I have a friend moving to Chicago this fall to start a master’s program at the University of Chicago. As she prepares to leave from her Washington, D.C.-area home, many people in her life have expressed some degree of fear for her safety following her move. As if the moment she steps out into clear air at O’Hare Airport, a bullet will graze her in the ass.
Her people’s reactions reminded me how white folks in the suburbs of Detroit perceived that city in the 1990s (and probably still do); surely, venturing anywhere south of 8 Mile Road spelled your imminent and violent demise.
I’m not too naive to recognize how easy it is to develop a jaundiced perspective of a city or region based strictly on what we see on the news. Detroit’s local news in the 1990s was about as depressing as … Chicago’s local news in 2016.
However, these days, Chicago makes the national news for its gun-related bloodshed—oftentimes following a long, warm holiday weekend in which folks have more time on their hands for shootin’. In the Chicagoland region itself, you can’t turn on the news, crack open a newspaper or open a local news website without hearing or reading about how gun violence is getting worse or how it’s disproportionately affecting poor black folks.
It’s certainly not much ado about nothing: We’re at 383 homicides this year as of this writing. We’re the third-largest city in the union, but we’re slaying the two largest cities in gun violence. Our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, fired the police superintendent late last year in large part because of his inability to curb the problem … not that there’s a hell of a lot he could do on his own.
Those of us who actually live in the city—who care enough to pay attention to what’s going on and are savvy enough not to treat the media as gospel—have a different perspective: We recognize Chicago as the world-class city it is while acknowledging that its problems are at once exigent and overblown. There are manners of conduct you should understand if you come here, but it is not like Beirut in the 1990s.
Sure, the suggestion that Al Capone’s enduring legacy has forever cemented Chicago as a gangster city makes for a sexy narrative, but it’s inaccurate at best and offensive at worst; the problems are easy to pinpoint and yet complicated to solve. Just do me a favor and mollywhop anyone who suggests to you that Black Lives Matter or black-on-black crime is the sole culprit.
There are four umbrella issues that allow for the gang problems and gun violence within the city. I’m no sociologist, and I’m sure academic studies abound on the problems in Chicago as I type. But I see exactly what’s going on around me (and I’s did go to school, suh), so hopefully this can help demystify things for people who have casually wondered what in the unholy fuck is going on in Chicago these days.
1. Segregation and Gentrification
Chicago is probably the single most segregated city I’ve ever touched, and certainly the most segregated of the largest cities in the country.
However, unlike my hometown of Detroit, Chicago is extraordinarily diverse within its boundaries; for example, the far-north Rogers Park neighborhood is a melting pot, where you can get authentic Thai and Ethiopian food, run by actual Thai and Ethiopian people, on the same block. In addition, we have one of the biggest Latino communities in the country, with the largest concentration of Mexicans outside of the Southwest United States.
The problem is that Chicagoans stick to their damn neighborhoods like Arthur memes to your news feed. The South and West sides of the city are largely black enclaves; most of the neighborhoods within them suffer from poverty and economic blight, resulting in the by-products of lackluster public services, poor schools, food deserts and any other hood-based ailment you can think of. They’re also great breeding grounds for drug and gang activity (and, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, a good way to keep cops employed and the prison-industrial complex afloat).
In contrast, the residents of largely white, upper-class neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast may as well be on another side of the country. Gang drama and gun violence almost never occur on the streets outside of their million-dollar condos, and they have no reason to even step foot in troubled neighborhoods.
2. Housing-Project Demolition
Chicago has been knocking down high-rise projects for about a decade now, making room for expensive condominiums that are pricing many residents out of the city. Remember the infamous Cabrini-Green projects of Candyman fame? They’re gone, having made way for some ridiculously expensive condos using the same name.
Few people will argue that the now-demolished crime-and-poverty-ridden projects were positive environments for anyone. But because they were often centralized spots for the drug trade and gang territory, the diaspora created from their demolition resulted in the bangers and dealers encroaching on other folks’ drug and gang territory. Any fan of The Wire can attest to what happens when you step on a rival corner trying to peddle your wares. Which leads me to:
3. No Leaders, No Code
Seems crazy, but there’s actually a disadvantage to the fact that most of Chicago’s major gang chiefs are in prison forever and a decade more. Cats like Larry Hoover, co-founder of the Gangster Disciples, will never breathe fresh air again, while his creation looks a lot different from how it did when he went in.
Ask some of the OGs (I did), and they’ll tell you that today’s young bangers don’t even resemble proper bangers. Instead of flying under one unified flag with rules and codes, they largely function as their own small, leaderless factions doing what they please. Instead of beefing over turf, they beef over bullshit written on Twitter.
If I learned anything during my 17 seconds as a high school teacher, it’s that there’s been an undeniable erosion of respect in the generation that succeeds mine. Kids will cuss out your grown ass in a way that we never would have considered doing to an adult. Combine that lack of respect with guns and the urge to make a name for oneself, and you have teenagers firing shots into crowds, missing their targets and killing the wrong person. It happens over and over again.
4. Ease of Gun Accessibility
Pretty basic stuff here. The old heads sell the old guns to the new kids and bad things happen. Also, the preceding generations of gangs had shooters whose job it was to pull the trigger; now any uncoordinated bastard who’s obsessed with “Call of Duty” can have at it.
Believe it or not, the current homicide rate in Chicago seems almost bitch-made in comparison with that of the 1980s and 1990s: 1991 alone registered 922 murders. But it’s still a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad look. And with a justifiably ever-growing mistrust between the police and citizens—law-abiding and otherwise — I’m not sure when or how things will improve.
However, lest you were planning to cancel your weekend trip to Chicago, I’ll tell you what I told my friend from the DMV area: The vast majority of the killings happen within the same seven or eight neighborhoods, and if you’re visiting Chicago as a tourist or student, you’re extremely unlikely to inhabit those hoods.
Also, unless you’re a drug dealer or a gangbanger or you spend lots of time in the company of either in public, you’re probably not going to be shot to death.
The concern, of course, is for the many thousands of Chicagoans who actually do exist in one or more of those buckets and don’t have a good way out.