SPECIAL REPORT: School's Closing, Gang Feud Fuel New Fears In Old Town
OLD TOWN — The shooting started just after supper.
Charlie Branda’s 11-year-old son counted the gun blasts like she taught him.
One, two … three, four, five … six.
Branda called 911. She’s called before, plenty of times, and knows police always ask how many shots were fired.
“Six,” she told the dispatcher.
Steps from their front door, Tyshawn Blanton had been shot dead. The 20-year-old was just outside the corner store at Evergreen and Sedgwick — the intersection of drug turf and urban gentrification in Old Town.
Blanton’s murder stirred fears among neighbors that the tiny, contained island of vice controlled by the Mickey Cobras street gang — “Sedville” they call it — had become a gang battle zone, too.
Police said they believe Gangster Disciples street gang members from the Cabrini-Green row houses crossed Division Street — a long-standing gang turf boundary — to get revenge against the Mickey Cobras for murdering one of their own.
Clara Smith, a school bus stop supervisor who has lived in the nearby Evergreen Terrace apartments for 31 years, said the neighborhood has become more violent than ever — even more dangerous than before the notorious Cabrini Green high-rises were torn down.
“It’s worse,” Smith said. “Fighting over drugs and turf. … They shooting now. Baseball bats. Anything.”
Now, Smith and her neighbors said they worry that the Chicago Board of Education’s plan to close the local school, Manierre Elementary, as part of the largest public school consolidation in U.S. history will spark an all-out gang war.
And it affects everyone. People who live in Sedville — whether they’re gang members or not — get associated with the street gangs that claim their streets as turf. Same goes for folks who live in public housing south of Division — the “Wild Side,” they call it.
“If you live in certain parts of this area, they title you,” said Phyllis Johnson, a 38-year-old hairdresser who grew up on the Gangster Disciples side of Division. “If you live over there, they assume you’re with that gang.”
Under the CPS consolidation plan, Manierre students who live in Sedville would be sent across Division to Jenner Academy into GD territory. Parents, neighbors, and especially Manierre students said they are scared to death about what might happen if the schools are merged.
It's happening in neighborhoods all around the city where students from closing schools will be forced to navigate rival gang turf to get to and from their new schools.
In Old Town, crossing the stretch of Division that separates gang rivals has been dangerous for generations.
“History is repeating itself. This time you got some younger minds. Crazier minds. Drug minds," Smith said. "It might be a bloody mess.”
You won't find Sedville on any map.
But tucked behind the Dominick's on Division and around the corner from the Starbucks on Clybourn, it's there — an open vice market where you can get tiny bags of weed, cocaine and crack. Pricey white heroin is available, too, if you have the cash — and prostitutes, if you know the right guy.
Sedville's gang-controlled drug culture thrives even though a Target store has sprouted where the infamous Cabrini-Green towers once stood, and a growing, affluent — and mostly white — population closes in on what once was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, if not America.
Last year, police made 55 drug arrests within a few blocks of Evergreen and Sedgwick on Beat 1821, according to crime statistics.
Neighbors said that’s a fraction of the drug traffic that plagues the neighborhood.
John Siebert, who lives a block from a hot drug corner, collects the tiny bags customers discard on the sidewalk. Each one is marked with makeshift logos — dollar signs, red bulldogs and “Best” written in black marker.
He says dope dealers have become increasingly active in the last two years.
“What we’re starting to see is intense,” Siebert said. “And it’s right here on the f------ sidewalk. … They’re selling dope at 4 o’clock when kids are walking home from school. It’s brazen, conspicuous, and it’s fearless.”
Near North District police Cmdr. William Dunn said the Sedville drug market is a “tough nut to crack.”
“All I can tell you is the narcotics issues over there are being addressed,” he said.
Dunn has ordered cops on Beat 1821 not to stray beyond the few blocks surrounding the subsidized apartments where gangs control the corners. Gang and narcotics units patrol there.
Overall, crime is down districtwide, Dunn said, mostly because of a decrease in robberies near public transportation. But there's no denying that generational gang feuds contribute to the violent culture in the pocket of Old Town that's surrounded by a growing population of affluent homeowners.
"It's kind of like the Hatfields and McCoys, Cubs versus Sox mentality where, 'You people on the south side of Division are bad. No, you people on the north side of Division are bad,' " Dunn said. "And that’s the nexus of the conflicts that go on between the two sides. It’s more gang-related, more historical family feuds-type conflicts, if you will, than fighting over dope."
The reduction in robberies is cold comfort for Smith, the school bus stop supervisor who gangbangers call the “nosy old bitch” because she calls the cops.
She can see the crack deals from her window. At night, she hears the gunshots.
