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Inner city blues
Blogger Phil Marx of My H.U.D. House chronicles his day-to-day struggles with drug dealers and his frustrations with the F.W.P.D.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Late one October night in 2006, a Molotov cocktail exploded on the back porch of Phil Marx’s house. Another burst in the back yard, while a third smoldered in the front.
Marx doesn’t live in Baghdad or Mogadishu or Kabul. He lives in Fort Wayne, in a house on East Suttenfield just a few blocks from the headquarters of the Fort Wayne Police Department. For almost 13 years, Marx has been waging a war with the drug dealers in his neighborhood who use his corner — and sometimes his front yard — as a place to do business.
Early this year, Marx began chronicling his trials and tribulations on his blog My H.U.D. House (myhudhouse.blogspot.com), writing about current events as well as going back through his records and telling what happened to him in the past. “My main purpose is that I’m just frustrated as hell that is has gone on so long,” Marx says. “The political message isn’t my main intent; it was just to get this out so that other people know what’s going on, just to say ‘hey, all this stuff is happening in this two block area!’ For my own safety, I decided to publicize it a bit.”
The story Marx tells on My H.U.D. House has two main plots. The first is his effort to get local drugs dealers to respect him and his property. The second is to get the attention of the Fort Wayne Police Department. And like any extended campaign, it has its share of advances and retreats, wins and set backs, and frustrations.
At times, the blog makes for uplifting reading. Marx loves the neighborhood and the people in it, many of whom have been very supportive of Marx during the tough times. Marx tells the story of a lady who saw him working in his backyard and asked if he would help her clear the stuff away from her house, cut down some trees, and help her put a fence around her house, because she was tired of looking out the window and seeing guys hiding in the bushes, smoking dope, and cutting through her yard when they’re running from the police. “Some of the people down there treat me like family,” he says. “I’ve seen their kids grow up. It’s a good neighborhood in a lot of ways. I have more good neighbors there than any other place I’ve lived.”
Indeed, one of the things Marx stresses on My H.U.D. House is how complicated the neighborhood is. After nearly 13 years there, he says he’s still figuring things out. “If you were to drive through that neighborhood, you would make a lot of assumptions that are bigoted and prejudicial,” Marx continues. “You would see two or three black men standing on the corner and lock the doors and say ‘those guys are drug dealers.’ But once you’ve lived there, and know a lot of those people they way I do, you realize that not everyone is doing this (selling drugs). And there are even houses divided among themselves. The parents will kick their kids’ asses if they do any of that near the house, but they really can’t watch their kids all day long — by kids, I mean all the way into their 20s sometimes, still living at home. And then they’re out on my corner dealing drugs. The way the police look at it is, ‘well, that family must be sanctioning it.’ But most of these families are totally against it, and the best they can do is boot their kid in the ass if he’s doing it right in front of the house.”
Then there are other parts of My H.U.D. House that read like an episode of The Wire. Marx bought his H.U.D. house in October of 1995 for about the price you’d pay for a used late 70s automobile. If you were being very kind and very optimistic, you might call the place a “fixer-upper.” The house had been abandoned for years and was in terrible shape. But Marx is a handy guy, and little-by-little started to put the place back together.
But one of the problems with taking up residency in a formerly abandoned house in the inner city is that there were some elements of the neighborhood who felt the house, situated on a corner, belonged to them. Drug dealers would not only set up shop on his corner, but even on his porch. “There was a lot of activity on my property,” Marx says. “I constantly had to argue with guys and run them off. One day, I found a small bag of marijuana on my steps. I kicked it to the sidewalk. My neighbor told me they’re sitting on my porch and putting drugs in my mailbox while I’m gone.”
Marx soon realized that he couldn’t do anything about drug activity in the neighborhood, but he could at least get the dealers to stop using his front porch as a lounge. “It was more efficient to just go and talk to these guys,” he says. “I started documenting things. Some of these confrontations I was having with these guys… I’m surprised that it didn’t turn violent. I would start talking to one guy and all of a sudden there were two guys behind him shouting at me.”
Yet Marx found that talking worked… for the most part. He says they would respect him when he was around “…but whenever I was away and came back, I’d turn the corner and see guys jumping off my front porch.” He installed outside lights around the perimeter of the house, big car lot lights that would light up the corner at night like it was high noon.
It required nearly constant pressure and diplomacy on Marx’s part, but eventually, the dealers got the message. They would stay away from Marx’s house, stopped using his porch or his yard to stash stuff or sit and wait for cars, stopped leaving half-empty bottles and wrappers and other litter laying around. “Everyone knows me. I take that as a good sign, because that means the people who are active down there are saying ‘look, let me tell you about the guy who lives there, and what you have to do to keep things quiet.’ Quiet to them means not being harassed by the police.”
But one of the most striking things about My H.U.D. House is how the activity seems to go in cycles. No sooner will Marx seem to reach an understanding with the dealers when a new dealer moves in, and the whole thing starts all over again.
It was a situation like that that lead to the firebombing incident in October 2006. After a period of relative calm, the summer of ’06 was particularly noisy. The dealers again began encroaching on Marx’s property, and confrontations escalated. One day Marx witnessed a guy sitting on the retaining wall outside his house sorting through a stack of driver’s licenses he had taken as collateral. “For some reason, he put one on my porch, because these guys still think they can treat this house as an abandoned house,” Marx says. He called the police, and then later that day went door-to-door handing out a copy of a certified letter he had sent to police chief Rusty York. His stops included several places he knew belonged to drug dealers. “Basically, I told these guys the same thing I’ve always told them: I don’t care what you do. I can’t stop it. Just don’t use my property.”
