For most, the stories of drug trafficking are documented in 30- and 60-second stories on the evening news. But for others, like Allie Pack, the drama unfolds 24 hours a day in front of her Humboldt Park home.
Pack can see it all from her front window: cars driving through the neighborhood, stopping briefly so the drivers can talk with young men walking in the street or stationed on the corners. Sometimes they gather just outside the chain-link fence in front of her home. Pack, 72, said she prays for strength before walking onto the porch to confront them.
“You have to be kind of fearful of them,” she said. But Pack is polite. She asks them to take their business elsewhere or invites them inside to study the Bible. “I say, –˜Hey baby, don’t do that, selling in front of my door. Ya’ll know that’s not nice.’ And they’ll leave. They all know Ms. Pack.”
Pack sat in the back room of her home and ironed pants for her two youngest boys, ages 14 and 12. She’s raising the two–”her late friend’s grandchildren–”because their mother, lost in the drug world, is now in jail for prostitution.
The young men congregating on the corners, the slow-moving cars and the people passing money for foil packets are familiar signs of drug trafficking that Pack and other African Americans live within the West Side’s 60624 ZIP code. The area is framed by Roosevelt Road and Kedzie, Chicago and Kenton avenues, and includes the West Garfield Park community area and portions of East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park.
The realities of the open drug market are perhaps harsher there than anywhere else in Chicago, according to data from the Chicago Police Department, the Illinois Department of Corrections, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Illinois Department of Employment Security and Claritas Inc., a San Diego-based market research firm.
The 60624 ZIP code makes up most of Chicago’s 11th Police District, which ranked first in the city for drug arrests in 2000 and 2001. More than 4,000 ex-drug offenders were paroled to the area between 1995 and 2001, the most of any ZIP code in the city. Estimates show the area had the fourth-highest percentage of households headed by single women with children, the third-highest unemployment rate and the third-lowest per capita income. The area is nearly 99 percent black.
The Chicago Reporter spent a week on area streets, talking with about 50 people who live, work or visit there. They described how all of their lives were touched by drug trafficking.
In many ways, life there resembles any city neighborhood. There were people picking up children from school, carrying groceries, working on their homes, planting flowers and gathering for cookouts. Children were out playing basketball.
But the poverty and drugs are just as evident. Nearly every block showed signs of the devastation: vacant lots trashed with debris and empty liquor bottles, boarded homes with bright orange demolition orders pasted to the front door, and meandering young men. Residents sometimes hear dealers’ calls of “rocks” and “blow,” and see helpless souls wandering the streets with disheveled clothes, drooping eyes and unkempt hair.
Some of the people the Reporter spoke with said they had been personally involved with the drug trade. Others were friends or neighbors of drug dealers and addicts. Many would not give their names for fear of retaliation. Still others had seen people they knew end up imprisoned or dead for their drug involvement.
Pack and her husband moved to her modest brown, aluminum-sided home in 1968. They raised seven children in the house, where a wooden sign inscribed with the words “The Packs” hangs just right of the front door.
The dealers don’t give her any trouble, Pack said. Many of them are neighborhood kids; Pack might not know them by name, but she knows their faces or their parents. She said many of the boys get arrested, disappear for a while and then return sometime later to their crowd–”and corner.
Nearly half of the black male ex-drug offenders from Cook County who were released from prison in 1998 returned there within three years, the highest recidivism rate of all race and gender categories. And about 64 percent of the black men who went back to prison were going because they’d committed more drug offenses. For black women who returned, more than 80 percent of them had committed more drug offenses.
Pack peered over her glasses and leaned forward. She said she doesn’t know how many she has seen come and go back. “Too many to count,” she said.
“It’s very apparent that there’s a very big drug trade going on in our community,” said Leon Hudnall, principal of Rezin Orr Community Academy High School, 730 N. Pulaski Road. “And, of course, it affects the community adversely–”specifically, our students, because most of them are the ones involved in it.”
Hudnall, 48, grew up in the neighborhood and went to school at nearby George Westinghouse Career Academy. He said he has known students as young as second or third grade serve as runners or couriers for drug dealers. Hudnall discovered that many of their parents knew.
“I’d get the response–”–˜Well, you know the little money he gets helps me at home’–”and that just floors me,” said Hudnall.
Even the school’s best and brightest fall victim to the lure of drug dealing. Hudnall remembered one senior, in particular, who earned straight As and had never been in trouble before. Suddenly, the student vanished, missing several days of school.
When the student reappeared, Hudnall learned the student’s parents had thrown him out because he had lost his part-time job.
“Now he has no job and nowhere to live. So what does he resort to? Turning to his buddies, and he begins to sell drugs,” Hudnall said. “School’s not interesting anymore because now he’s making $150 to $200 a day, and that looks good to him.”
The student asked Hudnall to try to understand what he was going through. Then he returned to school a few weeks later and said he’d found a new job, stopped dealing drugs and turned his focus toward graduating this year and going to college.
