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Shortly after Amy Knapp moved into her Near West Side apartment three years ago she heard gun shots.

But instead of succumbing to fear, Knapp decided to fight to make her neighborhood better. While perception of crime tends to be worse than the reality, experts say, transitioning neighborhoods are a different phenomenon. Though residents still realize the potential dangers, they are putting aside their fears and proactively trying to better the area.

East Garfield Park, Austin’s neighboring community on the West Side, is on the rise, complete with mixed-income housing. There are foreclosed properties and empty lots that have been vacant since the 1960s, where homes once stood but were lost to fires during the riots. Yet, it also has new construction and neighbors campaigning to bring amenities in – including the area’s first major supermarket, which is scheduled for next year. East Garfield Park was even called the most “up-and-coming neighborhood in Chicago” in 2007 by BusinessWeek magazine.

But it is not crime-free. There were about 1,100 major crimes per 10,000 people in 2008, almost twice as much as the entire city of Chicago – about 589 per 10,000, according to the Chicago Police Department and U.S. Census data.

“I guess safety was the first thing that got me involved,” Knapp said, “and then we started to realize if we wanted anything we were going to have to do it ourselves.”

Knapp, who moved in because of the low price and ample space, said, though, she is still very aware of the area crime; she uses that fear to bring people together.

“I think it’s a healthy fear that drives people and I don’t necessarily think we put it away. I don’t,” she said. “I don’t understand why this neighborhood can’t be as nice and as crime free as other neighborhoods, especially violent crimes, gun shots, things like that.”

Reclaiming neighborhoods

While people generally tend to be more alert to disorderly behavior – triggering a fearful reaction and a downward spiral – in transitioning neighborhoods, they take hold of their space, argues George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice and co-author of the “broken windows theory.”

“[If] they lay claim to it, they can keep the predators from taking it over in many cases,” he said, insisting that active citizens can reclaim neighborhoods. “So, that business of being a good citizen, and organizing and exercising control over space, can have a big impact on crime.”

Proactive residents are not a new thing in East Garfield Park. Longtime resident Mattie Simpson recognizes the many problems in the area, but has been working to make it better. She consistently goes to community meetings.

“It’s a way to handle people; to meet with them and negotiate,” she said. “You don’t have to get angry about something to see how we can better our conditions without being over enthusiastic or radical.”

As new people have moved in to the neighborhood, however, Simpson, a 20-year-resident, has seen positive changes, including more mixed income residents moving in. Crime, she added, is mostly gang-related, in her opinion; but it’s slowed down. The semi-retired teacher also feels safe, and maintained that as long as she minds her own business, she isn’t bothered.

“I’m not [afraid] because I don’t hang with those people,” Simpson said.

As “gentrifiers” move in, they bring a very specific set of concerns with them, said Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in crime and policing issues. Skogan compared East Garfield Park to the previously-transitioning neighborhood of Uptown on the North Side, where new residents attacked homelessness, break-ins and other nuisances.

“You need these kinds of mutual support networks. I think they need more conscious building in changing neighborhoods,” he said.

Growing a community

When people buy into transitioning areas, they are buying into the community, added Mabel Guzman, president-elect of Chicago Association of Realtors. Apartments in East Garfield Park, she noted, are being scooped up despite a slow economy, and that such attractions as the 13-acre Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park, are huge selling points.

“Home ownership isn’t just about ‘you bought, you walk in and lock the door.’ It’s about leveraging home ownership into building your community, building some roots,” Guzman said.

She added that when people speak up, they get the amenities they want – that businesses follow the money.

Barbara Minor, who has lived in the area for 13 years, attends regular community meetings, as well. A retired social service worker, Minor, who’s 69, is hopeful things will change. Though she doesn’t consider the neighborhood that safe – Minor says she wouldn’t walk around by herself due to crime in the area – she is optimistic, citing new residents and new stores sprouting up.

“I hope it would be helpful. All I can say is: ‘I hope.’ I live here and I’d like wherever I live to be decent,” she said.

Involvement is a key part to revitalizing the neighborhood, according to Ald. Ed Smith (28th), whose ward encompasses part of East Garfield Park.

“We don’t have as many problems now as we had six months ago in certain areas. Everybody works together out here,” he said.

Smith, though, cautioned that money is necessary to affect real change.

Still, Knapp said something as simple as free yoga lessons in the park can make the neighborhood better. And that is exactly what she and her boyfriend, Andre Perrin, did when they formed the Neighbors’ Development Network.

“It doesn’t make sense that this neighborhood has to be different than any other,” she said.