LITTLE VILLAGE — Chicago mayors don’t live in dangerous neighborhoods.
Chicago’s most famous boss, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and his successor, Michael Bilandic, raised families in working-class Bridgeport.
The late Mayor Jane Byrne lived in a Gold Coast high-rise on Lake Shore Drive. Chicago’s first black mayor, the late Harold Washington, had a place on the lakefront, too, in Hyde Park’s stately Hampton House apartments.
Former mayors David Orr and the late Eugene Sawyer hailed from solidly middle-class Rogers Park and Chatham respectively. Mayor Richard M. Daley started his 22-year reign as mayor in Bridgeport before moving to a fancy South Loop address.
And current mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2,700-square-foot painted lady sits on a quiet, tree-lined block in posh Ravenswood.
But the man who’s out to oust Emanuel, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, looks out his front room window and sees a different view of the city.
Across the street from Garcia's Tudor-style house is an abandoned yellow-brick Chicago bungalow marked with one of those notorious “Red X” signs — a warning to firefighters that a building is in hazardous condition. And one end of Garcia's street is watched by a police surveillance camera.
Ominous gang graffiti decorates the plywood covering the abandoned bungalow's front door. The gang hieroglyphics alert locals that this sliver of Little Village is Gangster Two-Six territory known as the “Dark Side." And spray-painted letters "LKK" and "FolkK" — short for Latin King Killers and Folks Killers — aim to warn rivals that the local gang shoots to kill.
Still, Garcia says he lives on a "great block" that's home to hard-working, church-going neighbors who make it a pleasure to live there despite the community's “other reality” — gang members congregating on corners and robberies, burglaries, shootings and murders.
Garcia was a rookie Chicago alderman when he found the perfect first house to start a family — a mini-mansion on 25th Place. He had a contract to buy the place for $53,000.
“That would have been our first home, but a friend talked me out of it. He said if I bought that house people would think being alderman went to my head,” Garcia said.
So he and his wife, Evelyn, bought the beautiful, but less grand brick Tudor just across from a vacant church lot and have lived there ever since.
“Our neighbors are good people. We like the church, the institutions. It’s a place where parents look after their kids,” Garcia said. “We’re a half-block from 26th Street, which is always hopping with vitality. But it’s the people here … that's why we stay.”
Chicago Public Schools teacher Donna Andrade is one of those people.
Andrade and her family live in the corner house next to the Garcias. She grew up in a house across the street, where her sister still lives.
“It’s a small block, and it’s fabulous because it all feels like family,” she said. “Evelyn [Garcia] taught me how to ride my bike when I was 13. My father always tried to help me, but I couldn’t do it, and she said, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”
When she got married and had kids, Andrade and her husband decided to buy a house of their own on “our block” because a place in the suburbs or in what people might consider a “better neighborhood” wouldn’t feel like home.
“Sometimes I wonder why I stay here when we can afford to move somewhere else where it’s better. … But if we did, I think everything [bad] would be hidden,” she said. “Here, I can see the bad crowd. We know who they are. And I can tell my kids we don’t want them hanging around them.”
Sometimes, the bad crowd congregates in front of her house on the sidewalk she shares with the Garcias.
“I told them, ‘Look, we have little kids, we’re worried and we don’t want you here,’" Andrade said. "They were respectful because we’ve lived here forever, that we have small kids, and left."
In July 2012, two men were shot and killed in a car on Andrade’s corner. Before he died, the man behind the wheel tried to drive away and only made it as far as the tree near Andrade’s driveway.
“The police came. It was a big scene in the middle of the night. We had to let the kids know what was going on and that everything was going to be all right,” she said. “Living here we just always have to be aware. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just normal.”
Over the last 25 years, Garcia says things that shouldn’t be normal have become routine about living on his block — including picking up empty cases of beer bottles, discovering bricks, rocks, metal shanks and other weapons stashed on the parkway, scrubbing graffiti from his garage door, and on the worst days, pulling out the garden hose to wash away spilled blood.
“I’ve seen more than my share of difficulties of the most affected Chicagoans, the ones who live with the highest risk,” he said. “It’s neighborhoods like this where the risk is fueled by gang violence, a tradition that goes back 40 years, and we live under a lot of pressure.”
On Police Beat 1013, which stretches from Cermak Road to 26th Street, between Cicero and Central Park avenues— including Garcia’s block — there have been 19 murders and 245 aggravated batteries since 2009, according to police statistics. And last year, the number of murders, aggravated batteries and weapons crimes increased in Beat 1013.
Garcia says living in that part of town helps him “keep it real.”
“When I want to know how Chicago is doing, all I need to do is come outside and talk to people who work two jobs and can’t spend time with their families, people who are working odd hours and struggling to have health insurance and make ends meet, people who are trying to figure out how they’ll send their kids to college. That keeps me real,” he said. “When I hear gunshots. That keeps me real. To me, that’s the way to keep tabs on how we measure the quality of life in Chicago.”
Andrade says it’s “really weird” knowing that the guy next door — Chuy from the block, if you will — could be a runoff election away from being Chicago’s next mayor.
“It’s so odd, yet inspiring, that someone who lives right here could get so far,” she said.
“Not everyone lives in a high-rise or a nice beautiful area. The majority of the city lives in a neighborhood like this. I don’t think you can know what that’s like unless you live it. And I don’t think you can know how to fix it unless you’ve lived it. And you can fix it if you know what the problems need. Fix things at the neighborhood level, then you fix things all the way around in Chicago.”
In a city bitterly divided by economic class, race and ethnicity, Garcia says he hopes the April 7 runoff election boils down to whether folks living in neighborhoods like his will turn out to vote for a mayor who understands what they’re going through because he’s experienced it.
“Living here gives me insight into what type of strategies we need to undertake to revitalize communities people live in where violence is commonplace, shootings are almost predictable, to have a better quality of life," Garcia said.
“The city central business district is going to continue to do well for a long time. … The challenge is making Chicago sustainable, addressing the needs of the neighborhoods. ... My disposition as mayor will be to set a big table, not rush things and to hear people out. They don’t expect miracles. They want someone who is going to level with them. And that’s what I intend to do.”
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