Just a few weeks ago, Chicago police brass, prosecutors and federal authorities summoned gang members to Gage Park to deliver a message: If the violence continued, law enforcement would be targeting the gang responsible.
The meeting on the Southwest Side was part of a recent effort in the Deering District to get a handle on violence spurred by as many as a half-dozen gangs battling on the streets. Police say they also have sent in foot patrols and additional officers through the department's overtime program. And the district commander's deep knowledge of gang conflicts has impressed some neighborhood leaders.
So Thursday night's spray of gunfire at a Back of the Yards basketball court that left 13 injured, including a 3-year-old boy, shows how big of a challenge remains for police to solve a complex and vexing violence problem in that district.
The Back of the Yards neighborhood has long been known as a tough place to live, a blue-collar cauldron of competing ethnic and racial groups drawn to the city for jobs. Now the shooting has brought national attention to the dense territory of Mexican restaurants and former Russian Orthodox churches that takes its name from the meat-packing industry that long defined Chicago to the world.
"Back of the Yards is obviously a working-class enclave that has some very serious gang territory issues," said Ald. George Cardenas, 12th.
The shooting cut even deeper for community activists hopeful for a rebound after the recent opening of a high school with international baccalaureate programming and a new public library, not to mention the addition of a Wal-Mart.
"You want your kids to feel like they can ride their bikes on the sidewalks, and it was starting to feel like that. It was starting to feel a little safer," said Craig Chico, president of the Back of Yards Neighborhood Council. "Thirteen is a number that just shakes you to your core. … I am praying this doesn't take us too far backward."
According to the Police Department, compared with last year at this time, homicides in the district are down 34 percent and shootings are down 39 percent. But 2012 was a particularly violent year in Chicago.
Chico praised Deering District Cmdr. Joe Gorman and pointed to the recent takedown of a local gang leader as reasons residents have felt hope.
"The community loved it," Chico said. "The community felt like, wow, this is a major victory."
The takedown was announced Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. The investigation by the FBI and Chicago police, including Deering District tactical officers, led to state and federal drug and weapons charges against 14 defendants. The defendants were peddling dope and guns in the Back of the Yards, according to the charges.
Still, for those who live near Cornell Square Park at Wolcott Avenue and 51st Street, the site of the mass shooting, things look and sound a lot different.
"Last summer, every day last summer, we had to run from gunshots," said Mary Washington, the mother of shooting victim Cory Washington, at her home Friday. "Last year, they got to shooting on that street over there and shot out my front door. The bullet came out that front door, broke that glass, traveled through this wall right there and into that bedroom. We can't sit out on the porch."
About 45 minutes before the park's 11 p.m. closing time, at least one gunman walked to the basketball court and opened fire, police said. The 13 people hit included both the pickup game's players and spectators, all of whom are expected to survive.
Shell casings found around the courts were of the kind typically ejected from AK-47s and rarely found at the scene of gang attacks on the city's South and West sides. Though gun violence long has plagued the city's impoverished neighborhoods, offenders almost never use military-style weapons.
The park is in a gang-infested area, but not in a so-called impact zone flooded by officers to deter crime, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Friday. The nearest such zones are three blocks to the north and three blocks to the south, leaving Cornell Square as a no man's land protected only by occasional patrols.
Back of the Yards also is a no man's land when it comes to politics — it's a neighborhood shared by five aldermen. In Chicago's notoriously ward-centric political system, local issues often get addressed only when the alderman for the given area throws his weight behind it.
With so many aldermen sharing Back of the Yards, residents have to go from office to office trying to build consensus to address their concerns. That difficulty has carried over into crime fighting, said Cardenas, whose ward includes part of the neighborhood but not the park where the shooting occurred.
In 2011, community members rallied to try to persuade the City Council to create a single Back of the Yards ward, lamenting the fact they were having trouble getting things as simple as new curbs or repaved streets because none of their aldermen had enough constituents in the neighborhood to make it worthwhile to spend money there.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund pushed a map the organization said would create a single ward covering much of the neighborhood, with a population about 86 percent Hispanic. (The neighborhood was about 59 percent Hispanic and 31 percent black in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) That proposal failed to gain traction.
But the 2015 map that did pass includes a new Hispanic-majority ward that takes in a chunk of Back of the Yards, and Cardenas said he thinks it will make it easier to bring concerns about crime to the attention of police.
"You'll have one alderman with more of a voice in speaking to the local police commander, to say 'This is what's important to the community, and this is your responsibility,'" he said.
Still, the new map shows four wards that include part of Back of the Yards.
Ald. Willie Cochran, whose 20th Ward snakes up into Back of the Yards from the Englewood neighborhood to the southeast, is skeptical that such political divisions have been slowing progress. The area has made recent strides, he said, and pointed out that many Chicago neighborhoods cross ward boundaries.
Rather, Cochran said, the area was neglected for years before he took office in 2007 because the heavy immigrant population didn't cast many votes, making it easy for elected officials to overlook them.
As Mexican-Americans have started flexing their political muscle, that has changed, Cochran said. "I think the area is getting a great deal of attention," he said.
Tribune reporters Ellen Jean Hirst and Hal Dardick contributed.