|Chicago Police secure a crime scene. Source: examiner.com|
Chicago’s murder rate has been the topic of national discussion in recent weeks. The Windy City ended 2012 with over 500 murders, its highest total in a decade. Through January of this year there had been 42 murders, putting the city on pace to equal or even surpass last year’s figure. Sadly, the city’s murder dilemma moved to the forefront with the recent killing of young Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school sophomore who recently performed at President Obama’s Inauguration.
Every murder is tragic. Loved ones are lost. Families are irreparably broken. But what’s happening in Chicago must be put in an appropriate context – Chicago is experiencing an unfortunate uptick, not an epidemic, in murders while crime overall in the city is down to levels not seen in decades. Chicago’s murder rate is half what it was twenty years ago, but reducing it further is problematic because of intractable residential and economic segregation.
The Urbanophile Aaron Renn recently gave his take at the New Geography website on why murders have jumped in Chicago, and I can’t say I disagree with much of what he says. He identifies seven factors as having an impact on the increase, with four (lack of officers; outdated police tactics; poor political oversight; and the failure to attract a big-name crime-fighter like William Bratton) closely related to the city’s political structure and culture. Changing these four factors would have an impact on murders in Chicago. But addressing these issues may only reduce murders marginally.
The other three (gang fragmentation; depopulation; and public housing demolitions) get a little closer to the truth as I see it. Outside of Chicago’s Loop and lakefront, the city has experienced a troubling transformation that is more along the lines of what one can witness now in Detroit, Cleveland or St. Louis. The disappearance of jobs, steeply declining home values prompting foreclosures and poor education are among the factors that have contributed to the murder increase. And without a doubt, the Great Recession has had a grip on Chicago’s economy that has prevented economic mobility among its poorest residents.
Even still, Chicago must be considered in context. According to the FBI, in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, Chicago had a murder rate of 15.9 per 100,000 residents. That ranked it second, after Philadelphia, of the nine U.S. cities with a population over one million. Chicago ranks sixth out of the 34 cities with more than 500,000 residents (behind Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Memphis and Washington, DC). Of the 285 cities with a population of more than 100,000, Chicago’s murder rate ranks 25th. The cities that rank above Chicago are a familiar group of Northeastern and Midwestern cities that have long been plagued by problems, like Hartford and New Haven, CT; Newark, NJ; Dayton, OH; Kansas City, MO. But the list also includes troubled Sun Belt cities that never experienced the growth of their more familiar brethren – New Orleans; Richmond; Oakland; Jackson, MS; Birmingham, AL; Little Rock; Stockton, CA. There are no final figures yet for 2012, let along 2013. However, a reasonable estimate may be that Chicago’s murder rate may have crept upward into the 17-18 per 100,000 range at present.
Since 1991, the height of the crack epidemic that led to a sharp spike in crime nationwide, Chicago’s murder rate has decreased nearly 52 percent. Chicago’s murder rate in 1991 was 32.9 per 100,000. That 52 percent decline is excellent when compared to the 24 cities with more than 100,000 residents that currently have higher murder rates than Chicago – they declined by only 32 percent over the same period. Unfortunately, if you compare Chicago with its peers, the nine cities with more than one million people, it falls short. America’s largest cities decreased their murder rate by 73 percent between 1991 and 2011.
What’s important to note is the company that Chicago keeps in its murder statistics and what it says about the city’s prospects for maintaining its prominence among the global elite of cities. Thirteen of the 24 cities with higher murder rates are classic shrinking cities, losing more than 20 percent of their population since reaching their peak. Seven of the nine cities with more than one million (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Dallas) do not fit the shrinking city profile, with only Chicago and Philadelphia doing so. Philly is among those with a higher murder rate than Chicago.
In addition to being shrinking cities, many of the high murder rate cities are frequent members of lists on residential segregation. I haven’t the time or resources to delve deeply into this now, but cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and yes, Chicago, are often high on lists of residential and economic segregation. The constant migratory influx of some of the other “million cities” may have put them a little further down the segregation list and mitigated against some of the issues that shrinking and more segregated cities have had to deal with.
Ultimately I think that what Chicago’s murder spike tells us that, despite pronouncements to the contrary, the Windy City has yet to achieve escape velocity toward becoming a complete global elite city and still carries the vestiges of its Rust Belt past. Maybe Chicago should be viewed as the nation’s preeminent shrinking city, albeit with global city assets, rather than as a global city shedding its shrinking city past.