Ah, safe home Chicago: The murder rate has fallen by nearly half. Unless, that is, you live on the blood-drenched streets where violent crime rates have actually increased. Until we end that concentrated slaughter, this city again risks losing its foundation of working, middle-class families.
By chance, grace or luck, a bullet that heaved across a South Side park last month tore through a little boy's cheek but missed his brain. A turn of his head, a half-second delay, a shift in the shooter's grip, ever so subtle, could have delivered death to 3-year-old Deonta Howard.
Chance. Grace. Luck. Deonta survived the shooting on an outdoor basketball court in his Back of the Yards neighborhood. His puffy face, eye swollen shut, blue pajamas and Radio Flyer hospital bed graced the Tribune's front page.
His story disturbed millions of people.
Violent crime is often the most influential driver of urban instability. During one of Chicago's most violent years on record — 1992 — the Tribune surveyed adults of almost 3,000 households who left the city between April 1 and Oct. 31. The No. 1 issue was safety: Nearly 2 of every 3 respondents sought a safer place to live.
Two decades later, Chicago faces a similar precipice. Crime on the South and West sides threatens to provoke out-migration similar to suburban flight of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, middle-class white families fled the city, destabilizing communities that never recovered. Now, middle-class black families wonder whether to flee. Areas such as Chatham — a sturdy, tidy outpost of police officers, teachers and small business owners — won't prosper if fear of crime takes an irreversible hold. And the Chatham area, which in the past year was among the city's most violent communities, isn't alone.
Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., whose 21st Ward includes Chatham, says the exodus of stable black families is his No. 1 frustration. Every "For Sale" sign pushed into the grass of a prim bungalow is a defeat: "They say, 'I'm just going to fold and leave. I can afford to, and the perception of safety in Oak Lawn or Homewood or Olympia Fields or Tinley or Orland Park is better.'"
The 2010 U.S. census showed that Chicago lost 200,000 people over the previous decade. Three South Side wards that had the deepest population plunges — the 3rd, 9th and 17th — also struggle with crime. All three wards continue to rank in the top 15 of 50 wards with the most violent crime.
Holding on to middle-class families ought to be easier now that … Chicago is so much safer than it was. In the early 1990s, this city averaged more than 900 homicides a year. Before a decline began accelerating in 2004, Chicago logged 600 or more homicides in each of 36 consecutive years, obliterating some 28,000 lives. Most victims were young minorities. The vast majority were slain in geographically limited parts of the city.
Last year saw 507 homicides; so far this year, a still-horrific 345.
Research by Daniel Hertz, a master's candidate at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, documents how concentrated today's violence is: Even as the city overall has had a stark drop in homicides, many communities have seen increases over the terrifying homicide rates of the 1990s. The homicide rate per capita on the West, South and Southwest sides today is higher than it was 20 years ago, and the gap between safer and more dangerous areas is wider. Communities in that swath, stretching east to Lake Michigan and including Woodlawn, South Shore, Chatham and Auburn Gresham, are among those where homicides per capita have risen.
The citywide homicide rate has fallen because certain areas — basically the entire North Side — are safer and mask the increases in the killing fields to the west, southwest and south. Some of those areas are now just as violent as or more violent than they were 20 years ago.
Many parents whisk kids to distant summer camps or to Grandma's house far away. Others let their college kids stay on campus for the summer. But their reasons can depend on where they live. More and more, Brookins' constituents send youngsters to camp to escape violence. And parents tell college kids to stay away lest they get caught up in mayhem. Protecting children means … keeping them out of Chicago. "I don't know how we fix that unless and until we get the buy-in," he says. "People didn't stop smoking en masse until it was not cool to smoke. The same thing has to happen with thugging and roguish behavior. It has to become, to young people, that this is not cool to do, walking around with your pants hanging down, hanging out in a park."
Behavior that's innocuous for one young person nudges another to riskier behavior. "Truancy, running away, difficult temperament — they seem like minor types of offenses," says Robert Sampson, social sciences professor at Harvard and author of "Great American City," an exploration of Chicago's social structures. "At some point they get rejected by their peers and their teachers, and they start to hang out with other delinquents." Obstacles reinforce one another: Living amid poverty, unemployment, segregation and violence can be the equivalent of losing up to a year or two in school, he found.
The schools show it. In impoverished areas, elementary and high schools have abysmal percentages of students who meet state standards in reading and math. Exposure to violence "inculcates the expectation that violence is normal," Sampson says. Those who expect to die young "have nothing to lose, at least in their minds." That's why retaliatory sprays of gunfire aren't always born of strategic gang-and-drug enterprise. Rather, Chicago's splintered gang structure — fractured into block-by-block cliques — leads to senseless, sophomoric turf wars.
In the Back of the Yards shooting, police say a young man grazed by a bullet earlier that day sought revenge at the basketball court in Cornell Park. That was his motive for joining with allies to wreak havoc: a relatively minor wound on his leg. For that, in a matter of minutes, 13 people lay bleeding. One was 3-year-old Deonta.
In the past 12 months, New City, which includes Back of the Yards, has logged 6,138 crimes, 545 of them violent. It ranks 18th of 77 communities citywide for all crime. Austin ranks first with 20,079 crimes, 1,668 of them violent.
Englewood and West Englewood consistently fall among the 10 most dangerous communities. Together, they lost nearly 20,000 residents from 2000 to 2010 — one-quarter of their population.
The communities reporting the least crime during the past 12 months? Montclare, Forest Park and Edison Park on the Far Northwest Side, Mount Greenwood on the Far Southwest Side and Burnside on the Southeast Side.
Violence here remains high. Los Angeles logged 299 murders in 2012. New York City had 419. Both are more populous than Chicago. "I hear people say, 'Why can't we be safe like New York?''' crime researcher Hertz tells us. "Well, we are. The entire North Side is really, really safe. But the dynamic is more unequal than ever." On his blog, he says the imbalance helps explain why, "in the face of a 50 percent decrease in homicides citywide over the last two decades, many people persist in believing that the opposite is true — because in their neighborhoods, it is."
Anti-crime tactics such as targeted policing have helped. Englewood, for example, has become safer: In 2012, homicides fell by 29 percent and shootings by 5 percent. But a city in which 30 percent of students quit high school and some areas have a 35 percent jobless rate is destined to have a high crime rate. That creates an exodus of the educated and employable, who move because they can.
If we don't curb crime, if we don't prevent an exodus, we risk losing … Chicago.Copyright © 2015, RedEye