The most dangerous block in Chicago isn’t in Englewood or on the West Side. It’s a stretch of South King Drive where a young Michelle Obama once lived.
They call it “O Block.”
On maps, it’s the 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. But it’s just O Block to people there and in frequent references to the street in the blood-drenched lyrics of Chief Keef and other Chicago rappers.
The sprawling Parkway Gardens low-income apartment complex sits on one side of the street. A string of businesses including an Auto Zone, a food mart and the Chicago Crusader newspaper lines the other.
Young men in hoodies and low-riding jeans gather in the courtyards here, staring down strangers. Mothers hurry past, holding tight to little hands as they shuttle between the neighborhood school and the safety of their apartments. Security cameras posted nearly everywhere here see it all.
Gang members gave O Block the name. The O was for 20-year-old Odee Perry, a gang member gunned down just around the corner on a summer’s night in 2011. His killer? A 17-year-old female gang assassin named Gakirah Barnes, police sources say. Barnes later was shot to death not far from here.
Perry was one of 19 people shot on O Block between June 2011 and June 2014. That makes it the most dangerous block in Chicago in terms of shootings in that three-year period, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.
Two of the victims were killed.
None of the shootings has resulted in criminal charges.
And none of the weapons has been recovered.
The number of people shot would have been even higher, the police say, if not for one shooter’s bad aim. Gerald Preacely, 22, is accused of shooting at a group of people standing outdoors on O Block on June 3 — then firing at two police officers who saw him do it. Somehow, no one was hit. Preacely — already on parole for illegal possession of a gun — is now charged with attempted murder.
Despite the violence, things are actually better now around O Block than they’ve been, the police and politicians say. They point to figures that show most of the shootings on O Block the past three years happened in the first two years of that span and that no one has been shot to death in two years.
Shootings are also down in the general area. O Block sits in the midst of the Chicago Police Department’s Beat 312, which stretches east from the Dan Ryan Expressway past Cottage Grove, roughly between 63rd and 65th streets. Since 2012, the number of shootings in Beat 312 is down by 59 percent through September, the police say.
In an effort to curb the violence, more officers have been assigned to patrol the area on foot and in cars, focusing on an “impact zone,” drawn up in February 2013, of five square blocks with O Block near the middle. Ten veteran officers patrol the zone, along with additional officers fresh out of the police academy.
“There is progress being made in the beat and the whole district,” says Robert Tracy, chief of crime-control strategy for police Supt. Garry McCarthy.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former police sergeant whose ward includes O Block, says the police have sent a message to gangs that the shooting must stop.
“The gangbangers have listened,” says Cochran, whose 26 years as a cop included time patrolling O Block and the surrounding area. “They have cooperated.”
But the shootings, while down, haven’t stopped.
A little past 9 in the morning on Oct. 23, young kids from the neighborhood were safe in their classrooms at Dulles elementary school, a block north. But on O Block yellow police tape marked the scene of another shooting.
It had been going on all night long, according to people at the Parkway Gardens apartments, where popular rapper Chief Keef used to hang out.
Then, at 9:20 a.m., a 22-year-old man was shot in the face inside the Parkway Super Market at 6435 S. King Dr. across from Parkway Gardens. He was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
James Rufus is a butcher at the Parkway Super Market. Things will have to improve a lot more before he feels safe. On April 14, Rufus’ 23-year-old nephew was shot on O Block. A man in a hooded sweatshirt followed him out of the supermarket, pulled a gun and shot him in the head outside Parkway Gardens.
The nephew survived but was left paralyzed. He got out of the hospital in September and now needs a wheelchair to get around.
Rufus says he thinks a gang member from Woodlawn, east of King Drive, shot his nephew, mistaking him for a rival.
“It could be better, much better, around here,” says Rufus. “I see more kids during school hours than after school. They’re just hanging out. Things still need to change.”
When Michelle Obama was a baby, her family lived on O Block, in Parkway Gardens, the complex of 35 buildings that stretches from 63rd to 66th along King Drive. She wasn’t even 2 when her parents moved the family from Parkway Gardens to a home on Euclid Avenue, closer to the lake, in 1965.
Her childhood memories of the apartment complex where she once lived are of “a wonderful, small apartment building,” the first lady told Time magazine in 2009. “But now when I pass it, it’s — I was, like, God, I never saw that apartment in the way that I’m seeing it now.”
Over the years, Parkway Gardens became a haven for gangs. These days, the police say, the Black Disciples control both sides of King Drive and Parkway Gardens, and the rival Gangster Disciples claim the neighborhood of single-family homes to the east.
The gangs fuel their antagonism online in 140-character bursts on Twitter and in rap songs uploaded to YouTube. Often, it carries over into real life.
That’s what gives the area its other name: “Wiiic City” — for Wild, Insane, Crazy.
“You can catch a shooting in the rain, the snow or the sun,” says one cop who works the block. “The GDs won’t go in to the McDonald’s or the drive-through because that’s BD. It’s all about territory.”
The dismantling of a nearby Chicago Housing Authority high-rise complex also figures into the calculus of crime on the block. Randolph Towers — 144 apartments spread across 16 buildings in the 6200 block of South Calumet — had been the hub of operations for the Black Disciples until it was razed in 2007 as part of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, the police say.
