Chicago’s Homicide Problem and the Nuanced Truth

I came across a fascinating guest post yesterday at the Urbanophile website by University of Chicago graduate student and blogger Daniel Hertz.  In it, he digs into the nuances of Chicago’s homicide problem, relative to other big cities across the nation.

For background, Chicago’s been all over the news for its uptick in murders since last year.  The media perception has been one of near lawlessness in Chicago, and it has been commented on by perhaps the Windy City’s most famous resident, President Barack Obama.  Last year Chicago exceeded 500 murders, giving it the highest total of any major city in the nation.

Locally, murders and shootings are definitely getting priority coverage in the news.  I seem to remember 20 years ago that not all killings received TV coverage; today, all seem to be covered, and, to make matters even worse, there’s usually a tally on the news along the lines of “15 shootings resulting in seven deaths over the weekend” that I never recall from the period when homicides were at their greatest in Chicago.  Residents of the neighborhoods most impacted are shown grieving their loss and protesting against the rising number of murders, which is indeed higher (where they are) than anything they’ve experienced.

But here’s the thing.  Overall, the Chicago murder rate is down significantly from its peak in the ’90s.  But the decline does not go across the board.  As Daniel states in his piece:

CHANGE IN HOMICIDE RATE, EARLY 90s – LATE 2000s

The areas in darkest green saw the greatest decline; red means the murder rate actually increased.

So: Yes, the great Crime Decline is a fickle thing. The North Side saw huge decreases (in Rogers Park, it was over 80%) pretty much everywhere; the few areas that are lighter green were the safest in the city to begin with. The parts of the South and West Sides closest to downtown – Bronzeville, the West Loop, Pilsen, etc. – got a lot safer. But most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.

This is a complicated state of affairs, and probably goes at least part of the way to explaining why, in the face of a 50% 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.

Daniel’s analysis comes to the more nuanced conclusion that is closer to the truth of homicides in Chicago:

Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. 

 This fact has created a great disconnect in Chicago, and speaks to the larger question of overall inequality in the Windy City.  How can North Side residents, who have seen violent crime drop like a rock, become engaged in crime fighting measures in South and West side communities where the exact opposite has happened?  How can South and West Siders convince North Siders of the urgency of their concerns?

I’m coming to believe that inequality of all facets, whether they are racial, economic, educational, social or otherwise, and how metro areas deal with them, will become one of the premier challenges over the next twenty years.

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