The senior citizen leaned against a wrought-iron fence, a tall umbrella in one hand as he gazed down the street.
Across the manicured lawns and leafy trees on Douglas Boulevard, a crowd had gathered at the mouth of an alley near familiar yellow crime scene tape. North Lawndale had just been struck by two mass shootings a block or so apart.
The man, who did not want to be named fearing his own safety, grew up all over the West Side, got involved in the “street life” at times and also lost a son to gun violence, he said.
But the scene that evening earlier this month, he said, was something else.
Worse than a combat zone, he thought.
Data being compiled by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and shared with the Tribune suggests that such a strong reaction might not be so far off the mark, and that the perception that violence in Chicago is as bad now as it has been in years is fair.
The lab’s analysis of Chicago Police Department information shows that the pain and harm caused by a crime spike that began in 2020 is more acute in some of Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, echoing what has been concluded in other reports and in the experience of residents alike: Those Chicago neighborhoods have borne the disproportionate brunt of gun violence.
Chicago and cities across the country began dealing with increases in homicides last year as the pandemic began to shut down the country and civil unrest over the police murder of George Floyd heightened stress, experts have said.
The increases have reached a point where the homicide rate in the most violent parts of the city at the end of 2020 was higher than it was in those places in 1991, according to the data analyzed by the lab, a year often considered one of the most violent years in Chicago history.
The populations of the least-safe districts in both years are disproportionately Black, and two districts — Harrison and Englewood — are among the least-safe places in both years.
The numbers also highlight another alarming trend, one that criminologists have noted previously: The gap in the homicide rate between those areas and Chicago’s safest neighborhoods continues to widen, and, according to the data, it is as high as it has ever been in that same three-decade period.
This is only one gap many of the less-safe neighborhoods are coping with, said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center.
The same communities that experience higher homicide rates, which in Chicago in 2020 included neighborhoods such as East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale, Englewood, Austin and Gresham, also experience premature mortality rates — when a person dies before the age of 65 — from other causes like chronic disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, maternal and infant mortality, and overdoses, Ansell said.
That means the overall life expectancy gap between people living in the Loop and people living in West Garfield Park, which is predominantly Black, is as high as 16 years, Ansell said.
All of it, Ansell and others said, is driven by large, structural failures that will require sustained fixes.
“The historical structural racism and economic deprivation are at the root of this,” Ansell said. ” … People believe that living conditions like that have a direct impact that can lead on the one hand to premature heart disease, or on the other hand to someone picking up a gun and killing someone.”
More or better policing is not the answer either, Ansell said.
“Just as you can’t heal your way out of this from a medical perspective,” he said, “traditional medicine isn’t going to help with the heart disease epidemic that we have in these neighborhoods as well. It’s gotta be changing the lives of the individuals and communities.”
Marshall Hatch Jr., who grew up in the West Garfield Park neighborhood in the Harrison District, said he could always feel the difference between his neighborhood and others with better resources, like Lincoln Park.
“It was so evident, it was palpable and it does something to the psyche of neighborhood children growing up,” said Hatch, the son of the longtime pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park.
“Everything from the abandoned house to the glass on the streets. It weighs heavily, it’s almost a psychic tax that a child has to bear growing up in the neighborhood like that.”
The Crime Lab data analysts looked at homicide rates by policing district, using current boundary maps for all years. They adjusted for population decrease or increase, and analyzed homicides through the end of 2020.
According to current policing boundary maps, the four districts with the highest per capita homicide rate in 1991 were Wentworth, Englewood, Harrison and Central. The lowest rates were in the Lincoln, Chicago Lawn, Albany Park and Jefferson Park districts.
Fast forward 30 years, and the four least-safe districts, according to the 2020 data, were Harrison, Englewood, Austin and Gresham. The lowest homicide rates were in the Lincoln, Rogers Park, Jefferson Park and Town Hall districts.
So while the 2020 citywide homicide rate remained below 1991 levels in 2020, crime lab analysts said this is not true of the four most violent districts.
In 2020, the per capita rate in the four most violent districts was 119 per 100,000 residents, compared with 87 per 100,000 residents in 1991. In the safer districts, it was 4.6 victims in 2020, compared with 6.5 in 1991 — which means those districts got safer.
The safety gap reflected in the data shows that the homicide rate in the four most violent districts was 26 times higher than it is in the more safe districts in 2020. In 1991, the rate in less safe districts was 13 times higher.
In both years, 1991 and 2020, the residents living in the districts faced with the highest per capita homicide rates are predominantly Black, according to census figures, said Kim Smith, the director of programs for the U. of C. Crime Lab.
“The burden of violence is just so acute relative to other neighborhoods,” Smith said of the numbers. “The way in which this falls along racial lines is just really striking.”
“The citywide rate really does mask what’s happening in communities,” Smith continued. “ … And if it’s the case that (the homicide rate) is even worse than it was in the ’90s in some neighborhoods, that should make us all think about where we are as a society.”
Concerns over Chicago’s crime gap were raised three years ago in research by criminologist and Northwestern University Professor Andrew Papachristos, who analyzed homicide rates by neighborhoods over three-year cluster periods between 1991 and 2009.
Papachristos found that while the entire city had benefited from a nationwide crime decline in the 1990s, the gap between safe and violent neighborhoods seemed to be closing — until 2006.
“The magnitude of the absolute crime gap is still disturbingly large and since 2006 seems to be widening,” Papachristos wrote at the time.
He also noted that some of the difference was due to a greater rate of violence decline in the safer parts of the city.
How this happened is an old Chicago story, with doctors like Ansell as well as political commentators pointing to a long history of neglect and racist policies around housing and education that created pockets of disadvantage and poverty where violence could become embedded.
