Chicago murders are down, but it doesn’t feel that way

A sample of the artwork collected by Student Voices Against Handgun Violence.

By Mary Cirincione

Murder in Chicago is down—following an astounding 17.5 percent decrease from 2012 to 2013. And with two-and-a-half months to go until the end of 2014, the city is on target for an additional 3 percent drop in its murder count. The trend Chicago is experiencing is national. Violent crime is down across the country.

Yet many Chicago residents are painfully aware that the city’s struggle with violent crime continues. And youth advocates say the crisis does not feel any different, or any less prevalent than it did in 2012. It does not feel as though violent crime has fallen, they say, because the violence is concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods.

And violent crime appears more random today than it did two decades ago.

“I’ve been an educator in Chicago for nine years on the South Side and the West Side,” said Luke Anderson, an English teacher at North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter School. “It doesn’t feel different to me, and I wouldn’t say it’s getting worse. But I still have students every day who tell me about… their cousin who was shot and killed right in front of them. These are communities where violence kind of rules the deck, unfortunately.”

A group of youth advocates came together Wednesday evening to discuss gun violence trends in Chicago, and the ways in which communities can combat the crisis. Art Works Projects, which uses design and the arts to raise social justice awareness in Chicago, sponsored a panel discussion. The recent launch of a photo documentary exhibit on Chicago’s youth gun culture by Carlos Javier Ortiz served as the backdrop.

The problem is one of perception, Anderson said in advance of the panel discussion. Central to that is the fact that violence is now concentrated in a few communities. “If you look at neighborhoods like North Lawndale where I teach, or Englewood, these are some of the most violent census tracts in the whole country.”

Young men stop to examine an art display in advance of Wednesday’s “We All We Got” panel discussion, held in honor of Carlos Javier Ortiz’s recently launched photojournalism documentary. Installation designed by Danny Wicke with assistance from Josh Duensing at Art Works Projects.

“It’s not marginal to go down 17 percent in one year,” Anderson said, acknowledging the statistical drop in violent crime. “But I think that life hasn’t really changed very much for people who live in places like Englewood or South Shore or Roseland. There’s still gun violence, there’s still gangs—a lot of the effects of poverty.”

Panelist and South Side resident Diane Latiker said she does not find meaningful value in Chicago Police statistics. “Those communities that those numbers come from, well, there’s another real reality there. And it’s totally different… So we don’t see it going down, we just see continuation, which means it continues to go on, and people continue to get shot and lose their lives. And we don’t measure that by numbers.”

“I believe in their hearts they’re doing all they can do and those numbers are real to them,” she said, referring to the mayor and police superintendent before the discussion. Latiker’s non-profit, Kids Off the Block, promotes community activism and non-violence through alternative programs for youth.

Alex Kotlowitz, the award-winning author of “There Are No Children Here,” has written about youth violence in Chicago since the early ’90s. Kotlowitz said he trusts the police department’s statistics. “The truth of the matter is… they’re down, they’re half of what they were 20 years ago, the homicide rate and the shooting rate, which is pretty remarkable. So there’s something there to celebrate,” he said prior to the panel.

“Having said that, the numbers are still extraordinarily high,” Kotlowitz added. Chicago had 415 murders in 2013. There have been 319 murders to date this year.

Mirroring Anderson and Latiker’s sentiments, Kotlowitz said, “The violence feels just as intense now as it did 20 years ago. And that I don’t fully understand why.”

But he offered some explanation: “The one thing that has changed most dramatically is that public housing has come down.”

As Chicago neighborhoods have gentrified, project communities have been pushed out. “So much of the violence was really out of sight, out of mind. And that’s not as much the case now,” Kotlowitz said.

“Twenty years ago, much of the violence was over the drug trade, so it was pretty targeted and the violence now feels much less targeted. That feeling, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, is that a lot more bystanders are getting shot, especially young people.”

Innocent bystanders, shot by chance. Like Shamiya Adams, the 11-year-old girl who was killed by a stray bullet during a sleepover at a friend’s house last July. Her death grabbed headlines for months, as residents struggled with the senselessness of it.

Murders like Shamiya’s lend weight to the view shared by Anderson, Latiker and Kotlowitz—the perception that Chicago violence does not feel less prevalent. That it does not feel any different than it did in 2012, when Chicago earned a reputation as the “murder capital” of the U.S.