organize Boystown’s three positive-loitering events thus far, sings the strategy’s praises. “When we’re here, people sitting there get up and leave. We’re saying, ‘We’re in your face. We’re in your space. You don’t belong there. You have no right to be here.’”

The tone is far less confrontational at Edgewater’s weekly positive-loitering event along Thorndale Avenue, Neighborhood Nights, which draws a diverse crowd and takes the form of a neighborhood festival: chess, checkers, hot-dog grilling, face painting and—the week we visited—a magician and juggler. A year ago, Edgewater used the same approach as Uptown and Lakeview. “People would just gather on the sidewalk with their cell phones out and try to report what they saw,” says Dan Kleinman, housing director of the Edgewater Community Council, which sponsors Neighborhood Nights.

But when Kleinman was hired eight months ago, he took a different tack. “Instead of trying to deter negative activity through fear and pressure, we’re trying to do it simply by filling that space with positive activity. It’s a more community-creating than community-dividing approach,” Kleinman says. “People often say, ‘We need to do this for the community.’ That begs the question, ‘Who is the community?’ The answer we’re trying to give is that we’re all the community.”

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