Alderman Cardenas combating gang houses, addressing sanitation issues
December 6, 2019

Alderman George Cardenas is concentrating on sanitation and gang problems.

By Rodrigo Hernandez

In the 12th Ward, Alderman George Cardenas is working to reduce gang activity and improve sanitation.

Samie Martinez, chief of staff for Cardenas’s ward office, gave Gazette Chicago an update on gang activity in the ward, which covers Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Little Village, and a portion of Back of the Yards.

“The gang activity at McKinley Park is pretty small, so it’s somewhat manageable,” said Martinez. “To be honest, when it comes to the name of these gangs, it doesn’t really matter to us. What matters to us is when we get complaints that there’s a gang house here or drug activity there.”

Martinez and the Cardenas team search for addresses where gang activity was reported. Next, they visit building owners and help them evict offenders and shut down abandoned buildings.

Martinez identified gang activity at 37th and Wood Streets and 38th and Honore Streets. The latter location was the worst, he said, for having several gang houses on one block. Over a year’s time, they resolved the situation, Martinez noted. An alleged gang house at in the 3600 block of south Wood St. created issues for a couple of years until it was resolved roughly a year ago, he added.

In Brighton Park, gang activity occurs mostly around Pershing Road and Sacramento Avenue. To fight back, Cardenas had workers install cameras in three locations: 38th Place and Sacramento, 39th Place and Sacramento, and 40th Street and Albany Avenue.

Martinez added that gang activity created problems further south past 41st Street outside the 12th Ward, noting Cardenas’s office staff’s knowledge about the area is limited “because it’s not our ward, but we know that since it’s a border, anybody could walk up a few blocks and run away.”

Cardenas’s office also noted gang activity around 38th Place near south St. Louis Avenue but cleared out much of it. Martinez said that, while some gang activities may have occurred in existing buildings, the office could not discover specific addresses. Martinez added that citizens reporting gang activity often do not reveal specific addresses, a contributing factor in failing to prove a case that also poses risks of accusing people who are the innocent.

Bradly Johnson, director of core programs from BUILD Chicago, a gang intervention and youth development organization, shared his insights about gang houses and gang activity. “It’s a matter of identifying what’s the real problem and addressing those concerns,” said Johnson. “I think that in a community, residents of course have a say so about who’s in their community, like what types of activities have been happening, and that has to be done also in communication with law enforcement.”

Johnson also proposed that local government, community organizations, and churches can create activities for individuals residing in these neighborhoods and who may be involved with gangs. “It is important to recognize that they are people as well who may have been affected by a system of trauma and violence that has impacted them as well, so we have to look in solving those issues and those problems,” added Johnson.

Displacement concerns

Martinez said resolving gang houses in Little Village presents more challenges. Unlike in McKinley Park and Brighton Park, where residents often dial 911, residents in Little Village seldom call about gang problems. Martinez added that receiving records of 911 calls relating to property service can make property searching for gang members easier, but Little Village residents, including those from some community organizations, sometimes are afraid to give details and get involved, he said.

One of the reasons is fear of gentrification. “They feel that people are going to be displaced, which can be a concern,” said Martinez “But what’s most important? We asked them, ‘safety or gentrification’?”

One of the most notable locations for gang activity was at Sacramento and Cermak Road. A six-unit gang house there caught fire, Martinez said; the fire’s cause is unknown. On Whipple Street, he added, Cardenas’s office resolved several gang houses between 23rd and 24th Streets, but some gang members came back over time, and more legal cases resulted.

“It’s always a game of cat and mouse, chasing them from house to house,” Martinez said. He emphasized that the City could not prosecute some cases because Cardenas’s office did not have enough history or 911 calls on them. Officials did resolve an alleged gang house at in the 2700 block of west 23rd Pl., however, through court proceedings, resulting in a gang member’s being forcibly evicted, Martinez said.

Cardenas feels his office has one of Chicago’s best processes for combating gangs, especially gang members living in the community. “We target gang houses through legal means,” said Cardenas. “And using the laws on the books, the orders that allow us and give us the power to condemn properties, if it rises to that level, certainly pushes owners to be more compliant.”

No extra trash pickup

Concerning sanitation, Martinez cited littering as a common problem. To help, Cardenas’s office has placed more wastebaskets near bus stops. The situation turns problematic, however, when residents dump house garbage, which makes the wastebaskets overflow. Martinez stated Little Village probably has the worst trash problems. For several years, Cardenas called for extra trash service for Little Village, where two additional garbage trucks picked up trash every Friday. The City shut the service down, however, and residents complained. Martinez explained that the 12th Ward could not restore extra pickups because the City refused to give it more service than other wards.

Cardenas’s office handles sanitation violations, such as high weeds on a property or abundant litter, on a case by case basis. When Martinez and the Cardenas team receive complaints involving violations, they call violators about resolving the situation. The Department of Streets and Sanitation issues a ticket if violators do not take care of problems within a given timeframe.

Martinez said tickets used to take a long time to arrive—up to a year. A recent City investigation evaluated the ticket process, however, and tickets now arrive within a couple of weeks, he noted.

To combat sanitation problems, Cardenas promotes vacant lot and embankment cleanings. The Department of Streets and Sanitation schedules groups to clean up the area, including groups of ex-offenders and teams of City workers in the community. The 12th ward office also hired a landscaper to spruce up areas that needed improvement. Martinez said residents, notably the elderly, consistently called for landscaping help because they lacked tools or physical ability. The 12th Ward office promotes landscaping services through a social media team that takes photos of members’ cleaning initiatives and posts them online; people respond by calling or asking for help in person.

“It’s a good way to engage people, and they see that things are getting cleaned,” commented Martinez. The 12th Ward office also offers an opportunity to build community while cleaning the ward: residents eat, drink, and clean together at a specific location. “We put the event on something that’s coincidental like a block party or something like that, and people enjoy it,” Martinez said.

Cardenas feels strong oversight allows his office to combat both sanitation and gang problems. “We have ways to go,” he said. “But I still think that even with that,” the efforts are “well run.”

To contact the 12th Ward office, call (773) 523-8250. To contact BUILD Chicago, contact (773) 227-2880.