Many of those gang members moved about three blocks away, to the low-rise Parkway Gardens apartments, which are privately managed and cater to low-income tenants.
Ever since, there’s been friction between BDs and GDs outside the complex.
Around O Block, people fear the gangs.
“It’s rough,” one woman says. “A lot of shootings happen.”
A woman who’s lived in Parkway Gardens for a quarter century says: “It was nicer back then, flowers planted in the beds, the grass kept up, less violence in and around the complex. You have to watch yourself more these days.”
Another, the mother of a young daughter, says that when she wants the girl to be able to play outdoors, she takes her to a park on the Southwest Side because of the frequent gunfire outside her apartment in Parkway Gardens.
Yet another young mom, Stacey Griffin, echoes that: “I have to watch my back, always watching over your shoulder. The police do be around, but, I mean, crime still goes on. I rush my son in to the house because you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t allow my son to play in the playground, either. I would take him to a far-out, better neighborhood to let him play.”
A young man offers a warning to anyone unfamiliar with the area: “It’s dangerous out here. If you ain’t from here, don’t come here, please don’t. It’s real, it’s hectic.”
In “52 Bars (Part 4),” Chicago rapper Lil Durk lamented the violence and gave a nod to Sheroid Liggins, a reputed gang member shot and killed in February 2012 when he walked out of a store on O Block: “Askin’ why they took Sheroid. Gave an inch they took a yard.”
In the winter of 2011, the Rev. Corey Brooks became famous as the pastor on the roof when he camped out for months on top of a boarded-up motel nearby, in the 6600 block of South King Drive, to draw national attention to the rampant gunfire in the neighborhood. Brooks says things aren’t as bad today. But gang factions continue to battle there, he says, with homemade rap videos posted online often fueling the violence.
Gang members from the Parkway Gardens side of King Drive still risk getting shot if they cross Vernon Avenue two blocks to the east or venture north past 63rd, says Brooks, who raised more than $450,000 with his rooftop campaign, bought and demolished the motel and plans to build a community center in its place.
“You have kids on both sides who are fenced in because of their conflicts with each other,” he says of O Block.
He points to Parkway Gardens and says the difference between the mid-1960s, when the first lady’s family lived there, and today is drastic.
“The environment was family-focused,” he says. “People were working. When you eliminate all those things from a community — men not in the household and education failing — it will be a drastic difference than what the first lady of the United States and her family experienced.”
Tracy, the police crime-control strategy chief, says O Block remains one of his major challenges.
“We have to stay ahead of it,” he says of the violence there.
The police have tried to do that by pouring officers into the “impact zone” around Parkway Gardens. They’re also putting to use strategies, suggested by a Yale sociologist who’s studied crime in Chicago, that aim to identify potential troublemakers and stop them from shooting.
They’ve done a “gang audit” to identify gang members in the area. Now, after a shooting, police officials say they can use this list to go to gang members and make it clear they’re watching them and won’t tolerate retaliation.
Also, they say they are monitoring social media for threats between gang members.
And they are now targeting gang members deemed likely, on the basis of the circles they travel in, to commit violent acts — or to become a victim of violence — by warning them they’re at risk and ietting them know they’re being watched.
These tactics, based on the research of Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos, have been effective elsewhere around the city, the police say.
In the 20 months before the police drew up the five-square-block impact zone that includes O Block and started putting extra officers on patrol, there were 32 shootings. In the first 20 months after, there were 10 shootings — a sign, the police say, of progress.
Officers in marked and unmarked cars regularly can be seen driving along O Block and through the Parkway Gardens complex. On several afternoons in recent weeks, an officer was parked the entire time in a marked squad car in the complex on side streets off King Drive, and private security guards could be seen walking through the courtyards.
“They put in new security and removed people who weren’t supposed to be living there,” says Cochran, who says he pushed for a change at Parkway Gardens that saw Related Companies take over the complex’s management in late 2012.
Before that, Cochran says, “You had a lot of people who were not on the lease in places where guns, drugs and gang members were being harbored.”
Related has put in a $350,000 artificial turf field at Dulles elementary school, adjacent to Parkway Gardens, hoping to give kids and teens a place to play.
“The presence and quick response of officers has deterred crime recently,” the alderman says. “We have not solved it 100 percent. But there has been a host of actions that have been taken.”
On a recent afternoon, dozens of young men lingered in the courtyards at Parkway Gardens. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here anymore,” one warned.
Yvonne Gayden has felt the violence — and says it still hangs over O Block and Parkway Gardens. Her son, Edward Riley, 20, was shot to death as he walked with his girlfriend on O Block on Oct. 19, 2011. The two gunmen also shot and wounded a 15-year-old boy.
Riley had attended Dulles elementary when the family lived in the neighborhood, near 63rd and Eberhart. Later, they moved north to 53rd and Wallace, but Parkway Gardens was his world, his mother says.
Gayden says her son was a “kindhearted young man” despite having a rap sheet with arrests for drug possession and gambling and having been convicted for possessing a handgun with a defaced serial number.
“He was no angel,” she says. “But I will not blame my son for hanging out at Parkway with his friends. He grew up with those guys.”
Still, she says she warned him about going there.
“That place is a death trap,” she says.
Contributing: Art Golab