Chicago Residents Fight Crime One Vacant Lot At A Time

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 7:44 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Chicago is on pace to record more shootings this year than it has in two decades. More than 1,900 people have been shot and wounded. Nearly 300 have been killed. Most of the shootings are concentrated in a few neighborhoods on the city's West and South Sides. And many people in these largely black and poor neighborhoods say they don't want to be defined by crime and violence, so they're buying up vacant lots and trying to make them into community spaces. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's no coincidence that some of Chicago's highest-crime neighborhoods also feel somewhat desolate. A big part of the reason is the huge number of vacant lots, hundreds upon hundreds of them. The city aggressively tears down abandoned homes and shops, arguing they become dangerous dens of drugs and crime. The end result is that, in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, for example, almost every block has vacant lots. Some, including Asiaha Butler's, have more empty lots than occupied ones.

ASIAHA BUTLER: For me I feel like I'm, like, in a rural area. Like, neighbors are, you know, miles away. But at the end of the day, I know that it's a potential still for development and transformation.

SCHAPER: A few years ago, Butler and her husband bought a two-flat across the street from theirs to rent out. Now they've purchased a large adjacent vacant lot from the city for a dollar.

BUTLER: This is my land. This is my land, and that's my land. And if I could afford more, I would've got more. But I had to take it slow. You know, this is a huge lot. So, I mean, I got a lot of work to do.

SCHAPER: That work includes building a fence, planting some flowers and putting in benches. Butler, who heads up a neighborhood association, wants to beautify the block and build a sense of pride.

BUTLER: I think a lot of times we see the vacant lots and then the weeds are growing to about 6 feet. And you just have this sense of no one cares. And so I just want that first to be a sense that someone cares, someone owns this and someone's going to take pride into this space.

SCHAPER: In a neighborhood where just 30 percent of the homes are owner-occupied and much of the middle class has left, Butler and others who remain believe that building a greater sense of value is vital to stabilizing the neighborhood. City officials agree. So they created the Large Lot Program two years ago to sell vacant lots for a dollar to homeowners who live on the same block.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great.

SCHAPER: Near the back of another lot in Englewood, Mekazin Alexander is standing near a cluster of evergreens as a large steel shipping container is lifted off the back of a semi and placed onto the overgrown grass.

MEKAZIN ALEXANDER: In this container is actually supplies - shovels, shelves, wheelbarrows and, like, gardening material.

SCHAPER: Walking through the tall weeds and stepping over the recently cut down shrubs and trees, it's a little hard to see what Alexander envisions.

ALEXANDER: We - of course we're going to grow food, we're going to grow flowers, native plants. We're going to put a stage up over here.

SCHAPER: Alexander pictures the lot being a gathering place for neighbors and an educational space, too, teaching residents about healthier foods, nature and much more.

ALEXANDER: I think most of us who have purchased these lots and want to turn them around, we also want to turn around the stereotypes because not everyone in Englewood, you know, is a drug dealer, is a gang banger, is a thief. I mean, we really are taking our - I'd say our blocks back, block by block, lot by lot.

SCHAPER: But remember that saying, no good deed goes unpunished?

ALEXANDER: I've already been cited for not having a fence shortly after I got the property.

SCHAPER: Others have been cited for not removing debris. The city is now working to slow enforcement of such violations, while it continues to expand the Large Lots Program as part of a broader effort to reinvest in and redevelop some of Chicago's most impoverished neighborhoods. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.