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Listening to his neighborhood

by Kirstin Fawcett
Dec 12, 2012


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Kirstin Fawcett/MEDILL

Timmy Granzow, 19, is the blogger behind the "Avondale and Logan Square Crime Blotter," a website that keeps the neighborhood abreast on local safety issues.

A police scanner is the soundtrack to Timmy Granzow’s existence.

Its crackling hiss has dictated the past four years of his life. Muttered police codes startle him from slumber after he’s dozed off at his desk following a long day at school. Shootings and break-ins send him dashing to his computer, where he records ongoing police activity in real-time on his own personal neighborhood crime blog.

Why does Granzow, a Chicago-area teenager with autism, spend his days deciphering a litany of life’s sorrows from an endless stream of static? You might say he feels like it’s his civic duty.

“We have to be the eyes and ears,” Granzow said. “It’s important to know your neighborhood.”

A vigilant citizen

Granzow grew up in the Avondale neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest side, where he still lives with his mother, Lisa Walker, 48, and his sister, Melissa Granzow, 21. He is the founder of the “Avondale and Logan Square Crime Blotter,” a website that documents the police activity he hears on his scanner.

Thanks to his blog, Granzow’s known in his community as a neighborhood watchdog. The blog is updated daily – sometimes hourly. Although his Internet presence has diminished a bit since the start of a busy school year, he continues to maintain a detailed chronicle of gang fights, robberies and disturbances for his readers.

Granzow’s blogging schedule is rigorous. He wakes up around 8 or 9 a.m., then blogs nonstop until 7 p.m. After a quick dinner break, he returns to his scanner and updates the site until midnight.

“I pretty much blog all my waking hours,” Granzow said.

By drawing attention to neighborhood safety threats, Granzow has inadvertently put a spotlight on himself: he’s become a community guardian, of sorts. And as his readership’s grown, so has his role.

A burgeoning hobby

Granzow loved buses as a child– school buses, in particular. (According to his mother, he has an extensive knowledge of Chicago’s bus routes; she asks him for directions before commuting to new locales.) But as he got older, his attention shifted to fire trucks and police squads. His fascination with law enforcement grew.

In 2008, Granzow, then a sophomore at Roger C. Sullivan High School, and his mother became concerned about Avondale’s crime levels.

“Stuff started happening in our neighborhood – shootings, fighting and stabbings – and we said, ‘Yeah, the neighborhood’s starting to go,’” Lisa Walker said.

That November, Walker purchased a police scanner so the family could monitor the neighborhood together. For her son, it was as if she’d brought home a new pastime.

“He seemed to be amazed by it,” Walker recalled. “He was constantly listening to it, writing down everything that was going on.”

Granzow was so riveted by the device, his mother said, that she bought him his own for Christmas a month later –- but not before her son’s fascination had reached fruition as a full-time hobby.

A passion pursued

Granzow can recall the exact date and time he started his blog: November 23, 2008, at 4:30 p.m.

“I was inspired by another blog – ‘The Broken Heart of Rogers Park’ [by 49th ward resident Craig Gernhardt],” Granzow said.

Gernhardt’s blog, created in 2004, is a hard-nosed hyper-local website: In one of his earliest entries, Gernhardt said that he sought to expose Rogers Park’s “so-called leaders who cover up their mistakes, pass the buck to others when wrongdoings are exposed, and generally are lazy when real work has to be done.”

Granzow developed his own blogging style. Instead of portraying himself as an injustice-sniffing bloodhound like his role model, he has opted to interpolate personal anecdotes and musings into time-marked notes detailing assaults, break-ins and gang activity. He apologized to readers when he skipped blogging for several days. He encouraged community activism, and he interacted with readers in his comments section.

Granzow had found his formula. Now all he needed was a following.

Building his blogosphere

Granzow initially planned to only live-blog District 25. But he soon decided that the 14th and 17th police districts also needed coverage. He started blogging those districts once a month, which he said helped him expand his burgeoning readership.

It did, though, take “quite a while – a couple months” to gain followers.

“I had to post up fliers in the neighborhood and basically email a couple people I knew. And they started spreading the word,” Granzow said.

As his readership grew, neighborhood residents started commenting on Granzow’s blog posts, which often chronicled shootings, gang fights and other crimes. Sometimes the neighbors offer tips; other times, feedback. Occasionally they express alarm if Timmy blogged about violent breaking news.

“There was an instance where we had someone running down the block with a gun shouting that they were going to kill someone,” Granzow recalled.

