Behind Chicago's high-crime summer: persistent street gang violence
One legacy of public housing cuts is the spread of street gang turf battles to new pockets of the city. Gang violence contributed to a high-crime summer.
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"Generally, Chicago does a good job in controlling guns and long placed a very high priority on that. But gangs have always been the exception," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Gang warfare intensified in Chicago over the past 15 years as a result of the dismantling of public housing projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. Residents were scattered across the edges of the city, opening new turf battles as gangs fought to control drug markets.
"When the gangs left the projects and tried to reestablish themselves in other places, there was violence everywhere, and it didn't drop," says John Hagedorn, a criminal justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies gangs.
Chicago and New York City shared similar homicide rates for decades until the mid-1990s, when New York's dropped the same time Chicago's climbed. The reason has to do with how both cities tackled public housing a decade earlier, says Mr. Hagedorn. In what remains the largest US urban housing initiative in history, New York spent $5 billion to build or renovate about 182,000 housing units, which helped populate formerly distressed neighborhoods like the South Bronx that, over time, improved as residents strengthened their ties to local businesses and schools.
Chicago residents were not given that opportunity. Instead of reinforcing its housing, the Chicago Housing Authority demolished its major projects and relocated residents to remote and often impoverished pockets of the city that Hagedorn says hardened its racial and economic barriers.
"New York invested in housing and Chicago didn't," he says. The dislocation process, which is in its last throes today, also coincided with the shifts in property values: It is not lost on many former Cabrini-Green residents that the site of their former apartments now sits across the street from million-dollar condo developments and upscale retail districts.
"[The former projects] became prime territory for redevelopment," Hagedorn says.
The result of Chicago's endeavor is that gangs became entrenched in the neighborhoods on the South and West sides, which over time led to the evolution of intragang warfare that is making matters worse.
'The only thing that's different now is you don't have the traditional gang on the street; it's factions and subsets and splinter groups that form cliques on the blocks and feel they're untouchable because no one can govern them," says Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, an outreach group that organized six peace summits among gang members this year.
The heightened gang wars in Chicago this summer prompted FBI Director Robert Mueller to say new approaches to fight crime there are needed. "We have tried across the country a variety of techniques. My belief is that in Chicago we've tried just about every one of them," Mr. Mueller said in late July. "In comparison to the extent of the problem, it's inadequate."