NINE YEARS AGO, ALMOST AS SOON as the Ramos family moved into their four-bedroom brick house in a racially mixed neighborhood in northwest Chicago, they say, they knew there would be trouble. One of their new next-door neighbors, Kathleen Kraft, now 37, who is white, paid a visit to Isidor Ramos, 40, a black and Puerto Rican police officer, and his wife, Minerva, 39, also of Puerto Rican ancestry—bearing, they report, not casseroles but ill will. According to the Ramoses, Kathleen said her family would not "allow spicks and niggers to live in the neighborhood" and suggested that the Ramoses think about moving out.

Nearly 10 years later, it is not the Ramoses who have been driven from their home, but the Krafts. Faced with a $10 million civil rights lawsuit, the six adults in the extended Kraft family all finalized a novel settlement agreement in a Chicago federal court on Nov. 17: they have 180 days to sell the house they have lived in for nearly 20 years and get out or else have the house sold at auction. If by January they have not made a good-faith effort to sell, they face a $1,000-per-month fine. "Our kids can go out and play like normal kids," a jubilantly tearful Minerva Ramos said after the papers were signed. "I am just happy about everything." Her husband is happy, too, but more guarded. "In six months," says Isidor, "maybe I can show you a true smile."

In their lawsuit, the Ramoses charge that harassment from the six adults living next door—Kathleen; her parents, Marie, 65, and John, 70; her brother John Jr., 35; her sister, Renee, 29, and Renee's fiancé, George Willard, 29—was virtually relentless over the years. Kraft family members, the suit alleges, called Minerva and her daughter, Mindy, 20, "spick whores," their son Ivan, 12, a "little nigger," and their son Mychall, 9, a "little spick." Sometimes, the suit claims, the Krafts would sing the Addams Family theme song at them, substituting the phrase "rainbow family." Throughout 1992, the Ramoses claim, the Krafts repeatedly banged on the Ramoses' garage door, setting off a burglar alarm. And in one instance, the suit says, Kathleen Kraft threatened to kill the Ramoses. In 1991, John Sr. allegedly told Isidor that if he weren't a Chicago police officer, his home would be burned down like that of another black family that had moved into the neighborhood.

The Krafts may be going, but they are not going quietly. They continue to deny the harassment charges, insisting that they are not racists and only signed the agreement because they couldn't afford a legal battle. (The lawyers' firm did not charge the Ramoses.) "I know how to get along with people, and so does my family," says John Sr., a retired janitor. Kathleen emphatically agrees. "We've never called those kids racial slurs," she says. "I love kids to death. The problem is the Ramoses don't like us. It is a reverse hate crime. We're innocent people being victimized." John Kraft Jr. insisted in a statement he read to the court that the dispute was nothing more than "a clash of personalities between neighbors, and is no different than disputes encountered by neighbors throughout the country on a daily basis."

In fact, according to the Krafts, the origins of the feud are mundane. At first, they say, the two families were friendly, and Kathleen and Minerva would sunbathe together in the backyard. But in 1989, John Sr. claims, the Ramoses, without seeking the Krafts' permission, moved cement blocks onto the five-foot-wide walkway that separates the two homes. Then, he says, Isidor Ramos moved a backyard fence a few inches closer to the Krafts' home to accommodate some new garbage cans. "He is always trying to do something and get away with it," says Kraft. But when he complained, he says, Ramos told him to take the case to court. "So now we got hostile," Kraft acknowledges.

The situation got tenser still, the Krafts maintain, when Isidor Ramos expressed a romantic interest in Kathleen. "When [Minerva] found out about that," says John Sr., "all hell broke loose" and she threatened to beat up Kathleen. "I was living in fear all the time," says Kathleen. Darren Watts, a lawyer for the Ramoses, calls these charges "absurd."

The Krafts are not without their supporters in the neighborhood. Teresa Robles, 37, a Latina data-entry operator, says John Kraft was always helping her out when she lived alone, keeping an eye on the house or offering advice about her lawn. "They are the only people I talk to," she says. Larry Selivon, 41, a printer who has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, and his Mexican wife, Rose Marie, 41, a bank employee, say that the Ramoses shared responsibility for the escalating hostilities; and Larry says that Minerva does in fact have a "hot temper" and a foul mouth. "You can't blame one [side] without the other," he observes.

One family that will be happy to see the Krafts go lives on the other side of the Ramoses. Sukhram Narine, 40, a mechanical engineer from Guyana, says the Krafts "called me brownie" and "American Indian," and his wife, Deborah, 37, says the Krafts will not let their children play with the Narine children. "This shouldn't be going on today," says Deborah. "It sounds like something going on in the South with the KKK." Expressing, no doubt, the one opinion that nearly everyone nearby can agree on, she adds, "When they are gone, there is going to be peace on this block."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander.