State Street Coverage Initiative: “I’ve been walking these streets for forty years.”

A police car in front of the Bee branch libraryPolice car on the sidewalk outside the Chicago Bee Branch Public Library.

In the vestibule of the Chicago Bee Branch Library at 3647 South State Street, a painting extends from wall to wall over the entrance. It evokes a busy street scene during the heyday of the Black Metropolis—the African-American city-within-the-city created by the interplay between waves of Southern migrants and rigid patterns of Northern segregation. When one looks closely at the painting, it is apparent that it represents the two block stretch of South State Street on the other side of the library door. Central to the cityscape is the pale green Art Deco building in which the library is located. Commissioned in 1929 by Anthony Overton, it was the home of the Chicago Bee, a newspaper published by Overton that competed with the Chicago Defender. Also prominent in the painting is the other surviving landmark on the street, the Overton Hygienic Building, a block to the north, which originally housed a cosmetics company. Between these two anchors, there is a shoe repair shop, a men’s clothing store, a cleaner, a “general merchandise” store, a restaurant and bar, a cab stand, a women’s clothing store, a meat and poultry shop, a hat shop, a produce store, and a newsstand. The cobblestone street is crowded with people walking, shopping, talking, and enjoying the day. A moving truck and men with push carts make their way through the human traffic. Full of color and movement, the painting offers a vision of urban vitality and neighborly conviviality: the pleasures of the street.

When you step out of the library on to State Street, you encounter a scene strikingly different from the bright animation of the painting. What was once the most densely populated area of the city is now mostly vacant land awaiting “redevelopment.” On the east side of the street, amid boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots, are a handful of small businesses—a laundromat, a pool hall, a sandwich shop, a liquor store, a grocery store. On the west side of the street, the two surviving Stateway Gardens high-rises—a ten-story building on State and a seventeen-story building on Federal—stand alone in the open space created by the razing of six neighboring high-rises. In and around the open-air lobbies of the buildings, the drug trade operates: a desolate marketplace in which only one commodity is sold.

It is, at a glance, a gray landscape, as if shrouded in the dust from recent demolitions. Yet the pleasures of the street survive. Even in winter, when the weather relents a bit, South State Street comes alive. Yes, some customers hang out on the corner outside the liquor store. Street corner entrepreneurs sell “loose squares” (single cigarettes). And the librarians occasionally express concern about people obstructing the entrance to the library. (Beneath the painting in the vestibule evoking the street life of an earlier era is a “No Loitering” sign.) These chronic problems are present on the street, but so is the rest of life: much of the life of the community is played out on State Street. It is an intensely urban space, the place you go to get the news, to “meet and greet” and “conversate.” For many community members, it is a necessary perspective—a vantage point on life as it passes. There are people who gravitate to precisely the same spot on the street every day. Among them are some who looked on as Stateway was built and now are watching it being torn down.

In this long abandoned neighborhood undergoing “transformation,” three key public institutions provide settings and venues for the common life of the community: the Chicago Bee Branch Public Library, the Chicago Park District facility at 3658 South State, and the public forum of the street.

Community members sometimes refer to the Stateway area as “35th Street.” They describe it as “a safe place,” “welcoming and unstressful,” and “comfortable.” A young woman gave voice to the sentiments of many, when she spoke of the impact of recent police operations on the fragile social ecology of the street:

“The reason I like 35th is that it is—it used to be—a place for serenity. It’s a place where everybody can just relax. It’s not so hectic. The community doesn’t judge you. But the police treat everyone like a criminal. It’s not comfortable for me anymore.”

* * * *

The State Street Coverage Initiative was launched on January 7, the day Morton Walker and Shawn Baldwin were arrested. I have not seen the original order, but a subsequent memo from James Maurer, the Chief of Patrol Division, dated January 9 and dealing with reporting procedures for the operation, suggests its breadth. It is addressed to the Deputy Chiefs of Patrol of Area 1, the Central Control Group, and the Special Functions Group; to the Commanders of the 1st, 2nd, and 21st Districts; and to the Commanders of the Public Housing, Public Transportation, Special Operations, and Traffic Enforcement Sections.

Police in front of Stateway sub shop

A memo from Commander Marienne Perry of the 2nd District to the personnel under her command provides more detail about the scope of the operation. Commander Perry makes clear that the focus of the operation is “loitering.” The memo refers to the State Street “corridor”—words that used to evoke more than two miles of continuous public housing high-rises, stretching between 54th and 35th Streets and often described as the largest concentration of public housing (and of poverty) in the country. There were 28 buildings at the Robert Taylor Homes and eight buildings at Stateway Gardens. Today, after several years of demolition, there are five buildings at Robert Taylor and two at Stateway. The only active street life on the “corridor” is a small surviving remnant extending from 36th Street to the middle of the 3700 block.

The memo makes clear that the operation is directed at State Street and “not Wabash or any other street that does not have disorder problems at the immediate point where it intersects State Street.” The focus of this coordinated police action is thus loitering on a block and a half of State Street in midst of a post-apocalyptic landscape in the dead of winter.

