Family shattered after raid, home loss

Out of the blue on a summer morning, longtime residents lose what they had thought was their good standing among neighbors

The Harris family's life began to unravel around dawn on the last day of August.

R.J. Harris, who is 77, was in bed when a noise jolted him awake.

Bam. What was that?

Bam. It sounded like an explosion.

Bam. The front door swung open and officers in masks swarmed inside, pointing rifles.

Police! Hands up! Police!

Harris' wife, an aunt, a son, a grandson, a granddaughter, a great-grandson and a cousin all bolted awake. From the floor above, where one of the Harris daughters lives with her family, came the blast and stench of smoke bombs.

Mr. Harris, standing in the middle of the house that he bought 41 years ago, that has lodged his large family through the neighborhood's gentrification, kept thinking: All you had to do was knock.

Outside on Sheffield Avenue, more officers gathered, shooing away neighbors. One neighbor described the scene on her blog.

"I felt like I was on 'The Wire!' Fantastic," she wrote. "... The neighbors hung out near our fence, trying to appear as nonchalant as possible, you know, as if this sort of thing happens every day in Lincoln Park. I watch 'Breaking Bad,' yo, I know about meth. I bet they were totally cooking in there."

No meth was found inside the Harris home.

The police did arrest two family members on animal-related misdemeanors, and took away four dogs. But they found no evidence of the crimes some neighbors had suspected, the kind that typically call for 40 officers.

No drugs. No guns. No dogfighting.

The 40 officers on the scene — from the Chicago Police Department Animal Crimes Unit, two SWAT teams and the Cook County Sheriff's Department — left.

The raid was over.

For the Harris family, however, the shocks had just begun.

As the smoke cleared, a building inspector arrived. The Harrises knew that their house was rundown. In a neighborhood of new mansions, it stood out, with its bedraggled American flag, the window fan, the brown wooden steps that sloped straight to the sidewalk.

But they had never been issued a building code violation.

Now the inspector wrote down dozens of infractions, and made another list for an adjacent home where two of the Harris daughters live. Bad wiring, clogged gutters, torn siding, broken plaster, rotting window sashes, unsanitary living conditions.

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