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Erica Chu Headshot

Working for Safety in Lakeview

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Right now, people in the historically gay neighborhood of Lakeview (aka Boystown) are becoming more concerned about safety. Justifiably so -- a series of violent incidents has underscored to many that the places where they once felt safe don't seem as safe anymore. At the same time, racial tensions are rising in this predominately white neighborhood.

The vast majority of Lakeview residents are happy to welcome people of every color to the neighborhood, but there is definitely a caveat: make yourself at home, as long as you live up to middle-class standards -- be polite, be fairly quiet, and don't gather on sidewalks, in alleys, or on streets. Of course, inconsistencies exist. If you're a middle-class person blocking the sidewalk, urinating in an alley, being loud, calling out to strangers, or lingering outside while en route to a Cubs game, your favorite bar, or a good brunch spot, all is well. Drunken, rude, and inconsiderate behavior is apparently tolerated as long as you're supporting local businesses.

The youth of color who come to Lakeview can't afford such entertainments and are definitely not middle class. Like the poor homeless youth among the rioters at Stonewall Inn, young people have migrated to the part of town that is most accepting of queer identities. Each person has taken a good look at the danger and rejection they feel among the family and neighborhood they were raised in, and they come to Lakeview seeking refuge and the opportunity to meet others like themselves. Many have permanently left their families of origin. The lucky ones stay with friends, and many others wander the streets at night or try to sleep in some quiet place, braving all kinds of weather. Still others commute.

While few middle-class whites feel hatred for youth of color, racism and classism are exhibited in much more subtle fashion. Annoyance and resentment over minor infractions by poor youth build up over time, and when opportunity strikes, the middle class turns with suspicion, fear, intolerance, and accusation.

I've heard over and over again that those rallying for increased safety measures are not making any statements about race or class -- they just want safety. I believe that they do want and should work to make Lakeview safer. I also believe that they have assumptions and biases about race and class which cause them to target black youth in unknowingly sinister ways.

Every summer, there is increased violence in Lakeview and across Chicago. Some violence is committed in an attempt to steal, and some in an attempt to gain respect. Both cases are unfortunate and, I believe, wrong. We should try to prevent such violence, and one method that has been adopted by the majority of those decrying the lack of safety is increased surveillance by the state, by police, and by citizens with access to the internet. For one, this method is often done in ways that focus on the infractions of blacks or the poor and not the same infractions committed by whites or the middle class. More importantly, I don't think this is quite right or even the best route to ensuring safety, but I understand why many want to take it.

Another method of preventing violence that I believe is more effective is to attend to the root causes such as injustices that bring about the desperate need for resources and respect. Poverty is one of those injustices and has all sorts of ramifications -- educational inequality, fewer employment options, even health risks and greater discrimination. Residents of Lakeview may find it daunting to address those injustices and prevent things like gang activity, but there are a few very tangible things that can be done more quickly to prevent some of the violence that has occurred.

First is to prioritize the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness. In this era of "It gets better," it's a damn shame if we do nothing but say "Move on" to the youth who don't even have a place to stay for the night. We need shelters specifically dedicated to LGBTQ youth, who face harassment and abuse in other shelters. We need these shelters to be open year-round and to have enough beds to house all who need them.

Secondly, we need to provide safe space for LGBTQ youth to express themselves and explore their present and future. We can do this by providing useful and affirming programming organized by compassionate staff who include the youth in planning. We also need to keep safe spaces open as long as possible. Closing doors to youth early in the day will not make them disperse sooner, it will encourage them to find other things to do and find other places to socialize. Some youth may choose the streets and sidewalks over youth centers and that is their right, but when we provide options for youth, we make them less vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And most importantly, respect the youth. Respect their right to be in the neighborhood they call home. Be intolerant of violence, but be tolerant of ways of expression that may not be similar to your own. If the noise they make is disruptive, ask them to be quiet as you would ask any other group. If they are belligerent, warn them you will call the cops if they don't quiet down or move. Some of these kids don't always make wise decisions, but they are worthy of your respect. They are individuals with their own stories and reasons for making the choices they make.

Even if we do these three things perfectly, violence will not stop completely. Some matters are too big and would need cooperation and resources beyond what Lakeview has access to -- but if we who are progressive claim to care about the LGBTQ community, we must care about this very vulnerable subset. And if safety really is our concern, we will find that when we do these three things, we will absolutely make this community and its streets much safer for all.