State attorney’s office, block clubs take aim at troubled buildings

January 19, 2011
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Drug dealers are easy to spot on the main roads of Robert Smith’s neighborhood as they peddle their crack and heroin along a half-mile stretch of Chicago Avenue from Central to Laramie.

Get off the main drag, though, and you have to look a little closer: The crime happens indoors, inside unkempt buildings frequented by drug users and prostitutes.

But the residents know exactly where the crime happens. Smith can name three of those hotspots on his block alone.

“You know those buildings, what’s going on,” said Smith, treasurer of the Power of Peace Block Club. “If anybody gets killed, it’s just another day.”

Drug dealers and prostitutes, beware.

Officials, tapping into the knowledge of police, business people and crime-fighting residents, have amassed a list of these “troubled buildings,” and they plan to crack down.

The goal: arrest criminals who set up camp in the buildings, send out inspectors to fine property owners who allow crime to occur on their land, and eventually, seize the buildings and possibly tear them down.

It’s a “methodical progression toward getting rid of the property,” Assistant State’s Attorney David Potter told a group of block club members last week. “It takes a lot of time, and it starts with you folks telling us the addresses.”

Targeting problem buildings isn’t new; city officials have long worked to bring down crime centers through programs like the Troubled Buildings Initiative and Drug and Gang House Enforcement divisions.

But from her new position at the Community Justice Center, Assistant State’s Attorney Kelly Navarro hopes this effort will help police and prosecutors zero in on hotspots on the West Side. Last Wednesday, she and Potter asked a group of West Side block club members for their input on the list at a meeting at the center, located at 4 W. Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, just west of Austin Boulevard.

“There are targeted individuals who are causing a lot of trouble, and there are targeted buildings,” Navarro said. “If we can focus our attention on those two things, we’re hoping we can reduce crime.”

The idea is that residents know their neighborhoods best – like Annie Glenn, who heads the Power of Peace Block Club, based near the intersection of Chicago and Long avenues. Members of the club work a “phone tree:” When they see a crime, they alert other club members and they all call 9-1-1.

“We started (the club) when it got so bad we couldn’t even sleep at night,” Glenn said.

State’s attorneys at the Community Justice Center will work with the Chicago Police Department and city officials to make sure crimes coming out of troubled houses are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Navarro said.

“We know the same problems have been going on for five, 10, 50 years,” Navarro said. “We’re just trying to create some communication … We’re here in the 15th District. Maybe we can raise some flags Downtown.”

Mary Brown, president of the Quincy Block Club, which covers the area surrounding the 5500 block of West Quincy Street, acknowledged that residents are often afraid to speak out against their neighbors or attend court hearings because they fear retribution.

“I know we have to be careful what we say,” Brown said. “But you have to speak out. You have to.”

Navarro said if residents have something to say about a crime, they can call or visit the center privately.

“At least then I know someone cares,” Navarro said, “and I’m not out there throwing the book at someone and no one cares.”

The Community Justice Center, which works with citizens to fight crime in the Austin and Oak Park areas, re-opened last summer. A similar program housed in the same office was closed three years ago due to a lack of funding.

To contact the community justice center, call (708) 386-7301.

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