Last week, Ward Room talked to a retired police lieutenant who blamed Chicago’s increase in murders on the breakup of the housing projects and the resultant dispersal of their gang culture throughout the city. The projects were built to confine blacks to a small area of Chicago, and so he concluded that today’s gang wars are a legacy of segregation.
Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, studied the projects as a University of Chicago graduate student. He wrote:
The places where Chicago’s homicides concentrate — 22 out of the 73 community areas— are highly segregated. They have high levels of poverty, are racially and ethnically homogenous, have little street traffic and rarely host outsiders. Contrast that with New York, where nearly every community has an ethnic and social class mix, and streets are vibrant spaces with mixed residential and commercial use. This means there are “eyes on the street”— urbanist Jane Jacobs’ term for the self-policing that citizens unconsciously carry out in lively, well-trafficked public spaces.
New York has neighborhoods where the concentration of poor African-Americans is close to that on the South and West sides, but they’re scattered among the boroughs: Willamsbridge in the Bronx, Harlem in Manhattan, Flatbush in Brooklyn, Hollis in Queens. There is no monolithic “Black Metropolis” such as developed in Chicago -- a vast city-within-a-city isolated economically, socially and educationally from the rest of the metropolitan area.
John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote that racial segregation leads to economic segregation.
In New York City homicides declined more than 15 percent in five years while homicide in Chicago increased more than 10 percent. Chicago’s homicide rate is now about triple NYC’s.
So, why hasn’t Chicago replicated New York’s success? I believe the answer lies in economic segregation. Chicago is the most racially segregated big city in America, and among the most economically segregated. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written extensively about cumulative disadvantage, which is the idea that all sorts of health and economic problems tend to cluster in places that are segregated by race. Structural features of those places — poverty, density, isolation — put them at great risk of higher rates of crime and violence. Reducing those risks leads to safer cities.
Crime policy has long been primarily about security and control of these segregated places. But the United States has never been able to arrest its way out of its crime problem. A much better strategy is to unleash market forces through tax credits enticing businesses to move into non-traditional business districts, taxing blighted properties at draconian rates, and changing zoning laws to promote gentrification (but encourage poorer residents to stay).
That’s actually happening on the Near South Side, where gentrification is pushing middle-class residents from downtown into historically black neighborhoods. Douglas, which includes Bronzeville, has the lowest murder rate of any predominantly black community area.
In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously declared that his state would practice “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Fifty years later, it’s much more of a reality in Chicago than it is in the South.