The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More Chicago Crime – Cover it Right!

Violent crime protest in Chicago, April 2013.  Source:

Most of America seems to be familiar with Chicago’s crime dilemma.  The Windy City is in the nation’s crosshairs, so to speak, in discussions about urban crime.  In fact, it seems Chicago was only displaced in the broader discussion of the health of our urban areas by Detroit’s ultra-dramatic bankruptcy filing.  Rising crime rates, along with the largest school downsizing program in American history, can wreak havoc on public perceptions.

One of the reasons given for the recent rise in Chicago’s violent crime rates has been the demolition of huge public housing developments in the city, where a lot of crime was quite concentrated, and the subsequent relocation of public housing residents to other areas around the city and suburbs using housing vouchers.  A recent article in The Atlantic Cities brings up the relationship between housing policy and crime, with a discussion on two prevalent theories:

One suggests that traditional public housing concentrates crime “hot spots,” enabling police to more effectively monitor them. Scatter the people and you not only scatter the criminals; you also make it harder for law enforcement to keep track of them, driving citywide crime rates up. A widely read 2008 story in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin argued this hypothesis in the city of Memphis.
The second narrative proposes instead that traditional public housing concentrates poverty, creating the environments – places without opportunity, good schools, employment – that drive crime. Disperse the people, and you break up that concentration, theoretically reducing crime.

However, a recent study cited in the article seems to support the second theory that dispersing people reduces crime:

 (UCLA professor Michael) Lens has just added another study to that literature, published in the journal Urban Studies. He looked at crime and housing data in 215 cities between 1997 and 2008 – controlling for national and regional crime trends, demographic and income variables, employment rates and more – and found “virtually no relationship” between the prevalence ofHousing Choice Voucher Program households and higher crime at the city level or in the suburbs. 

In general, I agree with this assessment.  But data and insightful analysis is not what’s driving perceptions about violent crime in Chicago.  What drives perceptions is our emotions, our fears, what we feel about crime.  The fact is that Chicago’s crime is down, citywide.   In a nation where everyone’s violent crime rates are dropping rapidly, Chicago’s is… declining not so rapidly.

What the local and national media are missing is how crime has shifted in Chicago (and the suburbs, too), while it has declined overall.  The fact is, violent crime is substantially down in many inner parts of Chicago, like Bronzeville and the Near West Side.  These formerly very impoverished areas have witnessed a rebirth, and they were the location of many public housing demolitions.  Conversely, crime is up in some outer areas of the city, like Auburn-Gresham, Roseland, West Pullman and Austin, former middle class and working class neighborhoods that have struggled to keep economic pace with the rest of the city and region. The net result, however, is decreased crime for the city.

There is a crime crisis for longtime residents of Chicago’s middle and working class communities.  But the crisis must be described and dealt with in an accurate way.

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