Meanwhile, Chicago police were left to respond to the rising tide of violence with enforcement alone. And as they tried, some Chicago police officers were committing civil rights violations, causing more injury and alienating residents, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice investigation that has put the city and its police force under a federal court order to make widespread reforms to policies and practices.
Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman, said decades of either intentional policies or failure to impose structural reforms created the conditions for two districts — Englewood and Harrison — to be among the least safe both then and now.
“There are political choices that were made,” Simpson said, offering the segregated housing policies by Mayor Richard J. Daley as one example.
Simpson also said Chicago’s system of government has not encouraged solutions with its “ombudsman” approach to aldermanic duties, placing filling potholes and snow removal above legislative acts to help the entire city on complicated issues.
“Ombudsmen make sure they deliver good services,” he said. “Legislators make sure there are good laws. They have to mobilize their community to solve problems locally.”
Chicago criminologist David Stovall, when asked about the fact that the same neighborhoods are suffering so badly, if not more, 30 years later, agreed the blame falls on the mayor’s office, but also the “developers and other people who see some places that are desirable and others to be contained.”
“The issue is people equate violence solely to violent people as opposed to situations that will potentially allow for violence to occur,” said Stovall, a professor of Black studies as well as criminology, law and justice at UIC.
The last time the per-capita homicide rate spiked above that of the early 1990s was in 2016, when Chicago saw a 50% jump in homicides. It was the year of the release of video showing Black teenager Laquan McDonald being fatally shot by a white Chicago police officer.
The spike reversed itself over the next three years. But then the pandemic hit, and in May 2020, George Floyd, who was Black, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, touching off months of both peaceful protest and unrest that stretched police resources and strained relationships between citizens and officers.
Over the past year, the citywide collaboration of community organizations that are working to address gun violence with intervention, jobs and social services has continued to respond, despite the challenges. Chicago police expanded workdays, added roving units and have been turning up at community events to seek partnerships with residents to build safety.
And the federal government has also stepped up, with President Joe Biden dedicating billions of dollars in coronavirus relief money to violence reduction, including both police and community efforts.
Smith, of the U. of C. Crime Lab, noted that the homicide rate data and life expectancy data should help direct where that money goes.
In addition, communities will need other “massive economic investments” as well as a commitment from policymakers to change circumstances, Ansell said.
In the meantime, neighbors in even the hardest hit areas are doing what they’ve done for years — working together to take care of one another.
People in West Side neighborhoods like Garfield Park are the greatest asset, Hatch said. Families know each other, depend on each other and help raise each other’s kids, he said.
“Although the West Side has been the city’s stepchild in a way, folks on the West Side … there is an ethos that kind of bonds people,” Hatch said. “People are more authentic, they’re more loving and caring.”
At least one Garfield Park neighbor knows that hard work to improve a block pays off. Angela Taylor, 61, moved into West Garfield Park about 15 years ago to find drug dealers had set up shop next door to her home on Fulton Street.
What followed was a long effort to persuade the young men to leave their curbside spot, which she has since transformed into a garden.
“Things have been so much better. The seniors can actually come out and sit on their front porch in the summer. The kids can ride bikes up and down the street during the summer,” Taylor said. “And it’s not to say … we’re in a better place than any other block because we know you could be sitting inside your house on any block and something can happen and somebody can end up in a situation. But for me with my neighbors, what excites me so much is that we try to create a safe place.”
Taylor wakes up early every morning and walks around the garden, which is attached to her yard through an opening in the fence. She said she believes gun violence has been less frequent in her community in recent months, because her usual company on her early morning walks — the police helicopter that would hover above with its light shining down looking for suspects nearby — hasn’t been around lately.
A tidy vacant lot, just steps from the busy, bustling corner of Pulaski Road and Madison Street, a crossroads and shopping hub for the West Side, is the location of the newly built Garfield Park roller skate rink.
On a recent Saturday, music blared as three kids gingerly made their way around the newly paved oval blacktop, striving to get more comfortable with each glide.
Bright backstops and table umbrellas added a burst of color to the outdoor roller rink, which is the most recent effort of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, which both Ansell and Hatch are involved in.
The group includes several community organizations and residents of the Garfield Park neighborhoods, and the task is as serious as it gets: promoting health and wellness, and addressing the disparities found in the U. of C. data, including the gaping 16-year life expectancy differential.
In addition to the new rink, the collaborative plans to bring a wellness center to the corner of West Madison Street and North Kildare Avenue by 2024, said Hatch.
Since getting his graduate degree in 2017 from UChicago Divinity School and the School of Sociology, Hatch has worked alongside his father in the church, which opened in 1993, to ensure it continues to offer that kind of refuge and relief.
He is the executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project, a residential program that provides men between 18 and 30 job training, social services and other community-building activities.
In addition, the ministry has built homes, invested in abandoned buildings, sent children to school and college with scholarships, and created a jail ministry and a mental health disorder ministry, Hatch said.
“Residents, they feel like they have a death sentence, and it’s a slow death. It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” he said of people living in Garfield Park and other under-resourced communities. “And for the young men we work with, death is on their minds all the time. It’s almost a culture of death, and not necessarily a celebration of it but kind of an embrace of the inevitable. And so the biggest battle is to maintain a sense of hope and hopefulness that we can change.”
Hatch said the work he and other community leaders are doing doesn’t guarantee any victories in the next few years, but he plans to keep doing the work anyway.
“What we should see ourselves doing is really laying the groundwork for the next generation to continue to fight, to pick up the mantle,” he said. “And so, if we don’t do our job, it kind of puts that next generation further in peril.”