“I’ve been pretty scared at times... But you know, I live in the area. I can’t let gangbangers stop me from living my life,” Granzow said.

Praise, commentary and criticism

Granzow’s blog has gained him many supporters throughout his community – many of whom he has never met.

One reader is Lorena Delgado, 37, a Logan Square resident who has followed Granzow’s blog for two years.

Delgado was introduced to Granzow’s site by her brother. “I saw some police activity, and I wanted to know what was going on. And he quickly looked it up on Timmy’s blog,” Delgado said.

Delgado is a part-time legal assistant at Chicago law firm Flamm, Teibloom & Stanko, as well as the mother of three children. She said that she appreciates Granzow’s site because it allows her to monitor her community amid her busy schedule.

“He has good writing skills, and it’s nice to follow,” Delgado said.

Delgado was so impressed by Granzow that she nominated him for Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program, which recognizes and rewards youth volunteers ages 6-18.

“He does a lot of stuff for the community. I thought about him and entered his name,” Delgado said.

Although the scholarship went to another, Granzow still thanked Delgado – by e-mail. Delgado has never communicated with Granzow in person. Neither has Kelly Hernandez, 30, a Logan Square resident whose elderly neighbor hooked her on Granzow’s blog two years ago.

“It’s really informative to live in this neighborhood and know all the stuff that’s going on,” Hernandez said. “I wouldn’t mind meeting him. He sounds like a really nice person. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

However, not all of the feedback Granzow gets is positive. His mixture of first-person commentary, in which he often shares tales of family hardships and his struggle in school, rubs some the wrong way.

“I’ve also gotten a lot of hate comments too….‘Leave it up to the police to fix the crime issue’… And I’m like no, because we’re residents here. We have to do something too,” Granzow said.

“I think it’s important because the police they can’t be everywhere, and they can’t do everything at once. And the community has a responsibility to address some of these situations,” Granzow said.

A lifelong disability

Granzow was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. Asked if that condition plays a role in his extreme focus on the police scanner’s song, he answered “Probably.”

Autism is a general term for a complex disorder that covers a wide spectrum of conditions involving difficulty in forming relationships and communicating with others.

Although Granzow is a highly functioning person with autism, he still faces challenges. His symptoms, which his mother and sister say have improved with time, are characterized by social and communication deficits, along with occasional temper flares. He has trouble adapting to change. He subsisted on baby food until he was 8 or 9 years old because he found chewing difficult. Granzow also suffered hearing loss in his left ear, and one of his feet is shorter than the other – a physical trait that hinders his ability to stand for long periods of time.

Despite his autism, Timmy successfully completed high school. Last fall, he began college at Wilbur Wright College, a public community college that is part of City Colleges of Chicago.

“It was difficult, growing up with autism, because when I was younger, I couldn’t really talk or do a lot of things that other people could. I had trouble communicating,” Granzow said.

“Basically, it’s been a challenge. But I’ve found my way past it,” he continued. “It’s a learning process for me. I’m learning each and every day how to live like a normal person. It’s always going to be hard for me but I think I have support and a lot of people who do care about me.”

Public persona, personal sentiments

The past year has been eventful for Granzow.

Last July, he sponsored a widely-publicized anti-violence rally in his neighborhood in response to three shootings that occurred a block or two north of his home.

“We had news channels there— Fox 32, Channel 7. They were all there covering the story because the residents were fired up,” Granzow said.

Tim celebrated his blog’s fourth anniversary on November 23. That day, he wrote a reflective post on his website, reviewing his professional and personal accomplishments.

“2012 has…been one of the most interesting years of my life,” Granzow said, recounting the myriad challenges he’s faced since graduating high school. “But I'm proud to say I'm just about done with my first semester of college with really good grades in both of my classes, and as everyday goes on, I'm starting to feel better about myself.”

A promising future

After he completes his associate’s degree, Granzow hopes to work for Chicago’s criminal justice system as a police dispatcher or community organizer.

“I’d like to be more or less a civilian employee, like someone who does community outreach,” Granzow said.

But will his blog fall to the wayside?

“I might have to quit somewhere down the road, but for now I plan to keep blogging,” Granzow said. “I’ll probably be taking more breaks, especially when it’s midterms and finals. But we’ll just see what happens.”

Granzow’s family, however, expects his blog to play a large part in his life’s purpose.
“He’s just so into it. It’s obviously his passion,” said Melissa Granzow. His sustained effort stems from concern over the crime in the neighborhood, she added.

And with his blog, “He has some power to help it.”