On a recent Friday night, Gary Thomas threw an outdoor party at a hotspot in his West Side neighborhood.
There were no crowds or Solo cups or blaring stereos, though, on the corner of Kostner and Maypole avenues. And when a police officer arrived to say hello, partygoers welcomed her.
In a few hours, the scene on that sidewalk will be very different: The sounds of laughing neighbors gathered around a grill will be replaced by the whispers of drug dealers and their customers.
"By the end of tonight, they'll be back here," Thomas, 25, said about drug dealers on the block, where police made arrests in three separate incidents of heroin possession this year through July, according to online police data.
Police say they are cracking down on drug sales that drive the violence in West Garfield Park, which has the highest homicide rate of Chicago's 77 community areas.
This is not news to the community, still reeling from the death of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams, who became yet another symbol of the city's seemingly uncontrollable gun violence when she was shot to death at a sleepover last month in the 3900 block of West Gladys Avenue. Tevin Lee, 19, has been charged in her death in what prosecutors say is a case of gang retaliation.
Also recently, a study released by the city found West Garfield Park has the lowest life expectancy of Chicago community areas but offered few reasons for the ranking.
Because of these challenges, some West Garfield Parkers have left, but others, like Thomas, have taken small steps to reclaim their neighborhood—even their sidewalk, if only for a few hours.
What residents say they appreciate about living in West Garfield Park may have contributed to its problems: its proximity to the Eisenhower Expressway and to Garfield Park. The Eisenhower is an easy way for people who do not live in the area to get to West Garfield Park to buy drugs, police say.
Last year, Chicago police implemented the West Side Narcotics Initiative, which targets smaller scale busts, Chicago police spokesman Martin Maloney said. After narcotics officers make a bust, patrol officers maintain a presence in the area so another drug market doesn't quickly reappear.
As part of the program, police reassigned 30 officers to narcotics and 30 more to patrol, Maloney said.
West Garfield Park, which has loose borders of the CTA's Green Line to the north, Taylor Street to the south, Kenton Avenue to the west and Garfield Park to the east, has had the highest homicide rate of Chicago's 77 community areas over the past five years, according to a RedEye analysis of Chicago police data.
From 2009 through July, West Garfield Park logged 88 homicides among its population of about 18,000 residents, according to RedEye data.It's not the only West Side community overwhelmed by crime. Austin has logged more homicides than West Garfield Park—187 homicides from 2009 through July, RedEye determined. But Austin has about five times as many people as West Garfield Park. On average per year, Austin has seen a rate of about 34 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Still, West Garfield Park's homicide rate is higher. If it had a similarly sized population, it would average about 87 homicides per 100,000 residents annually.
Compared with Austin, West Garfield Park also lost a larger percentage of its population, about 21 percent, between 2000 and 2010, according to 2010 Census numbers.
For those who remain, there may be some comfort in knowing that violence in West Garfield Park is not widespread, according to research by Yale professor Andrew Papachristos.
Homicides are limited to a "small world of connected individuals," Papachristos determined after studying killings from 2005 to 2010. Papachristos pegs the West Side 11th Police District network at 1,500 people, many who engage in criminal activity and know each other.
"The risk of stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan is less than 10 out of a 1,000, which means it's safer to walk around a real war zone than it is for the young men in this network to walk around West Garfield Park,” Papachristos wrote.
For residents in West Garfield Park who are not in this network, the risk is "far better, though still not as safe as residents of, say, Jefferson Park or Edgewater."
For Fatima Allah, though, Shamiya's death was another excuse to keep her 4-year-old son Quenell inside.
Shamiya went to the same school as Quenell, Melody Elementary School in West Garfield Park, Allah said. Already at age 4, Quenell has picked up on the violent undertones in his neighborhood. In his church camp, he has learned to chant, "Boom, boom, stop the violence."
As the two walked their 13-year-old German shepherd Rambo near the Green Line tracks Wednesday morning, Allah, 33, told RedEye she doesn't feel safe outside her home.
"They shooting, and the police haven't solved the [case or found the] people who are shooting or anything so they still out here with guns," said Allah, who said she has spent time in West Garfield Park nearly all her life. "And who knows, they might come shoot right now."
The only reason she stays in the community, she said, is her grandmother, a longtime West Garfield Park resident. And though she is afraid of the activity in her area, Allah said she likes her neighbors and calls West Garfield Park "a nice neighborhood."
In it all, at least one elected leader has found a ray of hope in Shamiya's death.
"I think it's definitely a turning point for West Garfield Park," said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes East and West Garfield Park. "I saw people come together that I haven't seen come together for years. We don't want her death to be in vain."
The recent killings weren't figured into a newly released city health department study on life expectancy in the city, which examined data from 1990 to 2010. For residents in West Garfield Park, it's 68.8 years, while residents across Chicago live, on average, to be almost 78, the study showed.
Brian Richardson, a city health department spokesman, said the department wasn’t sure why West Garfield Park has the lowest life expectancy.
Richardson said the conclusions of the report will be used to determine needs for neighborhood programs.
Whitney Brown, 43, said she appreciates programs that give her 7-year-old son a place to be after school. Brown said she moved to West Garfield Park six years ago from North Lawndale, a decision she doesn't regret because she is near schools and grocery stores.
She said she has heard about violence in the neighborhood, but hasn't been affected by it.
When asked to describe West Garfield Park, she said, "Quiet, respectable neighbors."