But this work is not without its dangers. On July 26, two mothers from the group, Chantell Grant and Andrea Stoudemire, stood on the corner at 75th Street and Stewart Avenue at 10 p.m. when an assailant in an SUV drove up and shot both of them in the chest. The murderer has not been arrested, though police said they have no reason to think the women were the intended targets of the attack.
These are the martyrs of our time, and they are worthy of our recognition. At a time when gun violence dominates our media, it’s worth taking a moment to give some attention to those standing up for our streetscapes.
MASK’s practice of gathering mothers and children on street corners is sometimes called “positive loitering.” In contrast to “negative loitering” (or just plain “loitering”), positive loiterers show with their bodies and their activities that criminals do not own the streets. Positive loitering sometimes includes simple activities such as simultaneous lawn sprinkling or dog walking. More often, it consists of neighbors just hanging out together in public.
Sometimes positive loiterers coordinate with their alderman and the police department. If they observe gang activity, violence or drug dealing, they plan to fall back and call 911. Other times positive loitering is entirely separate from city authorities, organized by neighbors working with neighbors. Disputes are worked out informally.
MASK’s efforts are part of a long and quiet Chicago tradition of community activists who dedicate their time and talents to protecting and improving their streets. These volunteers, usually women, are often organized into block clubs. They cultivate vegetable gardens, plant flowers on the parkways, hold block parties, clean up vacant lots, run activities for youths, monitor abandoned buildings, pick up garbage, run crime watches and do whatever else they can think of to make their blocks better places to live. Like Grant and Stoudemire, block club leaders are particularly concerned about how to make Chicago’s streets safe for children.
Chicagoans have been organizing themselves for local improvement for at least a century. As residents of a city historically run by notoriously corrupt public officials, Chicagoans have long known that if they wanted clean and safe streets, they could not wait for the city to get around to it.
Block clubs, brought to the city by the National Urban League, aimed to improve the physical environment, nurture local leadership and demonstrate that their street was a good place to live. During World War II, civilian defense officials organized block captains on 20,000 blocks in the Chicago area. Pioneered by African Americans and ubiquitous in black neighborhoods, block clubs are now everywhere in the city, including predominantly white and Latino blocks. Chicagoans understand this kind of local activism as part and parcel of how the city works. As one block club organizer for a Chicago alderman told me: “It’s in our DNA.”
Local activists don’t pour their energies into their blocks for the glory; they do it because they are committed to the places where they live. Their work is usually unnoticed and unheralded, except by their own neighbors. But as the murders of Grant and Stoudemire suggest, hyper-local activism can also involve conflict. In the 1950s and 1960s, white West and South Side residents organized block clubs in an effort to keep their neighborhoods from racially integrating. Later, block club organizers learned that improving the neglected building next door or pushing drug dealers off the block can incite the wrath of neighbors who profit from urban deterioration.
Grant and Stoudemire are not the first Chicago neighborhood leaders victimized in connection with their volunteer work. In December 1997, Arnold Mireles was murdered because of his activism around housing code violations. Mireles, a block club captain and volunteer with Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, better known as CAPS, persistently brought problem buildings to housing court. A landlord angry about Mireles’s activism hired two hit men to kill him. In response to the killing of Mireles, Illinois authorized capital punishment for the murder of community policing volunteers.
Protecting and improving city streets can be joyful work that makes city neighborhoods places where people love to live and know their neighbors. It is also hard and hazardous work; sometimes, the results can be grim. But the work these advocates give their lives to also shows us that carnage does not rule the whole of our cities.