The Making of the "Other" Chicago

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

A makeshift memorial at the site where 6-month-old girl Jonylah Watkins and her father, a known gang member, were shot on March 11. The girl, who was shot five times, died Tuesday morning. Her father, Jonathan Watkins, remains in serious but stable condition. 

January was the deadliest month in Chicago in more than a decade. Forty-two people lost their lives on the city’s streets, most of them to gun violence. For 2012, the total number of homicides was 509, of which 443 involved firearms. While most of the shootings could be attributed to gang feuds, innocent people were caught in crossfire that often erupted in broad daylight and on public streets.

Hadiya Pendleton’s shooting death, which took place only a week after the 15-year-old honors student performed at the presidential inauguration, is the latest tragedy to reinforce the perception that Chicago is the murder capital of the nation. Pendleton was killed when a gunman opened fire on a group of high-school students gathered in a public park about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home. Two reputed gang members, Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, were charged with Hadiya’s murder and with wounding two other teens. Such shootings have become so common in low-income neighborhoods, people are afraid to sit on their front porches. 

Many similar homicides in poor neighborhoods receive scant attention from the media, but because Pendleton’s murder took place in a gentrifying neighborhood of expensive brownstones and middle-class families, her senseless death set off an alarm that could be heard all the way to the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral. A week later, President Obama returned to his old neighborhood to address the violence and push for stiffer gun legislation. National attention is being focused on Chicago’s gun violence because the city has seen a steady increase in shootings while other cities have seen a decrease.

That is all well-known. What is little understood, either outside the city or within it, is a key fact: The violence that plays out on the streets is an instance of the chickens coming home to roost.

Chicago defines itself as a city of ethnic neighborhoods. But in reality, it is a city divided by race and economics. On one side of town, businesses thrive, people jog, and kids play in the parks. On another, hordes of jobless young men stand on corners, elderly people hide behind barred doors, and children learn early that they could get shot just walking to school. Instead of tearing down the walls that separate one side from another, the social policies of the last few decades have only widened the divide. We dismantled miles of crime- and drug-infested public-housing buildings only to shift thousands of poor residents into predominantly African-American neighborhoods already burdened with gangs and crime. We “cut off the head of the snake,” as a top federal prosecutor put it, by indicting top gang chiefs for running criminal enterprises, but that only splintered organized street gangs into warring factions. Like the rest of the country, we locked up an unprecedented number of young black men and women for drug-related offenses. After serving their terms, these felons return to the same impoverished communities with little hope of finding jobs and a way out of a life of crime.

A half-century after the civil-rights era, a census study conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that Chicago remains the most racially segregated city in America. It is in these highly segregated communities that violence takes root. About 20 percent of the violence occurs in neighborhoods that represent only 2 percent of the city’s population. These largely African-American communities have the highest unemployment rates—in 2011, unemployment among African Americans in Chicago was 21.4 percent compared with the city’s average of 8.6 percent—and the largest population of ex-felons. There are entire blocks on the South and West Sides where young people have never seen an adult male get up in the morning and go to a job. But most of these youth have seen plenty of drug-dealers working the corners, and police officers handcuffing their fathers, brothers, and uncles. They’ve seen blood on the streets, and memorials tied to light poles. That so many young people are growing up in isolation amid such negative images helps explain why Chicago has three times more homicides than New York City.

This pattern of isolation and crime got its toehold in the 1950s, when the late Mayor Richard Daley, bowing to aldermen who didn’t want public housing in their wards, segregated poor African Americans into high-rise public-housing units that stretched for miles in pockets of the city’s South, West, and North Sides. The most infamous of these developments were Robert Taylor on the near South Side, and Cabrini-Green, located in the shadow of the city’s wealthy Gold Coast. By 1995, crime and drugs were so prevalent in the high-rises, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) had its own police force, and the high-rise developments were considered the most dangerous places in the city. For the most part, murder and mayhem were kept at a respectable distance from the commerce and industry that has made Chicago a tourist destination. 

In 1996, under the leadership of Daley’s son, also named Richard, CHA embarked on an ambitious plan to revamp decaying public housing by tearing down the crime-ridden high rises and replacing them with mixed-income developments. When public housing started coming down in 2000, families were given vouchers to find housing in the private market and about 4,100 are known to still be relying on them. Many of the former CHA residents moved into other segregated areas already burdened with higher crime and lower resources. The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, tracked CHA residents that moved to private apartments with a voucher over a 10-year period. After moving, the majority of respondents said they lived in much better neighborhoods. The Institute also found, however, that respondents “live in communities where about 41 percent of the residents have incomes below the poverty level and 87 percent are African American.” While the voucher program did decrease overall violence, the declines were modest, and many serious problems still confront impoverished Chicago communities.

Similarly, federal prosecutions of organized gangs did little to reduce gun homicides. At the same time public housing was coming down, organized gangs were being dismantled as federal prosecutors aggressively went after gang leaders. Street gangs splintered into the headless, armed factions that police claim are responsible for most of the city’s shootings. Anti-violence groups such as CeaseFire—a community initiative that employs former gang members to help mediate conflict before it turns to violence—as well as law enforcement acknowledge there is no longer an organized gang hierarchy. Rather, there are gang factions. Gun violence often erupts between these groups over everything from drug disputes to perceived disrespect on the street. Compounding the problem, gang members who are locked up are put on a path that leads them right back to crime. After serving their time, they are released into the same impoverished neighborhoods they came from, but with even fewer opportunities. Saddled with a record, the ex-felons can’t find a job, get educational financial aid, or housing assistance. The cycle of violence repeats itself.

In the wake of the Hadiya Pendleton murder, local politicians have made the usual calls for tougher legislation and more cops. Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged the Illinois General Assembly to pass a new mandatory minimum-sentencing law. The law would boost the required prison time for people convicted of gun possession from one year to three years. It would also require that those convicted serve 85 percent of their sentences. His police chief, Garry McCarthy, moved quickly to put more cops on the street, shifting about 292 sworn officers from desk duty. On the national level, Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, have proposed federal legislation that creates a statute to punish people who buy guns legally, known as “straw purchasers,” then pass the guns on to criminals. Under the proposed bill, a straw purchaser could face up to 25 years in prison. McCarthy’s approach to reducing the violence may get offenders off the street for a while, but it won’t change the dynamics that breed new offenders.

Left unchecked, the social ills that lead to violence are passed on like a mutated gene. Quarantining communities plagued by these ills and locking up more offenders simply has not worked. In Chicago, a young person growing up in poverty amid the daily dose of street violence is estranged from the hope that propels most of us forward. Last week, six-month-old baby Jonylah Watkins was killed when a gunman opened fire on the baby’s father, a reputed gang member. The senseless shooting is further proof that Chicago isn’t likely to see a significant downturn in homicides until it finds a way to bring the isolated masses into the fold.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article featured several errors relating to the Chicago Housing Authority’s voucher relocation program initiated in 1999. The number of families known to now be using vouchers was implied to be 25,000 when the correct figure is 4,100. The article stated that after relocation 66 percent of participants in an Urban Institute study reported problems in their new neighborhoods with gangs, 50 percent with shooting and violence, and 78 percent with drug-dealing. These figures actually reflect perceptions prior to relocation—afterward most residents said they lived in better neighborhoods. Research from the Urban Institute also shows that the voucher program reduced overall violence, while an earlier version claimed the program merely redistributed violence.

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