With so many out of work, drug dealing has its lure in the 60624 ZIP code. The area’s unemployment rate was estimated to be 18.6 percent in 2001–”the third highest in any Chicago ZIP code, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Securities. The citywide rate was 6.9 percent.
“Most people that do stuff like that don’t do it as a choice,” said Darryal Temple, who grew up in the neighborhood and came back from his home in Rogers Park to visit and get a hair cut. At Head Hunters barber shop, 3855 W. Madison St., Temple leaned from a barber’s chair back into a sink. “They feel there’s no way out. –¦ Some people just see it as a way of life.”
On the other hand, “most kids get excited by the lifestyle. Take the average teenager, he don’t see no athletes around here,” said Temple. “He sees the dope man. Riding good. Looking good. That’s his role model.”
Even Temple, 36, did not completely escape. Temple said he sold drugs to a large student clientele at several Chicago-area colleges. His family paid for him to attend DePaul University, but “the drug money stayed in my pocket. My drug sales were quantity, to folks in suburbia. I was 19, 20 years old. I just got excited by the lifestyle.”
Many people the Reporter talked to described that lifestyle as one in which young men drive expensive sports utility vehicles decked with gold wheel rims and powerful speakers, wear glittering gold or platinum jewelry, and capture the attention of young women.
“This is an oppressed neighborhood,” Temple said. “The people don’t have any dreams of being doctors, lawyers, and especially the young males don’t think they’ll live that long. Their whole thinking is, –˜Let me get what I can get before it’s my time to go.'”
Renee Bennie, 46, was fishing at the edge of a pond in Garfield Park on a peaceful April afternoon. He had just reeled in a large mouth bass, and showed off his catch to four curious young boys walking by.
Bennie, who lives in the East Garfield Park community, said he was once tempted by the bankrolls friends carried. With no other opportunities to make that kind of cash, Bennie said he started dealing drugs in 1990. He did it for three years.
“My partner gave me enough to get started, then I was just like him: the devil,” said Bennie.
But Bennie said the lifestyle clashed with his upbringing, which included years of playing bass guitar in church. He also grew tired of hustling day and night while constantly looking over his shoulder for rival dealers and the police. He said he quit soon after his “chief,” or supervisor, died of natural causes.
Bennie said the next three years were pretty lean. He supported himself primarily through welfare assistance until he got a call from a friend. A Chicago-based jazz musician was looking for a bass guitarist to go on a 31-day European tour, he said. Bennie, who had played the guitar since he was 9, jumped at the chance. Today, he is a professional musician.
He said he has never regretted his decision to give up the drug dealer’s fast life. “There are only two things you get out of that: death or jail,” he said. “And I don’t want either.”
Shawn and Meechic Freeman and a friend, Marlin Benson, shared Bennie’s view that dead ends await drug dealers. The teens were gathered on the Garfield Park Field House terrace waiting to submit applications for summer jobs with the Chicago Park District.
Shawn Freeman, a 17-year-old senior at Austin Community Academy High School, said the dealers often offer to sell him marijuana. “I just tell them –˜no’ and keep going,” he said.
The three boys, who live in the nearby Austin community, said they’ve always preferred to earn money with $8- to $9-an-hour summer jobs. “I’d rather do it this way than selling drugs and getting locked up or killed,” said Freeman, who added that he must be a positive example for his younger brother Meechic, 15, and their cousins.
Besides, Meechic added, drug dealing is a stereotype they don’t want to feed. People “think that, because we’re young brothers, that we’re all doing the same things and can’t do any better.”
Jeremy Thompson, who attends Prosser Career Academy in Belmont-Cragin, also waited to apply for a job. He was hoping to work as a lifeguard. Thompson said he often visits a cousin in the area and sees the drug dealers “every day, all day.”
Like most young men, Thompson said he likes to have some money in his pocket and girls on his mind. But he doesn’t need drug dealing to help him out. “Last summer, I made $4,000,” he said. And “girls like lifeguards, too.”
Those who go to jail for drug dealing are eventually released, and, since 1995, the 60624 ZIP code area has been home to more ex-drug offenders than any other area in Chicago.
A total of 4,065 ex-drug offenders were paroled to the area between 1995 and 2001–”an average of one of every 11 residents, according to census figures.
In a large, red brick building at Kedzie Avenue and Arthington Street is the Crossroads Adult Transitional Center, a residential facility run by the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps offenders and ex-offenders find jobs and other services. Its nearly 350 residents are prisoners serving the last six to 24 months of their sentences. While there, many get a high school equivalency diploma, job training and substance abuse counseling. Most find jobs.
The Reporter talked with five Crossroads residents, four of whom had been imprisoned for drug offenses. The center’s state contract prohibits residents from being publicly identified.
“Didn’t nobody force me to sell drugs. It was something I wanted to do for the excitement: packing pistols and gangbanging and treating these women how I wanted to,” said a 25-year-old the Reporter called Mac, who was completing a six-year sentence for charges including the manufacture and/or delivery of cocaine.
