Hank Rush just adopted a gray pit bull mix named Nellie, and the Barry Street resident gravitated to the dog run at Hamlin Park, 3035 N. Hoyne Ave., to exercise his new pet. Rush said Nellie struggles to run on the park’s gravel–he’d prefer wood chips, thank you –but since moving to the neighborhood from Uptown 18 months ago, he and Nellie have visited the park several times. “It’s nice,” he said. “It seems like it’s all young families in this area.”
That impression was supported by the population of the park on a recent Saturday. Every corner of Hamlin Park was filled with activity, from batting practice to flag football and tennis to parents pushing their children on the swings. On this day, even retired Chicago Cubs pitching great Kerry Wood and family paid a visit to the park’s massive Prairie-style fieldhouse.
Nowhere was there a sign of the generally minor but persistent crime activity that has hung on in parts of the park and the surrounding neighborhood for decades. The huge wall defining the outdoor pool area was free of graffiti from any of the gangs that have claimed or tried to claim the park. The small store diagonal to the park that once was a hangout for the neighborhood’s rougher elements is now under new management, brighter and more inviting. And blighted houses across from the park are being renovated and torn down to make way for newer housing.
Rush was unaware of the park’s history, and the challenges people living in the area have faced trying to keep undesirable elements away. In fact, he’s taken note of a strong Chicago Police Department presence in the area. “I see cops circling the neighborhood, so I don’t think that’s an issue at all,” he said.
It’s exactly the impression that Charlie Beach hoped visitors would one day have when he and some like-minded residents re-launched the Hamlin Park Neighbors group following a shooting near the park in the fall of 2011. Now, watching a quick game of softball near the fieldhouse, he agreed the feeling is different now. “I feel good about it,” Beach said. “I think people are more engaged. We can move en masse so that if one person notices a problem, we can create a voice.”
“Crime has gone down a lot around the park,” agreed Hamlin Park Advisory Council head Jody Boutell, whose group along with HPN comprises the one-two punch spearheading improvements in and around the park. “In the past year it’s become safer.”
The numbers back up that impression. A Center Square Journal analysis of invasive non-domestic crimes in a one-block radius around the park shows reports of 78 crimes for the 2012 calendar year. That’s at least a six-year low based on previous analyses of the same area going back to 2007. The reduction in crime near the park is also good news for Paul Sajovec, the chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who describes what’s left of a criminal element near Hamlin Park as being more of a “wanna-be” gang than an actual gang. He also notes that one of the key magnets for criminal activity in the area — a house in the 3100 block of North Hoyne Avenue — had been the subject of repeated contacts by the Housing Department and the Cook County Assessor’s Office, and has become less of an issue in recent months.
HPN and the alderman’s office have also worked closely with previous Chicago Police 19th District Cmdr. John Kenny and current Cmdr. Elias Voulgaris to address neighbors’ concerns, and Beach says the department has been responsive. “They understand what’s going on,” he said. Cmdr. Voulgaris made a splash shortly after taking over the 19th District in September by holding what many residents said was the park’s first-ever outdoor roll call. The show of force from uniformed and undercover officers followed a chase and shooting incident that ended about a block from the park. Boutell said the turnout from neighbors for the roll call was a great unifying moment for people in the area. “Everyone’s feeling more interconnected because I think people are getting exposed to each other through different events,” she said. Cmdr. Voulgaris did not respond to CSJ’s requests for an interview.
While Beach and the HPN group talked to police and city leaders about securing the park and the neighborhood from outside elements, Boutell and HPAC turned their focus inside the park itself. Their specific mission was revitalizing the park’s playground, which was last redone in the 1990s when wood chips were the height of impact-cushioning technology. The council set its sights on raising as much as $600,000 for a new playground area, and Boutell said events like last summer’s staging of Circus In The Park, partnerships with local businesses and two successful Easter-egg hunts (the most recent one attracting 1,000 people) have already helped raise $65,000 in a year.
“We’re probably happy to be where we thought we’d be,” Boutell said. “We knew that there was a lot of support for this in the neighborhood, and support from elected officials has been great.” That support and visibility is in itself bringing new fundraising opportunities. For two weekends in August, the Chicago Park District will bring the city’s new “Shakespeare In The Park” program to Hamlin Park with stagings of “As You Like It.”
While the events continue, the Advisory Council has started meeting with a project manager from the Chicago Park District to begin planning the new playscape’s amenities. Early discussions have included chalkboards, a train and even a water feature. The Council also expects to sponsor other areas of the park, including making improvements to the dog run area. “To have some money to help…with that is fun too,” Boutell said.
And the Hamlin Park Neighbors group is now turning its attention outside the boundaries of the park. Beach said recent meetings have centered on concerns related to the controversial redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes public housing project at Clybourn and Diversey. Plans reportedly include new retail space south of Diversey and a mix of market-price and lower-income homes in the existing buildings to the north, but the most recent meetings to discuss those plans were abruptly canceled last month.
Beach also said elected leaders that represent the neighborhood are increasingly coming to them for input on zoning and other issues that affect the character of the area. “(Ald.) Waguespack knows that we want to know,” he said. “I get an email every time someone’s talking about doing something in the neighborhood that doesn’t fit.”
Both groups continue to keep their radar up for signs that some of the park’s former visitors will return to resume their activities, but Beach and Boutell both indicated that the neighborhood’s new energy and engagement will help to quickly address any incident. “The more you’re out at events, the more you see each other, and it’s a domino effect from that,” Boutell said. “It feels like the Hamlin Park area has the same feeling as Roscoe Village.”
“We are having a positive influence,” Beach agreed, “which makes the neighborhood better.”