One evening in early October, Dennis Otis was standing in his former neighbor’s backyard when a squad car pulled up, and a police officer started asking questions.
Otis said the officer told him he had no business being in the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, a small enclave of public housing on Chicago’s Near North Side. Before he knew it, the 51-year-old was arrested, booked and on his way to the Cook County Jail.
Since 2010, officers have logged 440 trespassing stops like this in the police beat that’s drawn around the rowhouses, some vacant land and mixed-income townhomes built in the footprint of former Cabrini mid-rises, The Chicago Reporter found. Nearly all of the stops have led to arrests. The beat’s number is the second highest among all police beats across the city, shows the Reporter analysis of Chicago Police Department data.
A recent Reporter investigation found that a similar arrest pattern is found in many minority communities across the city: Police make stops to get people off the streets in an attempt to deter more violent crimes, but most are for low-level offenses that are ultimately dropped.
The police department declined to comment on the arrests.
Trespassing arrests around Cabrini have become so common that, if you walk up and down the block, just about everyone in the rowhouses has a story to share.
There’s Monique Cooper, a single mother who lives in a mixed-income development around the corner. She was so mad about having to retrieve her daughter from the police station that she recently started circulating a petition to protest the arrests. “These are kids hanging out in their own neighborhood,” she said.
And then there’s Jerome Taylor, a 56-year-old who grew up in Cabrini. He’s been charged with trespassing four times since 2010. On each occasion, he had been back in the neighborhood to visit his girlfriend. “Arresting people for sitting out on a porch having a drink?” he said. “I call it Jim Crow law.”
Standing in the rowhouses, it feels like they’re being swallowed up by the high-end real estate around them. They are the only part of the old Cabrini-Green community that hasn’t been knocked down.
In Cabrini’s heyday, roughly 13,000 people lived within roughly five square blocks. Today, 150 occupied rowhomes are all that’s left of traditional public housing on the Near North Side. And that’s made them a destination for former residents.
“It’s like everybody who used to live in Cabrini-Green goes over to hang out in the rowhouses,” said 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, who grew up in one of them himself.
Burnett said he has “mixed emotions” about the arrests. “I think it’s wrong for [police] to just pick everybody up,” he said. “But, if they’re out there drinking, I’m against that.”
The increasingly affluent neighbors who now surround the island of public housing aren’t thrilled about the guests, Burnett said. And it hasn’t exactly helped his bid to preserve what public housing is left on the city’s Near North Side. “I’m trying to keep all of the homeowners over there from complaining,” Burnett added.
Ultimately, the arrests haven’t done much to stop people, like Otis, from coming back to the only place that’s ever really felt like home.
Otis grew up in the rowhouses. Most days, he makes his way back to his old neighborhood to visit his girlfriend, his uncle, his sister, or to earn some money washing cars and running errands.
It was no different when he was released from the Cook County Jail in late October after serving out a 10-day sentence for trespassing. It didn’t take him long to make his way back.
“I’ve lived here since 1965,” he said. “I always come back here. I don’t know what it is.”