That night, Marx heard footsteps and rustling on his back porch. He turned off the light to peer outside and saw flames. He rushed outside, thinking he might get shot at. Luckily, no one was waiting for him, though what had happened was alarming enough. “They had thrown three Molotov cocktails at the house, glass bottles with a rag and gasoline,” he says. “One landed on the porch. One landed in the back yard and the last landed in the front yard. They were all burning a little bit.”
Fortunately for Marx, it had rained heavily recently and everything was soaked. The fires were under control quickly; the porch was a little singed, but overall damage was minor. That said, having Molotov cocktails thrown at your house sends an explicit message. “What they did was attempted murder,” Marx says. “If you throw a firebomb at a house, you’re trying to burn the house down. Even though it’s almost comical at this point, I can’t let go of the fact that there are people down here who do crazy stuff.”
One of the police officers who responded to Marx’s call the night of the firebombing incident asked Marx where he was going to sleep that night. Marx answer: right here. “If I leave tonight, I will no longer own this house,” Marx told him. “When I come back in the morning, there will be drug dealers sitting on my front porch asking me what the hell I’m doing here.”
His neighbors were a little shaken by the incident. “A lot of people I was already friendly with stood by me a little closer,” says Marx. “If I was talking to one of the guys (dealers) out there, they would come and stand with me to send the message that this guy doesn’t stand alone.”
And where has the Fort Wayne Police Department been during all this?
That’s another interesting element of My H.U.D. House — the parts of the blog that aren’t dealing with the back-and-forth between Marx and the drug dealers are dealing with Marx’s frustration with the representatives of law and order. In fact, if you want to see Marx — a talkative, friendly guy who describes himself has “one of those geeks” who attends city council meetings — exercise a little of what he calls his “trigger,” ask him why he just doesn’t call the police.
He has called the police. Repeatedly. He’s described incidents in detail, taken notes and shared them with officers, offered his full cooperation with the police (on My H.U.D. House, Marx uses pseudonyms to protect some of the low-ranking officers he has talked to, and some of his neighbors). Yet relations with the FWPD seem to be a matter of “one step forward, two steps back.” The police come out, they talk to Marx, things settle down for a little while, but then eventually, it’s back to the way it was.
Marx knows the police don’t have the resources to patrol the neighborhood constantly. He knows they can’t stop all the criminal activity on his block. But he wonders why there’s such a distinct lack of communication with the FWPD, especially since, according to him, he’s shown himself ready, willing, and able to assist them in any way. “My biggest frustration, if I had to sum it up — and it comes from my experiences there, and other people I’ve talked to — is there’s some kind of lack of communication between the community and the police department,” Marx explains. “Of course, the police department publicizes the fact that they can’t solve these homicides because no one will talk to them, when in fact, I know from experience and what I’ve seen from other people, that they’ve caused a lot of that lack of communication.”
As Marx says, the drug dealers get violent with each other when they think someone is interfering with their business, and civilians aren’t off limits. “I think the police could be more refined with their communications with people in the neighborhood.”
Marx continues: “There are some great officers. But in general I would summarize it this way: the ones that seem most helpful are the ones of such low rank, that there’s really little they can do to seriously affect what’s going on. I’m not knocking them, I’m just saying, being realistic, that there’s only so much they can do. The ones that are of higher rank…” Marx says that the last time he had a regular conversation going with an officer of higher rank, the officer told him he needed to call the vice department about a particular incident. “And I’m thinking, ‘that’s funny, because he’s at the top, and he should know how to get things going there.’ But what’s even more funny is that I’ve called vice directly numerous times over the years, most recently where I literally was witnessing a kid outside my house trying to buy a gun, and I was basically told ‘well, that kind of shit happens.’”
Marx blames bureaucracy for the problems he’s had with the FWPD. “I would really like to have some meaningful conversations with the FWPD,” he says. “Basically, at this point, I’ve publicized it enough so that a lot more people know what’s going on down there, both in terms of the criminal activity and the police department.”
Of course, the question Marx is always asked is, why do you stay down there? Is it really worth it? In one blog entry, he wrote about a conversation he had with someone in the military who had recently returned from Iraq. The Marine said Marx was exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress disorder. To paraphrase one commenter on My H.U.D. House,: life is too short; move to ‘Busco.
“I guess it’s kind of like the frog in the boiling water,” Marx laughs. “If the first day I showed up in that neighborhood I had had any indication it was going to be anything like this, I never would have moved in there. If I only rented that house instead of owning it, I would have left a long time ago. If by this point I had not put a lot of time and money — mostly time — into fixing it up…”Mainly, the reason he doesn’t leave is it’s his house. Marx is doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s the good guy here. Why should he be driven off?
Unlike most bloggers, Marx is hoping that the rest of summer 2008 doesn’t provide him with any material to write about. In the long term, he hopes that whoever matters at the FWPD is reading My H.U.D. House and will want to talk to him. He’s willing, the neighborhood is willing, and he doesn’t see why it can’t happen.
You can read My H.U.D. House at www.myhudhouse.blogspot.com