CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – When most people think of parks, images of slides and swings, ball fields and basketball hoops, Rollerbladers and moms pushing strollers may come to mind.
But in some urban neighborhoods with highly migratory immigrant populations, that image may take on a more ominous tint as the Rollerbladers and stroller-pushing mamas are replaced by gangbangers packing knives and guns, and pushing drugs.
“Parks by nature are a great site for gangs,” says Kim Shinew, a University of Illinois professor of recreation, sport and tourism who, with colleague Monika Stodolska, has been studying perceptions and use of park facilities in Chicago’s Little Village and East Side neighborhoods.
“Parks are very conducive to gangs because it gives them a place to hang out,” Shinew said. And because parks are public spaces, gang members congregating in them are less likely to be hassled by police for loitering, making such areas the perfect setting for nefarious activities.
Unfortunately for residents who live nearby, the presence of gangs in the parks often prevents them from using the parks to participate in leisure activities, according to the U. of I. researchers. In fact, one neighborhood resident participating in the research described the situation in unequivocal terms, stating that “gangs own the parks.”
The study by the U. of I. researchers, titled “Gangs of Chicago: Perceptions of Crime and Its Effect on the Recreation Behavior of Latino Residents in Urban Communities,” focuses on leisure practices by Little Village and East Side residents. The research article, with graduate student co-author Juan Carlos Acevedo, is scheduled for publication later this year in the journal Leisure Science.
According to Shinew and Stodolska, the study’s main objectives were “to examine how gangs operate in recreation spaces in Latino neighborhoods, how gangs affect the use of outdoor recreation environments, and how Latinos respond to these issues.”
The research is based on focus groups consisting of 13 male and 13 female residents of the two neighborhoods. Those interviewed included first- and second-generation Latino residents of the two areas. All were of Mexican descent.
Among residents who used area parks despite the presence of gangs, various strategies were employed in an attempt to secure their personal safety. Strategies included dressing in the “right colors” (that is, not the colors of gangs that were rivals to those who dominated a particular park), having a gang-affiliated escort or knowing a gang member.
Other residents indicated that they traveled by car to other parks, including those in more suburban locations, on the weekends to participate in recreational activities.
Stodolska noted that while some were able to travel to other areas, that was not a viable option for many residents.
“Their ability to negotiate constraints is much lower than that of residents of suburban or exurban areas. Such more privileged individualsalways have an option to move out or travel to another area. But what if you don’t have a job, or a car or money to buy gas?”
Shinew added that while researchers in their field tend to focus on what takes place within parks and formal recreation settings, she and her colleagues found that perceptions of safety for residents of Little Village and East Side were attached not only to their park experiences but also to the act of traveling to those spaces.
“It’s not as simple as just arriving there,” she said.
“This is one of the things that was really striking,” Stodolska added. “It’s not only a matter of being safe in the park but also crossing gang boundaries to get to the park.
“Little Village is divided along the north-south axis into two areas. The west side is controlled by the Two Six gang; the east, by the Latin Kings. If you live in Latin Kings territory, you’re going to have a problem crossing through the Two Six territory to get to Piotrowski Park. People live with that knowledge.”
On a related note, Stodolska said, “we assume that Latinos exercise in the park.” However, “there is only one park in this community – Piotrowski. For many people, the exercising takes place on the sidewalk, in the street, in the schoolyard … walking about the neighborhood. And the streets are unsafe.”
Complicating residents’ reality further, Shinew said, is the fact that many are undocumented, which prevents them from coming forward to report crimes or gang activities in the parks.
“Because so many are not legal, imagine how disempowered that makes them feel,” she said. “In contrast, more mainstream Americans are quick to stand up and say ‘that’s not right’ if they’re offended in some way. But if you’re concerned with the consequences of having attention put on you that really would influence the way you live your life, that’s going to influence the way you do things.”
In the end, residents’ health is compromised by their inability to engage freely in physical activity coupled with the stress of living in an environment where fear is so prevalent.
Shinew and Stodolska address larger, quality-of-life issues for the residents of Little Village – including their physical activity – in another study, which also will be published later this year in the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies. That study was based on responses of resident focus groups and community stakeholders, including school, government and community-organization leaders; police; and clergy.
Results of the study indicated that the quality of life among the neighborhood’s Latino residents was affected by various interrelated factors, including “environmental degradation, insufficient access to open spaces, low sense of community, fear of crime and undocumented status of many residents.”
In that same study, Stodolska and Shinew indicated that while undocumented status affected only a select portion of residents, it “seemed to be the root cause of many of the community’s problems.”
“It contributed to the people’s inability and unwillingness to deal with the gang problem – contacts with the police were generally avoided – and to participate in improvement efforts that required contact with elected officials, and thus necessitated ‘coming out of the shadows.’ ”
Even so, Stodolska noted, community leaders and police are not blind to the problems that exist within their communities, including the need for safe recreational opportunities.
“They’re doing a lot of things,” she said, including working to develop new open spaces and organizing after-school programs.
Some of the after-school programs are being organized by the schools, as well as by community organizations such as Enlace (previously known as the Little Village Community Development Corp.), which has organized programs in cooperation with the schools. Activities range from aerobic dance and gymnastics sessions to basketball clinics.
Another innovative, nationally based program that’s been effective in the community, Stodolska said, is “B-ball on the Block,” an initiative that takes kids from the community – including those affiliated with rival gangs – and mixes them together on basketball teams to shoot hoops right on gang boundaries.
“In a community of more than 91,000 people, half of the residents are under 25 years of age,” she said. "They’re young. You’ve got to find something for them to do.”
Both studies by the U. of I. researchers were funded by a grant from the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station.