“They’re moving now. Doing everything now,” Smith says while watching the action on a warm Friday as Manierre school let out. “Crack. Heroin if you can afford it. Mostly you see crackheads.”
They’re the easiest customers to spot, making the pilgrimage from a nearby high-rise in the 1300 block of Cleveland that locals call “Crackhead City” to meet up with dealers. Those dealers stash drugs under porches and in the hallways of subsidized apartment buildings at Evergreen and Hudson — Evergreen/Sedgwick and the Marshall Field Garden Apartments.
More often, though, dope deals start with a phone call, Dunn said.
“You call the number, and the guy will meet you somewhere. You tell him how many you want. He makes those four or five bags, whatever you need,” Dunn said. “One day he might meet you at Dominick’s. One day he might meet you at Walgreens. … Sometimes they say, 'Meet me at the corner of Evergreen and Sedgwick.'”
On April 5, just after 6 p.m., on that corner of Evergreen and Sedgwick, a man in his 20s lingered, covering his face with an open hard-cover book until he got the attention of teens huddled on the sidewalk.
The kids summoned an older man, probably in his 30s. He pulled a tiny dope bag from the pocket of his blue hoodie and handed it to his book-reading dope customer. The transaction took 10 seconds.
The customer closed his book, dipped his pinky into the baggie, gave his finger a lick and walked east toward Wells Street — Old Town’s vibrant, boozy entertainment district — where he met a buddy and hailed a cab.
Living on the edge
Charlie Branda's 8-year-old daughter got off the trampoline in the backyard and headed to the alley. Neighborhood kids often meet there to play.
When she opened the back gate, though, she saw a guy pacing near the alley. So, she quickly turned around.
"The drug dealers are out again," she told her mom.
"She didn't want to be outside anymore," Charlie Branda said.
That’s what life is like for homeowners living on the edge of Sedville — a pocket of low-income, mostly black residents surrounded by wealthy, white homeowners.
“This is where we live," Charlie Branda said. "We invested lots of money here. Our property values are plummeting. Can we even afford to move? Is this a safe place for our children? You can’t help but question things like that.”
John Siebert, a white man who moved to Old Town in 1998, said drugs and violence are a “neighborhood versus drug dealer issue ... not rich versus poor, white versus black.”
Still, the stark contrast between the quality of life of poor black renters and affluent white homeowners in the neighborhood can’t be ignored.
That tiny patch in Old Town is 70 percent African American and 30 percent white, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Beyond race, there’s a stark divide between rich and poor. Consider this: 42 percent of households had an annual income of less than $15,000. And 25 percent of families reported an income of more than $100,000 a year — including 193 households making more than $200,000 annually.
Most renters are black. Most homeowners are white, the Census data shows.
“There’s a class difference,” Smith said. “It's like the new neighbors want the old neighbors to leave. But let’s be real. It’s the color of your skin. They look at you crazy. … They bought houses, and it’s like, ‘We’re gonna get rid of all the blacks, really.' ”
Smith said the CPS plan to close Manierre is a land grab aimed at pushing out longtime black residents.
“That’s prime land,” she said. “It’s going to be condos. You watch."
CPS officials are just starting to consider what to do with the empty school buildings left behind, including using the buildings for other public uses or putting them up for sale, a spokeswoman said.
Siebert, who volunteers with the Near North Unity Program, said he hopes that good neighbors can all work together to slow the drug trafficking and violence that affects everyone.
“Let's throw race out. We’re not about that. We’re trying to do stuff to put everyone’s safety above everything else,” he said. “We’re not talking property value.”
'In the crossfire'
Sedville can be a violent place.
Last year on police Beat 1821, there were 90 batteries, 28 batteries involving a weapon, 38 assaults, nine armed robberies, 18 robberies and one case of mob action.
Police arrested nine people on weapons charges, including four illegal handgun arrests, according to crime statistics.
The possible gang-related motive for the slaying of Tyshawn Blanton, who was on his way to get diapers for his baby at Old Town Depot, has a lot of people scared.
Investigators said Blanton’s death was in retaliation for a previous shooting on the Dan Ryan Expy. Gangster Disciples members believed someone from Sedville was involved and were out for revenge, a police source said.
Police theorized that two Gangster Disciples known as “The Twins” did the shooting, which also left another man wounded, the source said.
Acting on a tip, police arrested one of the men in the Cabrini-Green row houses on Cambridge Street on the "Wild Side." The second suspect later turned himself in to police.
The Twins gave conflicting stories about where they were the night of the shooting, but prosecutors in the Cook County State's Attorney's Felony Review division decided the evidence was too weak to warrant charges.
“A couple cooperating witnesses who were not the greatest witnesses in the world. The video didn’t show enough. We never got the gun,” the source said. “Felony review kicked it.”
