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Elizabeth Riley/Medill

Betty Jo Swanson joins community members and police for a meeting about youth violence at Perspectives Calumet High School.

Worst block in the city? Not if Betty Jo Swanson has anything to say about it

by Elizabeth Riley
May 27, 2008


Elizabeth Riley/Medill

Betty Jo Swanson takes roll at a meeting of the 79th and Carpenter Block Club. 

A newspaper blows east in the wind down West 79th Street.

It glides through the air effortlessly until it reaches the intersection at Carpenter, coming into range of another force of nature.

Sixty-five-year-old Betty Jo Swanson stomps on the paper. She stoops effortlessly and picks it up.

Her fingers, worn but graceful, gently place the litter into a nearby trashcan.

Picking up trash along the sidewalks of Auburn-Gresham is a regular occurrence for Swanson, who has lived in the South Side community for 44 years, but it's the least of her impact.

As crime began to move into the community during the 1980s many residents and businesses left. Swanson and a handful of others decided to stay; they decided to put their foot down.

“In 1998 CrimeWatch deemed us one of the worst blocks in Chicago,” Swanson said.

Back then an old abandoned apartment building stood at the corner of West 79th and Carpenter. Its residents – squatters, prostitutes and drug dealers – dominated Swanson's block.  Neighbors coined the building “New Jack City” because of the movie about drugs, gangs and violence.

Dr. Max Newsome, a dentist who has had an office on the corner since 1967, remembers what it was like across the street from the building.

“I had considerable crime on my corner,” he said.  “Patients wouldn't come in.”

Newsome, who had a lot of loitering in front of his business, had to tell his customers not to be afraid.

His business was broken into twice and he said he thought about leaving the neighborhood, but it would have been too costly to relocate his office.

It was clear to Newsome, Swanson and others in the neighborhood that the building had to go.

As president of the 79th and Carpenter Block Club, Swanson worked diligently with the city, police and community groups to get the abandoned building torn down.

Once the building was demolished, in 1998, Swanson worked with her neighbors plant flowers in its place.

Today, still occupied with flowerbeds and a park bench, the space is a small parking lot for a senior citizens home across the street.

But getting rid of New Jack City didn’t end the problems plaguing the residents of West 79th and Carpenter streets.

Morgan Street, located one block east, was the dividing line between two gang territories.

Cars would race down Carpenter Street on their way to make drug runs. Parents were frightened that children would be hit.

Beola Bush, one long-time resident, remembers how dangerous the street used to be.

“Kids used to drive down here like it was the Dan Ryan,” she said.

Swanson relentlessly pestered city officials about the problem, almost to the point of becoming a nuisance.

“I used to call the mayor's office almost every day,” she said.

Eventually, the city barricaded the northern end of the block, making it into a cul-de-sac.

The street is quiet now. The speeding cars have gone elsewhere.

Next to the barricade, planted in a bed of flowers, is an ornate sign for the 79th and Carpenter Block Club.

But Swanson's efforts go beyond cosmetics.

Former Ald. Terry Peterson and current Ald. Latasha Thomas recall Swanson's dedication to the youth and police of the neighborhood in the 17th Ward.

“Some of the young kids were acting up. They [79th and Carpenter Block Club] would get hot dogs and the police would actually come and mingle with the kids,” Peterson said.

The block club provided lunch to the officers on all three shifts. They would stop by the block to dine on hot dogs and potato chips and play games with the kids.

“They weren't coming to arrest someone,” Thomas said. “They were coming to get to know the community.”

Swanson also recognizes the importance of business and worked with Peterson to keep long-standing businesses from leaving the community.

It was not easy.

Daycare owner Patricia Meyers said it had gotten so bad in the neighborhood that she would only hold classes in the back of her building on West 79th Street because the front windows were shot out.

“We felt like we were in a war zone. Most of us [business owners] lost a lot of business,” she said.

Meyers said she thought about leaving when a parent was killed picking up a child from daycare.

But Swanson's perseverance helped keep Meyers in the neighborhood. Swanson and Peterson would call or visit the local businesses on West 79th Street every day, begging them to stay.

There were even times when Swanson herself wanted to leave.

“Betty was headed to the suburbs. I recall that as though it were yesterday.  She was like 'Terry I'm tired. I'm gonna go.' Thank God no buyer came forward with what she was looking for in terms of an asking price,” Peterson said.

But Auburn-Gresham was Swanson's home, so she stayed.

Over time the block began to get better.

“We were back to being a block of caring people,” Swanson said.

Now, Swanson says she wants to be a model for other block clubs.

Another community member, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church, agrees.  

“People like Betty … ultimately that's the sustaining factor in a neighborhood. If every block in the city had that same determination and that same vision for it, there is no block that cannot turn around. And as the blocks turn around, it has a rippling effect –  the community turns around,” he said.

Walking down the street with Swanson, it's easy to see that Pfleger isn't the only one who respects her determination.

“Whoop, whoop.”

A siren sounds.

A police officer rolls down the window as his car turns down West 79th Street. With a smile he shouts out, “Hello, Mrs. Swanson!”

She responds with a wave and a smile.