Challenging the myth of Chicago as warzone

As soon as I found out I would be spending a year in Chicago and started to share that news with friends and family, the concerned comments began rolling in. Both covertly and overtly, well-meaning people would question how safe I would be moving to Chicago by myself. Even once I moved here, I continued to encounter this concern from other Chicago residents when I would tell them what neighborhood I live in. A quick Google search reveals startling crime statistics and discussion boards as to whether or not East Garfield Park is really “safe.” The consensus seems to be that it’s better to just give that neighborhood a miss, especially at night (I believe people may be confusing perceived criminals with vampires here).

Along with Austin (where I work), Englewood, Auburn Gresham and other high crime areas, reducing these locations and this city merely to a “war zone” with “people being shot left and right” (looking at you, 45) completely ignores the context of why and how the current situation came to be. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not dodging bullets every time I walk out the front door. In all honesty, the single biggest threat to my personal safety are the stairs in my house here, but that’s more a factor of my own natural gracefulness, not the city I live in.

But let’s put our sociologist hats on for a moment and look critically at Chicago. First, it’s worth noting that not all neighborhoods or zipcodes are experiencing equivalent crime levels. Those neighborhoods that do have higher rates of crime, and especially murders, which is what national media seems to be most concerned with, are also predominately poor and undereducated, as well as being majority minority (most typically African-American communities) and having high rates of gang activity. Despite what Sean Spicer/Melissa McCarthy would have you believe, 80% of Chicago has not been murdered.

Having said all of this, I do not intend to take away from the severity of the situation. Chicago, along with many other major cities with similarly high crime rates, is facing a crisis. Ordinary Americans in high-crime areas are experiencing PTSD symptoms from traumatic injuries (i.e., being shot) or from witnessing traumatic events. Children in these neighborhoods are adversely affected by these high homicide rates – within a week of a homicide, children exhibited lower levels of attention and impulse control and lower preacademic skills. Experiencing this over and over again can have long-term negative effects on children in these poorest neighborhoods. Going a step further, teachers, police officers, and community members expect that youth, particularly young black or Hispanic men, will grow up to be nothing more than thugs like the rest of the community. Labeling theory suggests that, from a young age, hearing this message and being treated from the get-go like nothing more than a future thug affects future life chances and indeed may correspond with adolescent or early adulthood crime rates, lower education attainment levels, and higher probability of incarceration.

Further, these “scary” parts of Chicago are historically disenfranchised areas. Speaking specifically to East Garfield Park, the neighborhood has not always been like this. Back in the early 20th century, East Garfield Park was originally a predominantly Jewish community that became a more industrial area due to unreliable transportation. Sears, Roebuck and Co built a factory in Lawndale, just south of East Garfield Park, and employed over 20,000 individuals. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago as part of the Chicago Freedom Movement. He lived in Lawndale and works in East Garfield Park (his office was in the building of the church that owns the house I live in). Tensions at this time were running high between nonviolent Freedom Marchers calling for Fair Housing and violent white protestors. In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. This sparks the infamous Chicago Race Riots, leaving many injured, 162 buildings burned, and the police with orders from Mayor Richard J. Daley to “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any store in our city.” Once the riots were quelled and the fires put out, the damaged structures were razed with no replacements built. In 1974, Sears moved their offices to the Loop. Many low-skilled jobs consequently moved out as well. This was not the only factory/distribution to do so, but it left one of the biggest impacts, in an area rife with many abandoned lots and buildings recovering from the aftermath of the 1968 riots. Soon after, retail and industry left the area as sources of income, and the tax base disappeared. Madison at one point was a thriving commercial corridor in the Westside of Chicago. Fifty years on, there has been little further investment in the neighborhoods. While this is just one neighborhood’s story, it holds true for many other neighborhoods in the city.

The solution cannot just be “send in the feds.” The National Guard has a rocky history with Chicago. What would be viewed as an occupying force with a disproportionate effect on minority communities would only escalate tensions. Similarly, hiring more police officers is not necessarily the solution we need either. Check out the video below for more on that – it’s about 40 minutes but worth it. Applying more force to the situation still fails to address the underlying problems that have led to the current climate in Chicago.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, white people are moving into a “gritty” neighborhood, making it trendy, and pricing out lifelong residents with craft beer and lattes. This is not a show of force in the martial sense, but nonetheless, can be considered an act of violence. One of the most horrifying thought pieces I ever read about East Garfield Park likened white men and women moving here to pioneers (x, x); this is just not so thinly veiled racism frankly. Refer to earlier in this blog post as to why these neighborhoods are the way they are. While these neighborhoods sorely need investment, gentrification just pushes the problem to the next neighborhood over, in what can be seen as a reversal of white flight.

So what can we do?

Chicago is an incredible, vibrant city, and so much more than what the nightly news or our politicians would have you believe. It is disingenuous to continue to perpetuate the idea that Chicago is some kind of warzone with bullets flying everywhere. There are certainly large problems facing Chicago, but no more so than any other major urban center in the United States. Instead of clutching our pearls about the violence inherent to the system, either do something about it or kindly shut your mouth, particularly if you don’t actually live here. Support local efforts and businesses. In Chicago, I can rattle off many great nonprofits that are making a difference in their neighborhoods, through workforce development, after school programs, and coping mechanisms. Do your own damn research. Months out from the Inauguration and Chicago has become less of a Presidential punching bag, but there are problems with perception of this city all the way up and down the political chain. Chicago residents cannot be a bargaining chip between entrenched political interests.

I love this city, and I’m so excited to live here for a few more years. But if I hear one person ask me if I feel safe here, I might just scream. Or maybe show them this blog post instead, so I don’t need to repeat myself.

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