According to the Perry memo, an extraordinary amount of police resources are to be deployed for this purpose. A two person car is to be stationed at 37th and State twenty-four hours a day with its blue lights (known as Mars lights) flashing. During the day, a traffic car is also to be stationed on State. All other 2nd District personnel—and presumably officers in certain other districts and sections of the CPD—are expected, if they are in the area and not otherwise engaged, to drive down State Street and make their presence known. Commander Perry also requests that the Public Housing Section keep a team stationed at 3616-18 South State twenty-four hours a day.

In short, the presence of poor African-Americans on one-and-a-half blocks of State Street—the sight of which is said to have upset the Mayor—has been treated at the highest levels of the CPD as a major priority requiring the mobilization of multiple divisions.

There appears to be considerable disaffection for this policy within the department. The only officer I talked with who was positive about the State Street operation was a crossing guard who, I suspect, welcomed having company at her lonely post. Some police personnel have said they hope citizens will complain about the operation. An officer in the Public Housing Section described it as “overkill.” It’s not a matter of law enforcement, he said, it’s a matter of “pleasing the boss”—the Mayor. Another said that the State Street operation undermined the efforts he and his colleagues have been making to build positive relationships with residents.

* * * *

During the first days of the State Street Coverage Initiative in early January, it was as if martial law had been declared on a block and a half of the South Side. There were uniformed officers on foot telling people to clear the street. Numerous arrests were made. Officers came into the Bee Branch Library and told the librarians to close the bathrooms. Police cars cruised up and down the street. On January 10, with temperatures in the low 20’s and heavy snow falling, I observed five police vehicles within one block: four squad cars with their Mars lights flashing and an unmarked car. Two of the squad cars, side by side and facing in opposite directions, blocked the entrance to the Park District facility (the site of a 2001 police raid on a basketball tournament that gave rise to a civil rights law suit currently in federal court). The unmarked car was parked on the sidewalk between the grocery store and the restaurant on the east side of the 3700 block. These were not uncommon sights during the first few weeks of the operation.

Five police cars on State Street

On the afternoon of January 13, a colleague, Luli Buxton, and I were at the library, waiting to meet Kate Walz, an attorney from the National Center on Poverty Law. Kate had asked me to arrange an interview with a Stateway resident about relocation issues. We had agreed to meet in front of the library. There was a lot of activity on the street, as children trooped home from school. From inside the library, we observed an officer in a squad car driving on the sidewalk and ordering people off the street. When we stepped outside, several people came up to us to tell their stories of being arrested for standing on the street, ticketed for jaywalking, harassed by police while waiting in line at the store, and told they could not wait for the bus at 37th and State. The scene was, as Luli put it, “hectic.”

Kate Walz arrived, accompanied by a Northwestern law student. At that moment, a squad car drove up on the sidewalk and ordered Kate and her companion to get off the street, to go into the library. Kate later reported that the law student, making her first visit to public housing, was deeply shaken.

“It felt like a tornado watch to me,” Luli observed of the wary mood of those on the street. “An atmospheric thing. The people on the street were all watching. They weren’t sharing a cigarette. They weren’t talking and hanging out. They were watching.”

Today, some seventy-two days after the launching of the State Street Coverage Initiative, a squad car remains parked at 37th and State, but the operation is far less intense. It is more passive. Officers can be observed dozing and reading the newspaper. Sometimes it appears that the squad car—with its Mars lights blinking incessantly—is awake and its occupants asleep. It functions, in effect, as a four-wheeled scarecrow.

The State Street operation is clearly winding down for the time being. But what will happen this spring, as the weather eases and more people come out on the street? In July, the Chicago White Sox will host Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game at the ball park across the expressway from Stateway now known as U. S. Cellular Field. As this occasion for the Mayor to showcase the city approaches, what will happen on State Street?

* * * *

Although Morton Walker no longer lives at Stateway, it remains part of him. He lives in Ford City now with a woman he knew as a child at Stateway. (They reconnected a couple of years ago at the “Back to the Community” street party held each August on South Wabash.) The building where he used to live—3517 South Federal—was razed last year, but his identity remains grounded at Stateway.

“We’re territorial,” he told me. “I come back to people I know. Old friends. This is my home.”

What, I wonder, would Mayor Daley see, as his limousine rolled by, if he were to look out at Morton talking with a friend in front of the Bee Branch Library? Would he see a citizen of this City of Neighborhoods—a Chicagoan passionately attached to his roots? Would he see a devoted patron of the Chicago Public Library system?

In any case, we know what the police officers who arrested Morton, acting pursuant to a policy that originated in the Mayor’s office, saw: an indigent black man talking with another indigent black man on a street the police had been directed to clear.

“It tears you up,” Morton observed a week after his arrest in the doorway of the library. “I’ve been walking these streets for forty years. Now this happens. I don’t get to protect myself by saying, ‘I’m from here.’ ‘So what? It’s time for you to leave.’ With all this crashing down, I don’t even think it’s safe to come back any more.”

Photographs of State Street taken between January 13th and March 1st, 2003.