By Lolly Bowean
CHICAGO — The night after three teenagers were shot and wounded in Merrill Playground Park on the Far South Side, about 75 residents gathered nearby in the dark, sharing ideas with police and city officials on how to reclaim the park from gangbangers.
Many of the residents were still wearing their work uniforms Wednesday night.
The obstacles facing the residents became evident as youths crowded by the park's metal fence, smoking cigars, flashing gang signs, laughing and talking so loudly that they interrupted a city official's comments. A young woman filmed the residents with her cellphone and loudly proclaimed her desire to "slap somebody." At one point, police intervened and asked some in the rowdy crowd to leave.
"Why are they even over here?" one resident asked. "It doesn't make sense."
The concerned residents were participating in Operation: Wake-Up!, a little-publicized police initiative to work with neighborhoods to retake parks in the aftermath of shootings. Part of Chicago's community policing strategy, the events have been held after violence at other parks, including last month's shooting at Cornell Square Park that wounded 13 and again put Chicago in national headlines because of its violence.
Historically, parks and playgrounds have been community anchors where residents meet and children come to swing, climb on the jungle gym, learn to throw and dribble balls, and fall off their training bicycles. To live by a park used to be considered an asset and a boost for property values.
But a recent spate of high-profile shootings at South Side parks has framed play areas as gang strongholds. Parks have been the scene of some of Chicago's most highly publicized shootings this year, most notably the slaying of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton in Harsh Park in January.
Officials said the city has sunk resources into the play areas to improve much-needed recreational opportunities.
Now there is a push to empower residents to take back their parks and make the spaces welcoming again for families and children.
"Parks are places where families gather," Chicago police Cmdr. Ronald Holt said. "... But unfortunately you get gang factions that think they can hang there and cause problems."
Residents say their community parks reflect the infestation of gun violence and warring cliques and are no longer suitable for innocent children.
The fear created by a shooting in a park ripples far and wide.
In the Jeffery Manor neighborhood, Danielle Morris lives just a few houses away from cozy Merrill Playground Park, which is manicured and outfitted with basketball courts, updated playground equipment, swings and a small grass field. But she has forbidden her two small children from going near the park.
"My kids do cheering, tumbling, dancing, other extracurricular activities," Morris said. "If I take them to a park, I put them in the car and drive them to the Hyde Park area, which is far away from here."
Longtime resident Ronald Jones Jr. said Merrill's nickname is "Murder Park."
"How can you use the park when you're scared you'll get shot?" he asked.
Keith Kysel, who lives steps away from Cornell Square Park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side, won't take his 4-year-old daughter Harmony there to play.
"It's a beautiful park, but there is a (dark) history here," he said.
Intended to be open and welcoming, parks are magnets for gang members. If the park is viewed as a rival gang's turf, it can become a target — despite the presence of children or other innocents.
With the take-back events, police hope residents fill the parks with positive activity, forcing away the bad element.
"What we want is to draw on the stakeholders and residents and homeowners to give their attention to the area," said Holt, who lost a son to gun violence.
"You have to engage the community and get them to use the park for good and honest purposes."
After he was shot in the leg last month at Cornell Square Park, said Curtis Harris, 37, he has returned numerous times, walking the grounds with the aid of a cane and standing on the basketball court where he was wounded.
"I've walked around this park at least 30 times since I got shot," he said. "I had to, to get myself to cope with what happened. This is life, things happen. I understand why the kids are scared, and it's sad, very sad.
"For me, this is home. I can't be afraid of where I stay."
A week after the shooting, Chicago police hosted a cookout at Cornell Square Park. Officers grilled burgers and hot dogs and handed out bags of chips and beverages. They blasted the soulful sounds of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Al Green as children ran around in their crisp school uniforms and played soccer.
"This property belongs to the people," said Ald. Willie Cochran, whose 20th Ward borders the community. "... We hope it will lead our children to feel a new sense of safety."
Enrique Aguilar, 13, said he and his younger siblings have a strategy to their play in the park. They stay away from the more open areas and keep their distance from the basketball courts because that's where the teens tend to gather. The children are mindful of any graffiti that could indicate it's the turf of a gang faction. And they make sure they are gone long before dark, Enrique said.
"I'll only come here if I see a lot of people around," he said. "We stay as far as we can from the edges because it's easier for people with weapons to escape there. We have to look out."
The scene at Merrill Playground Park was much less festive on the take-back night Wednesday.
The Jeffery Manor residents sat peacefully as they listened to public officials encourage them to sign petitions, attend Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meetings and do the legwork to get cameras installed and more security added. In the darkened park, they used their cellphones for light to sign paperwork and read documents.
Before police and city officials could finish their speeches, it became clear what the residents faced. Younger people outside the park whistled at each other and cracked jokes with the glare of blue police lights in the background. Some of them cursed loudly and even yelled at the police as they were urged to leave.
Felicia Davis, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Public Engagement, couldn't ignore the obvious hostility.
"I'm just gonna keep it real," she said to the gathering. "Some people are not here for the reason to do good. But (there's) way more of you than the people who want to do harm."
Davis urged the residents to fight back.
"This is your block," she said. "You should not have to fear. Take the stand: 'This is our block and we are not retreating.'"
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Chicago Tribune