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How Chicago Points to a Growing Inequality of Urban Violence

How Chicago Points to a Growing Inequality of Urban Violence
Reuters

Gun violence in Chicago is endemic and notorious. A recent shooting in a South Side park where 13 were injured, including a three-year-old, made national headlines. A series of incidents last weekend resulted in ten more injuries

Such stories lead to a sense of a city under assault. In fact, it's not the city as a whole, but particular neighborhoods. Violence in Chicago follows segregation: it's concentrated in particular neighborhoods that are defined by income and race.

Daniel Hertz, a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, has been studying the distribution of violence in the city, and how that distribution has changed over the past 20 years. I talked to him about his findings and about the geography of Chicago's urban violence.

There are a lot of stories in the news about violence in Chicago. Is Chicago becoming more dangerous?

It doesn't always make sense in a large metropolitan area to ask "how dangerous is it?" and expect one answer. The answer really depends on where you are, and also on who you are. You can be in the same neighborhood and depending on whether you're a man or a woman or younger or older or white or black or Hispanic, your chances of being victimized by violent crime could be totally different.

All that said, I think it's almost impossible to slice the data and find that Chicago as a whole is getting more dangerous. The city's total numbers are way down over the last 20 years. And they're down in most neighborhoods, including the most dangerous. If you take the most dangerous third of the city as a whole, those numbers are down 20 percent. There are some places where violence is up, but on the whole I don't think there's any way to justify saying that Chicago is more dangerous than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Homicide is down by about 45 percent overall from the four years from 1990 to 1993, to 2007 to 2011.

What data are you looking at to make these judgments?

I look at homicides, and I just use Chicago police department data. Both aggregate for the city as a whole and by police district.

You say that the inequality of violence has changed. What do you mean by that?

It's always been unequal. Everybody who lives in Chicago or knows anything about Chicago knows that there's a big gap in many indicators of quality of life, broadly speaking between richer neighborhoods on the North Side and poorer neighborhoods on the South and West Side, and has been for a very long time. But that gap in terms of violent crime has gotten much, much worse.  In the early '90s, the most dangerous part of the city had about six times as many homicides as the safest third of the city. Today that number is about 15 times.

I don't love using these sorts of terms when it comes to homicides, but if you look at the opportunity costs of your chance of being victimized by violent crime, it's much bigger if you live or spend lots of time in violent neighborhoods than it was 20 years ago.

Why is inequality of violence a problem? Shouldn't we just be looking at absolute numbers rather than distribution?

Well, the absolute numbers do matter. It's a good thing that fewer people are being killed or shot.

But there's all sorts of research that shows that people with resources leave neighborhoods that are relatively more violent than other neighborhoods. And businesses don't come to violent neighborhoods. So when the gap between violent and nonviolent neighborhoods grows, neighborhoods on the wrong side of that gap are just going to lose more and more of their middle-class, more and more of their businesses, and the penalty for being poor is going to get bigger and bigger.

And that's especially a concern given that economic segregation in Chicago and almost every other city in the country has been getting much worse over the past two generations. So in addition to worse schools and worse access to jobs we're adding to the list of things you have to deal with if you're poor is that you can only afford to live in neighborhoods that are on the wrong side of this growing gap between safety and a lack of safety.

Is the growing inequality of violence something that's just in Chicago?

That's a good question. And one of the things I've been wanting to do is to try do this kind of study in other places. The reason I've been able to do this in Chicago is that the data was available. The Chicago Police Department annual reports, which break down the number of homicides per police district, are available online going back to the '80s. And we have the same police districts at least up until 2011. In other cities that data isn't quite as readily available.

But my suspicion is that the same thing has happened in other places, partly because I know that economic segregation has increased. Other people have studied that and found that economic segregation has increased in most other places. And I suspect that would be one of the driving forces. But I don't know for sure.

So what about economic segregation? Do we know why that happened?

There's definitely some consensus around certain things. One favorite is zoning codes. People as diverse as Ed Glaeser, who's a market-oriented professor at Harvard, to Paul Krugman, who's much less market-oriented, have all pointed fingers at zoning codes, especially density caps in very high demand areas. Take Lincoln Park on the North Side of Chicago, very high-demand area, great amenities. It's become more desirable over the last ten years.

So normally in the market they would build more housing there to create some sort of balance between supply and demand, and prices wouldn't skyrocket. But because of zoning codes they can't. The neighbors would pitch a fit if people were building high-rises all over the place, which the market could probably get away with. So supply is held down and prices skyrocket. And that happens in pretty much every high-demand urban neighborhood in the country.

Urban neighborhoods have become more desirable. So the opportunity for imbalance has gotten greater because demand has gotten so much higher. And another part of it is just an increase in income inequality. If you have an increase in income inequality, you're going to have an increase in economic segregation. Although I remember reading a paper out of Stanford from 2011 which found that income segregation had increased even faster than would be predicted by the increase in income inequality.

Does the increase in the inequality of violence make it harder to address violence in the communities where it's occurring?

I don't know. I would love to ask the police and social service organizations that work on that sort of thing. On the one hand, if you've got a higher percentage of violence in a smaller area, maybe it would be easier to flood those areas with police if you had the numbers.

There's an interesting dynamic seeing the panic over crime, which has been pretty widespread over the entire city, despite the fact that the northside is in fact extremely safe at least in terms of lethal crimes.

Part of the issue is that even given the fact that the North Side is very safe, North Side residents still demand from their aldermen more and more police presence because they're convinced that it's not really safe. And so it may be harder in that sense from a purely resource point of view, we should be piling police resources into these dangerous neighborhoods.

But what happens instead is someone gets killed on the South Side and neighborhoods with more political clout demand more police. So you could actually end up with less police in the violent areas.

Yeah. Certainly less than would be demanded than what the numbers look like.

Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian; writes for Slate, Reason, and Splice Today; and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics. All posts »

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