As the death toll continues to increase in the city of Chicago, the president's adopted hometown, many are left trying to find answers to the longtime problem.
by Sidik Fofana
Somewhere along the way, Chicago has become a scapegoat for being a hotbed of youth violence.
It started—as all tales of urban renewal do—with a bright, utopian plan. This was the 30’s. 1937 to be exact, when the nation was staving off depression and the New Deal of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration was just beginning to reinvigorate the economy. In the late 30’s, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was established to maintain housing for poor and low-income residents. The architectural philosophy was simple: tower projects on superblocks to maximize the number of occupants.
Before the projects were the projects, dens of iniquity where drugs, prostitution, and violent crime ran rampant, they were literally “projects”, urban landscaping plans that sought to mesh together beauty and affordability. In 1942, the Chicago Housing Authority commissioned the Cabrini-Green houses a marvelous 10 section complex with building of red brick and concrete reinforced exteriors, and open gallery porches. In 1955, the Stateway Gardens were under construction. In 1962, the Robert Taylor homes completed the trilogy.
But something went wrong. At some point, these pillars of urban development deteriorated and along with them Chicago’s inner city. In D. Bradford Hunt’s book Blueprint for Disaster (2008) youth-to-adult ratios, loss of working class families, and the high rise structure has contribute to a poor quality of living. Leftists would blame it on the substandard socioeconomic conditions in which these residents are forced to live. Conservatives blame it on the residents themselves. No what matter which school of thought prevails, the bottom line is that public housing went from castle to catastrophe.
As astonishing as it may seem, drugs didn’t have as much to do with it as people think. In 1980’s, when the crack epidemic razed American cities, leaving neighborhoods barren with homelessness, unemployment, and poverty, Chicago was left relatively unscathed. As a matter of fact, the New York Times published an article in February 1989 stating that crack use has not reached epidemic proportions. In the piece, “Crack Epidemic Missing in Urban Sweep,” law enforcement and officials confirmed that Chicago has “never had a dynamic upsurge” and that they were “perplexed by the low levels of crack activity in Chicago.”
Which leaves only one culprit: violence. If Chicago’s drug history is a relatively vague radar dot, then its history of violent crime is a disturbing wave of electromagnetism. In 1916, 198 murders were recorded in the city. By 1974, that number more than quadrupled. Though murder rates have slightly decreased the past few years, statistics are still less than ideal. To this day, homicide rates in Chicago are 2.70 times the national average. This year alone there has already been over 500 murders. In the month of April, more people have been killed in Chicago than in the whole country of Iraq.
None of this really hits home until the human faces and their stories accompany the numbers. The story that stands at the apex of this epidemic is that of sixteen year old Derrion Albert, a honor roll student at Fenger High School was beaten and stomped to death on September 29th of this year. A near fatal shooting of a teen girl in the same Roseland occurred more than a month before. Corey McClaurin, 17, a senior at Simeon Career Academy High School was shot just a week before. To say that youth violence in Chicago and in the country at large has emerged into a cause of national cause is figuratively putting a band aid on a gunshot wound.
Of course, some members of the greater Chicago community have experienced this issue’s effects more profoundly than others. One of them Father Pfleger, a priest at Saint Sabina’s church on the Southside of Chicago. “We’ve buried about five children from the church and from the community,” he says almost unwillingly. In July two teens were shot in front of his church.
The violence occurring in Chicago harkens back to height of gang violence in California, when Los Angeles neighborhoods were torn between the Bloods and the Crips in the 1970s and 1980s. As gang testimonials like Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Crip founder Tookie William proclaim, even though the gangs disseminated into various sects, ideologies remained the same and leadership was clearly defined.
While Chicago mimics Los Angeles’ violent influx, there is one vital difference: In Chicago, gangs are not responsible for most violence, neighborhoods are. Most community members including Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off The Block, an organization which offers positive alternatives to at-risk, low income youth, would say that Chicago’s problem is not big sets, but small territories. “While there are still gangs in Chicago, a lot of what’s going on now is more block territories,” says Latiker. “Every block is a different set that has their own clique. You can walk from 115th Street to 116th and there’s different clique there with probably a different name.”
