First murder of 2013 revealed strains in new Old Town landscape

Originally published: http://homicides.suntimes.com/2013/07/02/first-murder-of-2013-revealed-strains-in-new-old-town-landscape/

Abe Abdrabo was in a back room of his convenience store on the phone with his cousin when he heard a pop, pop, pop.

As he stepped into the main part of his store – the Old Town Mini Mart in the 1300 block of North Sedgwick Street – he saw people racing in different directions, running away from gunshots.

Near the rear of the store, 31-year-old TyShawn Blanton lay dying, shot multiple times in the back. Another man, lying near the front of the store, had also been hit and was seriously injured.

The shooters, two men wearing gray sweatshirts and dark blue jeans, were already gone.

It was 7:05 p.m., January 8. The first Chicago homicide of 2013 had just happened in Old Town, a neighborhood not known for murder.

On the streets surrounding the convenience store, shoppers walk in and out of designer boutiques, couples dine in restaurants and tourists go to shows at Chicago’s famed comedy theater, The Second City.

But a few blocks south, barbed wire surrounds row homes that once were a small piece of the sprawling Chicago Housing Authority’s Cabrini-Green public housing project.

Cabrini-Green gained national attention for its high concentration of crime and poverty.  Neglect and gang violence created rough living conditions for residents until demolition of the buildings started in 1997.

Now, only three Francis Cabrini row houses remain, and the area is undergoing much redevelopment.  New shops have opened. New high-rises are being built. A Target is being put up where some of the Cabrini complexes used to be.

The 18th Police District, where the shooting of Blanton took place, is bound by Fullerton Avenue to the north and the Chicago River to the south. It has a low homicide rate compared to other districts, some of which see upwards of 20 homicides a year. But murders in the changing Old Town neighborhood doubled in 2012, from three to six.

On the block where Blanton was shot, the most common crime reported since 2013 was criminal trespassing, followed by narcotics offenses and battery.

The shooting may have come as a surprise to families moving into the neighborhood. But for some residents who have lived there since the days of Cabrini-Green, the incident is just one of many that signifies the negative impact of its closing.

Javanti Smith, who lived in Cabrini-Green before relocating to a public-housing complex adjacent to the non-governmental subsidized Marshall Field Garden Apartments, said the changes in the neighborhood challenged established gang lines.

“They packed all different types of gang members into one small neighborhood,” said Smith, 27. “Ones that never got along.”

Abdrabo, who recently moved his store to a new location on North Sedgwick, two blocks away, said he was “really surprised” when Blanton was shot at his store.

“In all reality, everyone was scared,” he said. “We just started seeing customers come back that we had before.”

Abdrabo grew up on the South Side and said gunshots were a familiar sound there, but not here.
Father Patrick Lee of Saint Joseph Catholic Church, a resident of Old Town for 27 years, said young families and couples have begun to move into the “hot neighborhood” that’s becoming a tourist attraction.

Even so, he said Old Town still has one of the largest concentrations of subsidized and public housing in the city, including the Francis Cabrini row houses and the Marshall Field Garden Apartments.

He said there are newer, more expensive housing options that attract younger families and couples to the east side of the neighborhood.

“It’s a real mix of people,” he said.

Lee also said the Blanton shooting sent shock waves through the community.

In the past, not much happened on Sedgwick,” he said.

Sedgwick Street features new housing to the east and public housing to the west.  The shooting happened on the border: “right in the shadow of the new homes” and “right across the street from the Marshall Field buildings,” Lee said.

Although Lee said the shooting may have shocked new residents, he did not think that was the case for those that had lived in the area for many years. It just occurred closer to an area that’s generally considered safer than usual, he said.

“I think right now the real division is between people who are coming in and want to raise their families and feel their children are unsafe, coming up against people who have lived here,” Lee said.

He said one negative impact of the gentrification of the area was that “the poor get squeezed out and the wealthy move in and redevelop.”

Ronald Green, a 15-year Old Town resident, said after the closing and demolition of Cabrini-Green, most of their low-income residents were “slammed” into Old Town.

The shuffle of Cabrini-Green residents into new housing projects interfered with existing gang lines, said co-owner of the Old Town Mini Mart, Moe Ibrhaim.

“This is what’s wrong with this area,” he said. “You’ve got south of Division in a certain gang, and north of Division in a different gang.”

Ibrhaim said Old Town sits on the boundary of these two warring gangs. Members of both have been pushed into Marshall Field Garden Apartments after Cabrini-Green’s demolition, creating disruption in the area. He believes this played a role in Blanton’s shooting death. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in January that police said Blanton had gang affiliations, but his family denied those claims. Police have not yet made an arrest in the case.

Income diversity also contributes to strife in Old Town. The neighborhood is more diverse than others it borders.

“There are side streets with $3 and $4 million dollar homes, and then there’s also federally subsidized housing here,” said Joe Grossman, owner of 5 Boroughs Pizza Company in Old Town.

Former Cabrini-Green resident Ruben Mejia, Jr., 52, said a public housing resident in Old Town is targeted as “either a gang banger or a drug dealer.”

Mejia said he is grateful for his new home in Marshall Field Garden Apartments, but he compared it to living in a prison.

“You can’t even sit down without being harassed,” he said. “You’ve got to go through all kinds of red tape to get into your own residence.”

Not all residents of Old Town are treated that way, said 20-year-old Tra Marlui. He’s lived in Marshall Field his entire life and said he is accosted regularly by police.

“We’re stuck in a box here. But once you’re outside, you see more whites,” Marlui said. “And that’s when the police are stricter.”

Another former Cabrini-Green resident, Hazel Dorsey, said the known police presence in the neighborhood can have both positive and negative effects for the residents. She said it causes people to not be as cautious as they should be if police are always around.

“It gives people a sense of complacency,” Dorsey said.

The shooting has not shaken that complacency, especially among long-time business owners. Grossman, the pizza place owner, said the only crime he has encountered while operating his business is teenagers stealing from the tip jar.

Although the shooting shocked Abdrabo, he said he still considers the neighborhood relatively safe. Police take their lunch breaks in his store, and he’s developed a good relationship with them, he said.

“Coming out here, I’m walking up and down the streets, talking to people,” he said. “It’s not the South Side, that’s for sure.”

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