Graffiti on the Wicker Park fountain. (Photo courtesy of Doug Wood)
Over the past several years, the Wicker Park neighborhood has become a hot spot. Restaurants, bars and festivals bring in thousands of people from inside and outside of the neighborhood and the city. And the park itself has been cleaned up dramatically since 2002, when Doug Wood helped found the Wicker Park Garden Club.
Thanks in large part to community efforts, the park has changed from a drug dealers’ hangout to a clean, active spot for residents and families. In addition to a playground and a dog park, the park now hosts performance series funded by community groups and business.
“This summer we had nine puppet shows, three movies in the parks, and four Wicker Open Mics,” said Wood, also the founder of the Wicker Park Advisory Council’s new Security Enhancement Committee.
With the increased traffic into the area, however, vandalism has also increased. In the park, bordered by Damen, Schiller and Wicker Park Avenues, it seems that every weekend there are new incidences of graffiti on benches and on the fountain, litter and garden damage. In 2009, a bronze statue of neighborhood founder Charles G. Wicker, created by his great-granddaughter and sculptor Nancy Deborah Wicker, was toppled.
To prevent the vandalism, Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) has worked with the advisory council and the Park District to install two security cameras overlooking the park. He expects them to be installed within the next three weeks, and community volunteers will monitor the videos and call 911 if they see drug deals or defacement in the park.
The most common offenders, Wood and Moreno believe, are the railriders, or “selectively homeless people,” as Moreno calls them. Arriving every summer since 2009 and loitering in the park, “they are a combination of heavy drug users and youth who want to experience the ‘vagabond lifestyle’ while possessing cell phones and bank cards,” he said. “They come daily, drink, use drugs, scare families and possess dogs that run loose in the park.”
It’s not the homeless people who live in the neighborhood that are the problem; in fact, they’re often the ones keeping the plants alive in the summer by watering them. They have also stopped attempts since 2009 to topple the Wicker statue.
Instead, these people who are homeless by choice “travel around the country, thinking it’s cool to urinate in public, scribble other names, and all kinds of crap,” as well as drug-dealing, Moreno said. “They’re disrespectful trust-fund babies who think it’s cool to be homeless.”
It’s easy to understand why he’s angry. The Wicker statue toppling cost $16,000. The WPB (the special service area for Wicker Park and Bucktown) paid for one-third of the cost and the Park District covered the rest. The graffiti on the fountain, benches and picnic tables have to be removed by a special Park District–funded group.
“The alderman and [WPB] have reported that graffiti levels are some of the worst in the city,” Wood said. “They all spend way too much on removing all of it.” And the heavy drinking and drugs lead to cans and garbage scattered around the grounds.
“It requires lots of clean-up staff and time,” Wood said. “Neighbors help regularly, especially in March–June and September–December.”
With the cameras, Wood and Moreno hope to start increasing park security, but it’s not the only plan. Because the police can’t always be watching the park, they also hope to hire an external security firm to keep an eye on shady behavior. In the spring, for example, when vandalism rates start to rise, Wood suggested security officers can arrest attempted vandals and set a precedent for the rest of the season.
“The illegal activities,” Moreno wrote in his September 15 e-newsletter, “need to be stopped cold.”