Before prison, Mac said, he was a hustler who gave up a career as a barber to sell drugs. He got caught in 1999 and will be paroled in June, according to corrections records.
Mac said he plans to make an honest living and to help keep others from making the same mistakes. While at Crossroads, he earned his General Equivalency Diploma and landed a job.
“I’m making $5.15 an hour at Popeye’s. Now that’s humility –¦ after making the kind of money I was making,” Mac said. But he’s proud of what he has accomplished. He said copies of his GED certificate and his first paycheck hang on his wall at home.
He said his old running buddies would now call him a “square” and a “lame.”
“That’s cool that I’m a lame, because all my guys who are lames, they’ve never been to the penitentiary, never got arrested, and they’re driving the same cars that the drug dealers are driving: trucks and Jags,” he said. “So it feels good to be a lame.”
As part of a Crossroads program dubbed “Keeping It Real,” he and other Crossroads residents have frank discussions with boys and girls, telling them about the harsh realities of criminal life, prison and their struggles “out in the world.”
Chinyera Moody, who heads United Believers, a tutoring and mentoring program for teens at the North Lawndale YMCA, 3449 W. Arthington St., decided to have her teens talk to the men. She had heard a young woman joke about wanting to deal drugs, and others say they understand why people sell drugs to support their families.
“We all know someone in that situation,” she said.
The teens tried to act tough when they walked through the doors at Crossroads. But Moody said they grew wide-eyed as they realized the residents are free to move about the facility. The young people were led to a conference room where, Moody said, a “staring match” ensued during a few moments of silence, with the students on one side of the room and the residents on the other.
One by one, the residents introduced themselves and shared their wrong turns and lowest points, Moody said. One man said he was once so high, he shot his brother. Another man said his girlfriend was sent to prison for helping him, and now their child is a ward of the state. Another resident said his daughter was just a small child when he was locked up, and now she’s getting ready for her prom.
Moody recalled how the talk was particularly relevant for two of her teens. Several of the teens warned one girl to stay away from her boyfriend, whom they feared was dealing drugs. A boy in the group discussed how he could relate with the residents because he was unable to talk with his imprisoned father.
“They thought they got something out of it. They felt it was worthwhile,” Moody said. “Hopefully it kept something in their minds about making decisions.”
The Rev. Margaret Jamal heads the youth program at the Fillmore Christian House of Prayer Church, 2918 W. Fillmore St. Her kids also talked with Crossroads residents. She said many of the children could relate because they had family members living the same stories.
“There’s a story behind every window, in every home,” she said. “This is like a whole community of people who are depressed. Then they see that the people who are the happiest are the drug dealers.”
But Jamal wants the children to see how drug dealers destroy lives and hurt their community, “to make them look as the losers they are instead of smart people who just got caught,” she said. “We’re being brainwashed to believe that that’s the way to do it as long as you don’t get caught.”
Trivell Coleman, a barber at Head Hunters, grew up in the neighborhood and bought a home a few blocks from the barbershop. Gesturing with a comb, Coleman, the father of two girls, explained that he combats the drug trade by parenting.
“My kids don’t come outside unless I’m sitting outside with them,” he said. “I take a greater responsibility.”
But the community “needs a couple of more black owners like this man,” Coleman said, pointing to the shop’s owner, Jay Jackson, who sat in a chair nearby.
“If they gave away loans to us to open businesses, then [the neighborhood] could sustain itself,” Coleman said. “If you ain’t going to give me no loan, I got to go out there and do what I’ve got to do to give me my business. And [drugs are] the only outlet in this community right now.”
Jackson, 33, grew up in Oak Park, but most of his family lives near his barbershop. After working as a barber and saving his money for 10 years, Jackson opened Head Hunters and later bought a house in neighboring East Garfield Park.
Still, Bill Howard said that gun battles over drug corners are the only expressions of community ownership he has seen in the area. Howard, director of the West Humboldt Housing Development Council, said he once watched a shootout in front of his office at Chicago and Central Park avenues.
“Two cars were side by side, and they were shooting into each other,” he said.
Years ago it was different, he said. Property owners would have confronted drug dealers, but today many are much older and afraid.
As he watched a gaggle of geese near a pond in Garfield Park, 60-year-old Bennie Taylor said three of every four people he knows have been involved in the drug trade.
Taylor’s daughter lost custody of her children for years while she abused drugs, and his son-in-law is in prison for selling drugs.
When Taylor let his brother stay with him for several months, he said, “I was actually living in a crack house.” Taylor said his brother and many of his brother’s friends often held drug parties there. Finally, he asked his brother to leave. His brother’s body withered away from decades of drug abuse before he finally died, Taylor said.
Taylor thanks God he has never become weak enough to fall into the same trap, because “it’s all around me.”
Contributing: Chloe Mister and Rupa Shenoy. Nneka Amu, Tarshel Beards, Josh Drobnyk, Janelle Frost and Jocelyn Prince helped research this article.