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February 25, 2013 8:40 AM How Not to Write About Chicago’s Crime Problem

By Harold Pollack

If you have to write a story about Chicago’s crime problem, you couldn’t do much worse than Kevin Williamson’s “Gangsterville: How Chicago reclaimed the projects but lost the city,” on the web at the National Review.

To be sure, Williamson makes a few good points. He notes, for example, that the decline of disciplined hierarchical gangs may have brought unintended consequences. He reminds the youngsters of notorious Chicago gangsters Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort. In just about every other way, this piece illustrates much that is wrong in the way millions of Americans view the urban scene.

He notes–but variously seems to forget– that it’s not Dodge City here. Chicago homicide rates—though up roughly 20 percent between 2011 and 2012—remain a notch below levels of ten or fifteen years ago. Homicide rates are way below the levels of the early 1990s and the crack epidemic years. Non-homicide crime rates have also declined. Our homicide decline has been too slow when compared with LA or New York. Still, many cities—Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Camden–would love to have Chicago’s problems or our crime rate.

Williamson’s article is filled with homespun wisdom such as the following:

The usual noises were made about gun control, and especially the flow of guns from nearby Indiana into Chicago, though nobody bothered to ask why Chicago is a war zone and Muncie isn’t.

I don’t know about Muncie, which is four hours away. People have bothered to ask about our almost-immediate neighbor: Gary, Indiana. An April 2012 Chicago magazine piece described swathes of Gary’s housing stock as “burned and cratered as if in a war zone.”

The piece goes on to note:

….Gary was the murder capital of the nation for several years running in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2011, the city’s murder rate had dropped a fair amount, to 4.4 per 10,000—which may sound like great news until you consider that’s still nearly three times Chicago’s rate and seven times New York City’s.

Especially baffling is Williamson’s choice of all-around wise man to show him around. The typecast tour-guide in a magazine piece from forty years ago would have been a heavy-set Mike Royko look-alike, who would perhaps dispense politically-incorrect wisdom from his favorite booth in a Greek diner. This time around, an immigrant from Pakistan named Mr. Butt is cast in the same role.

I never really understood who Mr. Butt was, or why Williamson turned to him as his guide. The mysterious Mr. Butt drives Williamson around the south side, offering derogatory keepin’-it-real-talking-points throughout:

Mr. Butt is dearly missing his AK-47…. [In] Chicago he cannot possess even a pea-shooter, which has him slightly nervous in his role as my ghetto tour guide, chauffeuring me through the worst parts of Englewood and Garfield, the biggest battlegrounds in Chicago’s 21st-century gangland warfare.
… He points out Bridgeport, home of the venerable Daley clan, and informs me wistfully that in the old days blacks simply were not allowed to cross the bridge into Bridgeport, a social norm enforced with baseball bats and worse. Mr. Butt is a big, big Daley fan — “He was very strong, strong with the mob!” — and no fan at all of Chicago’s new breed of gangsters. “On the South Side, it is just like Afghanistan. Every square mile has its own boss, and everybody has to answer to him. From the business district through 31st Street, everything is perfect.” Perfect may not be the word, but I get his point. “Below 31st Street, everything is jungle.”

Yup: “jungle.”

Mr. Butt locks the doors, and we cruise through Englewood and environs. Martin Luther King Drive, like so many streets named for the Reverend King, is a hideous dog show of squalor and dysfunction, as though Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s depressing reportage in 1965’s The Negro Family had been used as a how-to manual. Mr. Butt points out the dealers, who don’t really need pointing out. It’s about 8 degrees outside, and the Windy City is living up to its name. In the vicinity of Rothschild Liquors, grim-faced men in heavy coats smoke cigarillos and engage in commerce. Mr. Butt’s habit of pointing out miscreants by literally pointing them out brings scowls from the street. Lying low is not Mr. Butt’s strong suit.
Mr. Butt takes me to see the sights: In front of Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School, there’s commerce. On Garfield Boulevard, at 58th and Ashland, in front of the various storefront churches, pawn shops, tax-refund-loan outlets, the mighty wheels of endless commerce roll on and on.
“They do this to their own neighborhood,” Mr. Butt says, exasperated. “They make it a place no decent person would want to be….”

Williamson would obviously distance himself from Mr. Butt’s worst comments. Just as obviously, Williamson believes his tour guide has some valuable homespun wisdom to offer.

Although the title mentions “How Chicago reclaimed the projects,” we don’t find out very much about either the projects or how they might have beeen reclaimed. There’s no historical discussion of the housing policies that led miles of high-rise projects to be jammed alongside I-94 in the first place, or the practical challenges the city has faced in its efforts to tear the projects down and to relocate their residents. Aside from local (lack-of) color regarding Bridgeport, there’s no discussion of (either) Mayor Daley’s approach to these fundamental problems. There’s no discussion of so many things that matter to Chicago’s current struggles.

Williamson and Butt apparently never visited a school, hospital or public health clinic, police station, courthouse, jail, or community center. They didn’t visit the Apostolic Church of God on 63rd Street, whose 20,000 parishoners might have provided valuable insights. They didn’t visit the Ida B. Wells House or the other historic, often-beautiful Bronzeville sites along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. They didn’t talk with politicians or community leaders. They may well have driven past the glorious Garfield Park Conservatory. I rarely carry an AK-47 when I visit there on the L.

Instead, the two buddies drive around tough places with the windows rolled up and the doors locked, stopping one or two times to banter with a few hoodlum-types. Surprisingly, these conversations turn out to be… un-illuminating. Had they actually wished to speak with people who sell drugs or who are affected by this trade, they might have arranged to speak with someone in that life, as other reporters have done. Regular people appear, if at all, as stage extras in the crude story he tells.

Williamson’s piece signals contempt for hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago’s south and west sides. He’s the unsympathetic outsider who drops in from a million miles away, earns the cheap thrill of meeting an apparent street criminal, scores some fairly obvious Tom-Wolfe talking points regarding urban liberalism. Williamson betrays little real curiosity to learn what’s going on.

Yeah, there’s a bad crime problem in many of these neighborhoods. These are still real communities filled with interesting people who have interesting stories to tell. You have to want to hear it, though.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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