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Thursday, September 8, 2005

Walking in the dark, just south of Manchester. (More on the theme of street-level crime)

A few weeks ago, I got a new job. When I work the early shift, I have to leave the house well before 6AM, when it is still dark outside, to make my 15-minute walk north on Taylor and through the BJC complex, to the Metrolink station. Walking in the morning darkness makes me feel more vulnerable than walking the same route at night ever has. When I walk home at night, more people are around, and more of my neighbors' lights are still on. In the early morning, most of my neighbors and seemingly even the neighborhood itself are in a very deep stage of sleep. Each morning, when I step out of our enclosed porch and onto our top step, I wonder if anyone would see or hear if anything were to happen to me in the course of my walk.

But most of my route doesn't worry me too much. When I get a few blocks north of Manchester I relax somewhat, and will sometimes even put on my headphones. But the part of Forest Park Southeast where I live, the Adams Grove area south of Manchester, scares me. Adams Grove has long been a target for thugs, everyone from gangbangers and dealers on up to the Alderman, the Development Corporation, and the many slumlords they work with. Though the whole neighborhood has suffered over the years, the area south of Manchester seems to have been conspicuously left out of the revitalization efforts in this area in recent years. Somehow, south of Manchester has seen abandonment only rise while rehabs blossom north of Manchester. Somehow, the Forest Park Southeast Development Corporation found the money to repave alleys north of Manchester, but not south of Manchester (The alley behind our building is worn down to bare bricks, with a strip of plant-covered pavement down the middle.). What it amounts to in the most tangible sense is that when I walk to work, I have to cross an area riddled with vacant buildings, with roads too cul-de-sac'ed and potholed for many people to drive through the area (Such low traffic means fewer people watching out, and thus more crime.). I have to walk past the spot where I see frequent drug deals and suspicious activity, and past long-vacant buildings with strange people sleeping and sitting on their lawns.

So, I do what I can to make myself safe. On Monday morning, when I worked the early shift, I did these things to protect myself:
-Kept my head up
-Carried my keys in my fist with the jagged parts sticking out between my fingers, like a set of knuckles
-Did not cut through the corner vacant lot or even walk on the sidewalk (where sidewalk exists--it's simply not there anymore in some places around here), instead taking a longer route and walking down the middle of the street
-Did not wear my headphones, even though the beat of music is usually what fuels to me to walk when I've just woken up
-Breathed loudly, wetly, and irregularly as if I was somehow disgustingly ill

I also considered doing these things, but decided against them:
-Changing my clothes before I left the house, because I was wearing certain colors
-Singing or humming
-Taking a flashlight with me
-Not carrying a purse
-Taking the bus to shorten how much I had to walk, even though it actually makes the trip take longer

...If some of these things seem silly or unnecessary, that should tell you how scared I am of my own corner. I'm not usually one to feel that uncomfortable in an area that has been labelled dangerous, but in recent weeks, our corner has rapidly gotten scarier.

Yesterday, I met a woman who has lived on the 4500 block of Gibson (a part of the neighborhood north of Manchester that's much more stable and rehabbed than our area, although it certainly has issues of its own) for many, many years. I told her what the corner of Taylor and Swan has been like lately. She told me I should wait, because that's how her part of the neighborhood was ten years ago. I tried not to take too much offense, because she's actually been through what I'm living through now and she actually lives in the area (and probably assumed that I own my home, and that I don't understand how gentrification works; and she likely doesn't know the extent of the backroom deals that have kept our neighborhood the way it is for so long). But MAN am I sick of people telling me to wait because "great things" are coming for "Forest Grove." I hear it everywhere. The media has reported on real estate deals going on around here and how great things are coming, and people who don't live here echo those articles to me in conversation, telling me they heard that the area is heating up. Even Alderman Roddy told us to just wait. Earlier this year, Michael wrote him a letter asking for help because one of the many vacant buildings on our block had become the center of a great deal of crime and we wanted it boarded back up; because he was about to be up for re-election, Roddy responded by leaving several messages on our phone about how we would really like the way that the block would look "in twelve to eighteen months."

Besides the sheer rudeness of telling someone that they will like how their own neighborhood looks after it has been put through a development process from which they are completely excluded, I think it's pretty presumptuous to assume that we, as poor renters, are even a part of the ultimate plan for the neighborhood. My neighbors who've lived here over a decade tell me that literally hundreds of families have been pushed out of the area by the development process already. It's not fair to say "just wait" when I've seen people half a block from me get evicted when speculators bought the place where they were renting. It's not fair to say "just wait" when real estate speculation has driven up home prices so high on even the most dangerous blocks around here, so that if we want to stay in the neighborhood, we'd have to pour out all our money just purchasing a tiny home when we could buy a bigger house for much cheaper on a stable block with a less corrupt Alderman in another neighborhood. How do people who tell us to wait know that we're a part of the plan for the neighborhood, that we're not supposed to be forced out before the time comes?

More than anything else, though, I'm sick of hearing "just wait" because it almost never comes from anyone who lives in Forest Park Southeast. And no one who has ever told me to Just Wait Great Things Are Coming lives in my part of the neighborhood. I always have to wonder if the people who say such things realize how long people have been telling residents of this area to wait. I also wonder if they realize how hollow such statements sound coming from people who don't have to deal with the the question of survival here on a daily basis. People from the Alderman on down can tell us to "just wait" all they want, but when it comes down to it, they don't live here. When I leave the house in the dark in the very early morning to cross the scary alley on foot, I am completely alone.


citywmn said...

I've done those things on your list to protect yourself....except the breathing one; I never thought of that one!

Here are a few more things I've done:
1. always worn tennis or running shoes.
2. notified the police that I regularly walked a route at a certain time and requested a police presence...and kept notifying the police until I =did= notice a presence.
3. carried money and driver's license etc.in a separate place(sometimes in my shoe).
4. and sometimes I just had to bite the bullet and plan a different route because I was still scared and I got tired of feeling so scared.

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Thanks for the tips! Two and three are new to me. I may end up usin' em.

Unfortunately, I can't really plan a different route because the route I take already is probably the safest one. Also, the highway I have to cross cuts off a lot of streets that would work, otherwise, so the route I take is the most direct by far. The second closest bridge across the highway is one where people have gotten mugged in broad daylight (The pedestrian bridge behind the Central Institute for the Deaf, if you're wondering), so no way I'm going over there. This is one more argument against big highways!

A few other walking safety ideas, gotten from my aunt who's lived by herself in urban areas for years:
--Drool, burp, fart, or do other "gross" things if you get really scared. People will be a lot less interested in messing with you.
--In cold weather, wear a gigantic coat that makes you look HUGE. My aunt calls hers The Man Repeller.
--Talk to yourself.
--Wave at your building as you leave it. My aunt lived in a 12-unit building where everyone got broken into besides her over the years, cos she always waved, so people assumed she had a reclusive boyfriend or someone who was always home.

And, of course, creativity counts. One night, a friend and I were out for a late night walk, and started getting creeped out by how dead the area was and by some of the people around us, so we swayed back and forth rhythmically while we walked and muttered "daDAdaDA DADADA!" over and over in a sing-song manner. We went from getting creppy looks from people to having people cross the street to get away from us.

Rick Bonasch said...


I thought you guys were looking at some other areas to buy and rehab a home of your own? Is that still in the works?