But what has caused this? Do different blocks spontaneously develop their own set? Shockingly, the answer doesn’t even involve the participants in these cliques, as much as the socioeconomic intervention of gentrification itself. Chicago had its share of major gangs in 1970’s (Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips, Vice-Lords, Black Gangster Disciples) and before gentrification, each major gang was for the most part housed together in the same project building or same areas of the city. With urban development came the demolition of high rises like the Cabrini-Green buildings which once housed over 15,000 people and has been gradually evacuated due to plans to tear the building down. By the end of 2009, 53 more buildings will undergo Cabrini Green’s same fate.
The problem arises when people who used to share the same housing unit find themselves displaced all over the city, having been forced out of their homes for the sake of urban renewal projects. The violence, which was already cantankerous to begin with, increases manifold when people from different neighborhoods have to live near each other. Young adults from different parts of the city develop animosity towards each other. The result is the landmarks become warzones. Chicago, in essence, has turned into a city of volatile apartments, blocks, corners, storefronts, and other edifices. The worse of them: schools.
“One day, we had four different school fights,” Latiker recalls of a Friday in Chicago this past year. “What happens is kids meet up by the bus stops. It’s very serious.” Since students from different neighborhoods may attend same school, those buildings have become battleground on which conflicting students fight over supremacy.
Students who attend Fenger High blame Derrion Albert’s death on these “turf wars” that have incubated many public schools throughout Chicago. For the past two years, Fenger High School started admitting Altgeld Gardens students, who were forced to transfer because their neighborhood’s former school, Carver High converted to a military academy. The sudden zone shift created a sift between the two populations which escalated into physical altercations. Students from Altgeld Gardens claimed that students from the “Ville” a neighborhood around Fenger had been stalking them, and he whole situation came to a tragic head when a brawl broke out between Ville and Altgeld students and Derrion Albert was tragically caught in the middle and beaten to death.
“How can kids get an education when they’re afraid of going to school and afraid of coming home from school because you hear on the news of another child killed,” laments Father Pfleger. “You talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome coming home from Iraq, but what about Post-Traumatic Stress when there’s all these schools where you walk past lockers students used to be that are dead, and then you can’t come to and from school without passing two or three sites where they are teddy bears and balloons for little kids that have been killed there.”
While Chicago residents are upset by youth violence, they are even more upset about the legal response to it. It seems the city’s police force, in recent years, has been more concerned with enacting harsh indictments on offenders than establishing preventative measures. The police department did enforce a strict curfew updated in March of 2008 obligating minors to be indoors by 10pm. Yet, the city currently upholds a handgun ban that comes with harsh penalties for violators. According to the Chicago Reporter, up to six percent of Black youth are incarcerated on any given day. In essence, law enforcers are more concerned with what happens after crime than before the crime.
Ryan Hollon, who works for the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that although the punitive response has not exacerbated the issue, it certain has not quelled it. “The way we respond is installing those security cameras and putting in those metal detectors and pushing kids out that we think are dangerous, but really what we need is to transform schools into places where people can learn how to handle conflict with words rather than with blood.”
Latiker and Pfleger, like Hollon, agree that youth violence especially within the African-American community has been a symptom of self-hate. To them, punishing the behavior is not key, but rehabilitating the psyche is. Latiker runs her organization by this personal philosophy, giving members of the Kids Off The Block program, many of whom were formerly involved in these turf wars, positive alternative to the streets through sports, music, and other creative outlets.
“Nobody seems to want to go to the youth that cause the problems and have issues so deep,” she says. Father Pfleger has worked with Chicago public schools to form an Anti-Violence Movement as well as several other outreach programs in the community. In Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood, Father Kelly, head of his order’s reconciliation ministry at Precious Blood, commissioned youth from a city summer job program to paint a mural. The mural, which depicts both African-American and Latino images, stands on the border between two neighborhoods and seeks to unite two conflicting populations “transforming an area that’s noted for its violence and its division into a place of hope and unity.”
The Windy City has taken the brunt for the youth violence in the past few months, but as large as a metropolis it is, Chicago is only a microcosm for what’s going on a the national level. But sometimes it only takes a brushfire to wake up a whole village.