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.


Open letter to Oakland mayor Jean Quan:
The only legislation that can realistically end gun violence in Oakland – and Chicago – is a labor law: doubling the minimum wage to $30,000/yr. The Crips and the Bloods could not whip a decent paying Ronald McDonald.

Crackpot? More than doubling the federal minimum wage from $7.25/hr to $15/hr ($600/wk) would cause less than 4% direct inflation:
$3.87/hr (half/average raise) X 2080 hours (full work year) = $8,049/yr X 70 million workers (half the workforce -- $15/hr is today’s median wage) = $563.4 billion. (3.5 million workers at the minimum wage would get a full $16,020 raise may be left out to simplify eighth-grade math.) Divide $563.4 billion by a $15.8 trillion GDP and we get 3.6% direct inflation (not counting leap frog pushups which may not add up to that much – LBJ’s median wage was only 25% higher than his minimum – high minimum wages often approach median level in other economies).

Oakland won’t educate its way out of poverty and crime. Catch 22: political scientist Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, from neighboring UC Berkeley -- who spent nine years in five poor New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods (and ten years before that researching street gangs) -- explains in his 2008 book Cracks in the Pavement that ghetto schools don't work mostly because students (and teachers!) don't expect anything decent awaiting for them in the labor market, so think it hopeless to make the effort.

In 1956 majority leader LBJ steered an $8.50/hr ($1/hr nominally) minimum wage bill through the US Senate. In 1968 (hourly increments and retail workers added in years between) president LBJ piloted a minimum wage of $10.50/hr ($1.60/hr nominally) into law -- per capita income having expanded 25% in the dozen years intervening.

Per capita income has doubled in the two generations since 1968.

There would be a dismal gap even between a minimum wage of $15/hr, or $30,000/yr and a reality-based minimum needs (poverty) level for a family of three – and even between a median wage 25% higher of $18.75/hr, or $37,500/yr.

A realistic poverty line for a family of three is $45,476 in 2012 dollars according to the 2001 Ms. Foundation book Raise the Floor (table 3-2 on p.44 -- includes $8,786 medical insurance cost). Raise totals up from a comprehensive list of expenses, including taxes to get its figure. (Raise provides extensive explanations for its minimum needs parameters in Appendix B, citing Solutions for Progress -- allots $3,000 to yearly medical expenses even if the family has insurance.)

$19,090, supposedly covers the minimum needs for a family of three under the 1955 era federal formula. Both the Ms. and government formulas calculate about $6 per person/per day for food – the ancient federal methodology multiplies the cost of food three times and leaves it at that. Which is why you won’t see the federal measure quoted much anywhere except as a formula multiple (2X, 3X, 4X).A wage even 50% higher than today’s median, of $22.75/hr or $45,000/yr, would barely support a family of three.

"Since 1973 [note: the last year national income gains were shared across-the-board], productivity has grown roughly 80 percent while median hourly compensation improved by roughly 11 percent.” Something more elemental than “raising the floor” needs to be prescribe.

Anyone can work up a list ruses by which the average American’s interests are being hung out to dry these days. I was just going to say the only thing not foisted upon us so far is foreign firms buying up local water rights and charging them back to us triple.

Then I remembered Chicago leasing its parking meter system for 75 years for $1.15 billion:
Up the road from Oakland City Hall – up College Avenue – on the UC of Berkeley campus labors as progressive a progressive economics faculty as anyone should wish. They could you tell you, Madam Mayor, and tell everyone else at the same time [this essay may hopefully edge them in the latter direction] about a species of labor legislation that can potentially re-write the American social contract front to back, economic to political.

Legislation that has been tried and tested over half a century in the first world (Germany, France) moving to the second and third worlds (Argentina, Indonesia) as well as right next door (French Canada). Legislation bringing to Americans a labor market setup devised – not by Karl Marx – but by post WW II German and other continental industrialists – not to empower labor -- but to stifle union wage races-to-the-top that would divert money from industrial bases rebuilding. (England did not take this path which is why it fell behind – which I’m pretty sure I read in Berkeley’s, Barry Eichengreen’s 2008 The European Economy Since 1945.)

Europe's fabled welfare state was offered as a compensation for labor price moderation. Magic bullet: legally mandated, sector-wide collective bargaining – wherein everyone working the same category of job (e.g., retail clerk) in the same geographic locale (where applicable) works under one common contract with all employers – thwarts the race-to-the-bottom just as surely – just the right barraging balance.

The late David Broder, dean of the Washington press corps, said that, when he came to D.C. 50 years ago, all the lobbyists were union – which meant: naturally balanced campaign financing, someone minding the store on the average person’s interests, all backed by the majority of voters -- perfect democracy.

Your friendly economics faculty up the avenue can tell you all about all of this – but you’ll have to ask.

Denis Drew
Chicago (sometimes Berkeley)


More than DOUBLING the minimum wage to $15/hr would -- believe it or not -- add less than 4% direct inflation: 70 million workers would get a raise -- because $15/hr is today's MEDIAN wage -- multiplied by $8,000/yr average raise would come to a "mere" $560 billion which represents "all of 3.6%" inflation in a $15.8 trillion dollar economy.

LBJ's $10.50/hr minimum wage ($1.60/hr nominally -- yes it has fallen $3.25/hr since!) was 80% of the median which is not uncommon in labor markets with a high minimum wage so a ripple up median wage may not be much higher.

Main point is disproportion of wage increase to prices increases. Wal-Mart wages would go up 50%; Wal-Mart prices would go up only 5% (retail wages 10% of costs) -- fast food wages would go up 107%; fast food prices would go up 35% (fast food 33%).


