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Positive Loitering Aims to Resolve Conflicts Between Irving Park Neighbors

 Irving Park residents turn out for an evening of "positive loitering."
TRIP Positive Loitering 2013
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IRVING PARK — When The Residents of Irving Park first began holding "positive loitering" events — essentially a group of people hanging out at a neighborhood trouble spot to encourage positive behavior — "it used to be guns and gangs," said Misha Mann, president of the group.

"We actually, the first or second one, saw a guy dealing out of the back of his house," recalled Irving Birkner, TRIP board member. "We busted him."

The issues are less threatening these days, Mann said, in part because of increased community involvement. "Now it's loud music and pot."

Today, the group is as likely to deploy positive loitering to resolve a contentious situation between neighbors as it is to send a message to gang members.

On Wednesday night, TRIP coordinated what to outsiders might look like a block party or spontaneous picnic, complete with food trucks. The presence of police officers and Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) told a different story.

"We've got a problem here we can resolve," said Mell, who quoted from "Cool Hand Luke": "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Mell and the residents were out in support of Douglas and Kimberly Pancoast, who bought a house on Troy Avenue in 2011 after saving up for years.

"We love the house. We love the neighborhood," Kimberly Pancoast said.

Then the parties started next door. Twenty to 30 people coming and going into the wee hours, music blaring until 3 or 4 a.m., open drug use.

"I have an 11-year-old daughter who has to go [inside] every time they come out," Pancoast said.

Calls to police and the apartment building's owner had little effect. Holding a positive loitering event outside the building Wednesday night, a clear signal from neighbors that the Pancoasts had the neighborhood's backing, was the couple's Hail Mary pass.

"This is our last thing to try to do what we can before we flip the house," she said.

Buoyed by the presence of dozens of neighbors, the Pancoasts confronted Mike Balbuena, who manages the apartment building in question.

"I feel like for the first time, somebody is acting," Kimberly Pancoast said. "We're not alone."

Their request: No open drug use, no loud music after 10:30 or 11:30 p.m., and no cigarette butts, beer bottles or roach clips tossed into their yard.

When asked how he had handled complaints in the past, Balbuena said, "My response was to tell them to call the police."

Of the loud music, he said, a tenant "was in the Marines. Whenever he comes back, they have their celebration. It's an ethnic thing, ma'am."

Lazaro Magdariaga, who lives behind the Pancoasts and has been identified by the couple as part of the problem, said, "I can see lowering the music, especially at night. Open drug use ... it's almost part of our culture. It's only a problem when it comes to selling drugs."

After nearly an hour of dialog, Douglas Pancoast, an architect and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, felt progress had been made.

"I feel better," he said. "I think it's going to be a lot better."

Added his wife: "We're talking. It seemed like something different happened."

As evidenced Wednesday evening, positive loitering is as much about building community as it is about preventing crime.

"This gets everybody out, everybody talking," Mann said. "People know each other on the block. One person looks out for another because they met them."