And The Twins were released from police custody.
Blanton's unsolved murder — and gang conflicts brewing on the street — cause parents to worry about what might happen next school year.
"Me and my children are not going to go there," said Karolyn Harris, mother of an eighth-grader at Manierre. "I wouldn't go over there myself. I don't want to be in the crossfire."
‘I beg you, please’
At Manierre closing hearings, several students testified they had been “jumped on” for being on the wrong side of Division.
“Please don’t send us to Jenner,” 10-year-old Dominique Brooks said with tears in her eyes. “I beg you, please.”
Last summer, Dominique said eight Jenner girls beat her bloody near Seward Park as she walked to a By The Hand Club For Kids after-school program.
“She missed our school bus. Even though we told her not to … she walked over,” said Donnita Travis, founder of By The Hand and one of Chicago magazine's 2012 Chicagoans of the Year. “As soon as she crossed Division she was jumped on.”
Karolyn Harris said she saw the girls beat up Dominique.
“If I hadn’t pushed her into the police station, they would have killed her,” she said.
Neighbors said Dominique got beat up because she was on the "wrong side of Division," and things haven't changed.
In fact, the proposed Manierre closing already has sparked gang-related threats on Facebook.
A Jenner student with alleged GD gang ties posted a “hit list” that marked nine kids as targets if they come to the Wild Side.
Later, the boy who posted the hit list made a Facebook pledge that he would show Manierre kids something that goes “bang-bang.” In a separate post, the boy wrote, “F--- ALL SED IAM KILLIN BABYS AND ALL.”
After a school-closing hearing, a Manierre eighth-grader pulled out her cellphone to show the hit list to Chicago School Board member Henry Bienen.
“These are very serious issues,” Bienen said. “Obviously, these are not easy decisions to make.”
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the school system is working with police, principals from welcoming schools, community groups and churches to create customized plans for student safe passage to and from welcoming schools, the CPS term for a school absorbing students from a closing school.
CPS has budgeted more than $7 million to fund safe passage programs aimed at protecting kids from the 54 schools slated to be closed. The school district also has solicited proposals from groups interested in administering safe passage plans once they are finalized.
Still, Lemont Qualls worries about his daughter's safety.
“I’ve been around here four years. … There’s a big conflict going on,” he said with tears in his eyes after dropping his daughter off at kindergarten. “This is going to flare up the conflict.”
At an April 10 hearing, Manierre Principal Derrick Lashawn Orr said parents fighting to keep Manierre open have made “fundamental and really sound arguments” but have “lost their spirit.
“They feel like they’re not being heard. … We’re coming here today, and they [think] they won’t be heard again,” Orr said. “I’m here to say to you that we are doing amazing things at Manierre. … Give us a chance.”
‘Going to feel it.’
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said CPS is "going down the wrong road" no matter what safe route they pick for Manierre kids to walk to Jenner next school year.
"I beg you all to really look into this. Come talk to us in the neighborhood," Burnett said at the April 10 school-closing hearing.
"Go on YouTube and see what's going on in this neighborhood, how these kids are fighting, and it's very volatile. It's dangerous. ... Those guys from the row houses, some of the guys who go to Jenner, are coming over on Sedgwick chasing the kids. ... We need to do something because it's not even summer yet, and something's going to happen."
Then, as if he could already see the writing on the wall, Burnett said, “If this were to happen, you need to get the parents of kids who go to these schools involved. … We don’t need nobody … coming from the South Side, West Side or anywhere else who don’t know this neighborhood coming over and trying to make sure somebody is safe because they don’t know what’s going on."
A safe passage route between Sedville and the Wild Side hasn't been finalized. Police district commanders citywide are reviewing plans, said Carroll, the CPS spokeswoman.
She declined to release details of those proposals until they have been vetted by police and school principals and presented to parents.
Carroll said that the school system is recruiting "community and faith-based groups" from the neighborhoods to run safe passage programs. That way locals will be "boots on the ground" helping to keep kids safe, she said.
"We do it in 40 schools, and it's very successful in safe passage areas," Carroll said. "When it's in operation, student incidents and general crime in those areas is down. ... These communities are going to end up getting a more significant investment to help kids go to and from school."
Burnett said he believes CPS officials, even after calculating the cost savings, strategizing logistics and analyzing the data, still don't understand the risk they're taking by mixing kids from Sedville and the Wild Side.
The Board of Education is set to have a final hearing on Manierre on April 30. A final decision on all of the school closings around the city could come in May.
“They think they know what they're doing, but they can’t feel it. This is serious,” Burnett said. “If they move to put those two schools together, I guarantee they’re going to feel it.”