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Pushing Out Pushers, The Chicago Way

Neighbors move from `dope to hope,' but they may find federal bureaucrats to be tougher opponents than dealers

THE steady hum of lawn mowers mixes with children's laughter in west Chicago, suggesting idyllic pride and security in workaday America. Carefully swept walks in the Northwest Austin neighborhood lead through beds of marigolds, zinnias, and tight-clipped hedges to the welcome of broad front porches.

But the trim stucco or red-brick homes conceal the incursion of narcotics into another seemingly solid Chicago neighborhood. Over the past several years, drug dealers have moved into many homes in the area, bringing theft, stabbings, and gunfights with them.

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Neighborhood leaders in a grass-roots movement have fought back using building codes and narcotics laws with the aid of lawyers at the narcotics nuisance abatement unit in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.

By warning or suing landlords who are connected with the drug dealing, knowingly or otherwise, the residents of Northwest Austin and county lawyers have shut down 15 drug dens.

In 35 other sites out of the 130 households in the small enclave, they have pressured landlords into voluntarily evicting pushers and addicts. They have flushed the dealers into the streets, where some of the dealers still remain active but are more conspicuous.

``We call it going from dope to hope,'' says Leola Spann, president of the Northwest Austin Council and a leader of the council's first legal assault on a drug den in 1990. Countywide, the narcotics unit has driven dealers from several hundred drug dens.

Now, however, Mrs. Spann and other residents may have to face the pushers alone. Under a restriction in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, Congress next year is scheduled to cut $564,000 of the $754,000 annual budget for the county's drug-abatement unit.

Northwest Austin would try to make do by seeking pro bono help from law schools in Chicago, says Elce Redmond, executive director of the Northwest Austin Council. But a budget reduction for the abatement unit would hamper the neighborhood battle against drugs.

``We definitely need it [the abatement unit],'' Spann says.

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``Community groups are not the best tool we have to go against drugs, we don't have the resources to do the legal work or the research,'' she says.

The state's attorney's office is urging Congress to exempt the abatement unit from a sunset provision that limits funding to the four years ending July 31, 1994. With the help of Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, it is asking that Congress allow the unit to reapply for funding in future years from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

``It will be a long shot,'' says Jeff Travis, spokesman for the Illinois authority. He says Congress will probably deny the exemption in order to forestall a flurry of copycat requests from similar efforts across the country.

The unit will also probably encounter a skeptical ear from the White House, adds Mr. Travis. The Clinton administration has indicated that it will strengthen drug treatment rather than emphasize heavy law enforcement in its efforts against narcotics.

But Jack O'Malley, the Cook County State's Attorney, says that Attorney General Janet Reno has voiced support for the unit and says her office will consider ways to sustain its funding.

MR. O'Malley depicts the abatement unit as a novel hybrid of hard and soft tactics against drugs. Instead of treating narcotics users, it treats neighborhoods by encouraging self-confidence and empowering citizens to drive out the pushers, he says.

``I'm absolutely convinced that we can have all the hard-line enforcement we want, but we will not turn the tide,'' O'Malley says.

``What we must do is ensure that the segment of the population that is intolerant toward drugs is the segment in control. This [the abatement unit] is an incredibly useful tool for them,'' he says.

After years of watching violence spiral and property values decline, the Northwest Austin Council took the offensive against drug dealers in September 1990. Upholding a little-known law called the Controlled Substance and Cannibis Nuisance Act, it sued a woman who ran a neighborhood narcotics den from her jail cell.

Under the law, the owner of a property must halt narcotics activity or face a possible court order requiring that the property be vacated and boarded up for a year.

The successful suit cleared the way for several more. Today, landlords can be compelled to evict narcotics dealers just with a letter or a warning.

By working with the unit, many people in Northwest Austin have revitalized their civic spirit and confidence. ``People know they have tools to fight back and it gives them a sense of hope that things are not going to fall by the wayside and their neighborhood won't be totally besieged,'' Mr. Redmond says.

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