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CHICAGO —Dianne Hodges earned the respect and gratitude of her neighbors, her alderwoman and Chicago Police.  Her unorthodox approach to crime reduction is a blueprint for others fighting to take back their block.

The area of Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood near South Merrill Avenue and 70th Street was for years known by the name of, “Murder Merrill.”

But Hodges, 73, proposed a radical response.

“We‘re going to bombard the block with unconditional love,” she said.

Hodges has been recognized nationally for her devotion to the community. She was featured in an Amazon – Ad Council public service announcement.

Hodges is an energy facilitator with decades of experience as a meditation and wellness coach. She mounted a “quality of life initiative” for South Shore.  

“We need to create something for the children of the community so they can have a place to come in the summer months where they can feel safe,” she said.

That safe place is South Merrill Community Garden.   The former empty lot is protected by land trust, “Neighbor Space.“    

Natalie Perkins is the garden’s education director.

“One of the most important things about Dianne is that she is nothing but inviting,” she said. “This is her approach to open-armed community by standing at the gate and being a set of open arms. … We wanted to be this inter-generational garden where we can bring families grandparents and children.”    

There are gardening classes and art projects for the kids with meditation for seniors and more like boxing and yoga. 

Hodges and her team and her team help high school and college students apply for Architectural Landscaping internships to  study places like Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.  

There is a community room equipped with vertical gardens growing lettuce and spinach with plans to expand.

Alderman Leslie Hairston supported the organization’s effort to identify absentee landlords who allow gangs to set up shop.  She sent an aide to meet with Hodges who wanted confront irresponsible building owners and real estate brokers.      

“I was like, ‘ Can you do me a favor?  Can you stop selling this building to slum landlords? Can you just find me somebody who’s going to take care of this building?   And treat us with respect?’ And he did,” she said.

Hodges’s meticulous record-keeping helped to get city inspectors to cite violators.    

”And you have to create data.  Got to have a paper trail. That’s why we got that building across the street by the garden in court because we have a paper trail,” she said.

With gang members on the block, Hodges did something no one else would dare.  She talked to them.

“If it’s five or six of you standing here and I’m picking up trash around you, ‘I’m going to say, ‘Good morning!’ And ‘How you’re doing?” she said.  

But Hodges also sent the unmistakable message that things were about to change on the block.

Hodges is now looking to form a community committee that can approve desirable, family-friendly businesses on 71st Street.  And her team is searching for funding to build a new home where they can house community programming year-round.