Unrealistic? Wal-Mart supported the 2007 minimum wage increase from $5.15/hr to $7.25/hr so its customers would have more to spend.

Wal-Mart would not like a minimum wage of $15/hr. Wal-Mart had to close 88 big boxes in Germany because it could not compete paying the same as everyone else. On the continent (since the late 1940s)and around the world (including French Canada) they use a labor market system (instituted by post WWII industrialists, not lefties) called SECTOR-WIDE LABOR AGREEMENTS, where all employees doing the same work (e.g., retail clerk) in the same locale work under one commonly negotiated contract -- worked out wonderfully fair and balanced all around.

Sector-wide has to our next project. Today's median wage is not much higher than LBJ's even though per capita income about DOUBLED in the meantime (due to rising productivity) from about $20,000/yr to about $40,000/yr.

Sector-wide bargaining -- meaning automatic unionization -- would reset our middle class' political leverage back to normal too -- the only way to get our mojo back.

If you told Americans of 1968 that by early 2007 the minimum wage would have dropped almost in half ($5.75/hr in today's dollars) they would have conjectured: a comet strike, limited nuclear exchange, multiple plagues, sunspots activity knocking out all power grids?

Last but not least -- just local color: when Illinois pretty quickly raised it minimum wage from $5.15/hr to $8/hr there was a noticeable pickup in business in my neighborhood McDonald's -- mostly in the third world end -- noticed by others as well as myself.

Everybody keeps talking about Chicago and yes it's bad but Tucson, AZ with 1/10th the population has half as many gun deaths. 5 times Chicago per capita. 250 gun deaths last year. Loose gun laws in Arizona make for an extremely high gun death rate and MSM totally misses it! And yes poverty and gangs are just as bad here.

These same old sad arguments about spending more money for 'lost generational losers' are just ridiculous. $15 an hour jobs? Really?? Why not 50 or 60? Because, clearly, with the laughable crazy naiveness that this person has about running a business, what difference does any amount mean? Well duh, it means McDonalds won't be able to offer a product people will be able to buy. It will be unprofitable. So, no one will take a chance on losing their time and money to own and operate one. So, double duh, no one does. Then duh, no $15, 50 or 60 dollar jobs. You see, you fools, only Obamas Green energy Boondoggles guarantee this, (all profit with no product) and this is only offered to his donors, (using working peoples money). So, you want solutions? You can't handle solutions. Because it means less taxation, less regulation, and more self sufficiency then you would or could want to offer. Because all you've got as a solution is a endless buffet of meaningless platitudes, and more calls for taxation, and servitude, and continued dumbing down of people given their pitiful smattering of public money, without any expectation of having them support themselves. People need to work. In order for them to work, we need money in the private arena, not the federal one. Because government only takes, it cant make (unless were talking about regulations and redundancies).

Here's the deal and I know I'll be called a racist because it seems that anyone who disagrees with the current "breeding for paychecks" policies is called a racist.

If you look at these areas there is an overwhelming lack of fathers, married fathers, in this scene. Women get pregnant by choice because it gets them housing, food, heath care, cell phones, and everything else in between. What Democrats, who mostly advocate for this policy and Republicans who go along, do is condemn generations to cycles of poverty. It should be considered child abuse to keep this policy intact!

The country has changed now since the Great Depression of -07 but the attitudes and polices ARE NOT CHANGING. Pregnancy should not be considered an economic disability in the United States today. 50 - 60 years ago when access to, and knowledge about, birth control was sketchy, the policies may have been well-intended. Today? They are little more than cradle-to-the-grave sentences for minorities and poor whites.

In almost every instance, across this country, high school drop-out rates among black Americans about 70%; among Hispanics about 55%. Want to tell me why these welfare parent(s)/guardians are permitted to allow their children to drop out of school and why state governments are permitted to collude in this bad policy?

If 2000 decent paying jobs showed up in these neighborhoods tomorrow the majority wouldn't be qualified to be hired for them. Conversely, stop using the contrasting "other sides" of town as a way to shame everyone onto thinking they own the problem. The country spends billions on trying to keep these kids in schools, on GED, etc. Everyone knows a high-school dropout will more likely be incarcerated; have poor health, and never meet his/her potential for earning power. It's a loss for the young adult, the municipality, the county, the state, and the country.

If you want to change behavior then change the financial incentives. Change the policies. This isn't the 60's anymore.

cehohan said" Because it means less taxation, less regulation, and more self sufficiency then you would or could want to offer."

Cutting taxes doesn't create jobs. Never has, never will.
Regulation isn't stifling jobs or business; that's just a tired conservative excuse.
Can't be self-sufficient when the game is rigged against you. The middle class has been shrinking for three decades while the top 0.01% sucks up all the money and power. Corporate America won't be happy until we're all fighting over jobs that pay $3/hr.

Folks, Chicago is bad but Tucson, AZ is 5 times as bad per capita. Chicago has strict gun laws, Arizona does not.
Chicgo's death rate PER CAPITA is 1/5th that of Tucson. Tucson with only a million population had 250 gun homicides last year.

Ms. Mitchell, what about the effects of environmental LEAD poisoning [and maybe other toxins as well]? MotherJones' Jan-Feb '13 edition had a good article on the connection between lead poisoning in children, especially boys, & its effect on development and behavior.

Tetra-ethyl lead as an additive in gasoline has been eliminated; but the article says that lead that was spewed out, especially more in our big cities, still remains until we remove it -- and that each summer, heat sends it back into the air.

... Separately, is there a FEDERAL law against gun trafficking?

Thank you

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