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This map of all 2017 Chicago homicides shows concentrations throughout the city. (Dataset courtesy Block Club Chicago/DNAInfo Chicago)

Concentrated Poverty and Criminality: Homicide Rates Remain High in Chicago

By Nicole Sroka and Miriam Torres

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2019

Philip Magana was only 13 years old when he fell victim to gun violence, an issue many in Chicago are dealing with.

While returning from a grocery store one March evening, a man shot at him multiple times in a gangway. Out of those shots, three of them hit his torso and another hit his back.

His shooter, who was a gang-member, believed that Magana was also a gang member, although he wasn’t. Over time, this experience shaped Magana’s view on his community and people living in it.

“I cant even be safe in my own neighborhood," he said. "I have to go downtown or to the suburbs to feel safe and I’m sure people of the West Side and South Side feel the same way.”

The flashing lights of police cars and ambulances speeding down a busy street is a daily scene for Chicago’s South Side and West Side neighborhoods, and the sounds of the sirens and gunshots that flood the areas come as no surprise to local residents.

While gun violence is well-documented on the South Side, the West Side -- which harbors criminal “hotspots” -- sometimes the causes get overlooked. Both community areas – the South and West sides –  have two predominant sociological factors in common: concentrated poverty and lack of adequate resources, sources say.

The underlying problem of violence within these communities stems from the need of neighborhood fundings, better education, and lack of access to healthcare resources such as clinics and pharmacies, according to expert sources studying the issues.

Dr. John Hagedorn, a James J. Stukel fellow and former Great Cities Institute and Criminology, Law, and Justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said violence is correlated to concentrated poverty. The issues of gun violence, homicide and anything related to criminality within the West and South sides stem from concentrated poverty.

“The same issues still keep coming up,” Hagedorn said. “High rates of violence come along with high rates of concentrated poverty. There is nothing new.”

A dramatic spike in homicide rates plagued the city in 2016, when there were 762 homicides, the most since 704 in 1998. Homicide levels have slightly decreased since 2016:  2018 for instance, had 607 reported homicides, a 6.62% decrease from the previous year.

“People are hungry to work and hungry to hustle, but with no one investing in these areas, people are drug dealing, robbing and committing violent crimes because they are struggling to survive ... but unless you live here, you don’t know what it’s like.” -- Magana

Combined, the four Southern community areas of Chicago – The South, Far Southeast, Southwest, and Far Southwest sides – have amassed 352 homicide reports between January 2018 and January 2019, while the West Side had 182. The remaining five city areas have combined for less than 70 homicides during that same timeframe, including 16 on the Northwest side and 14 in the other North Side neighborhoods.

In academic journal “Examining Race and Ethnicity in the Context of General Strain Theory, Depression, and Delinquency, Deviant Behavior”, Jennifer H. Peck wrote, based Robert Agnew’s general strain theory, how people of color are presented as offenders because of their exposure to socially disorganized neighborhoods. This leads to criminal activity.

Peck wrote: “African Americans are overrepresented as offenders because they are more involved in experiences in the social environment that can lead to criminal offending (e.g., being a victim of abuse, chronic unemployment, working in the secondary labor market, criminal victimization, living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and racial discrimination)."

Chicago has been listed as one of the most segregated cities in America. A report by CBS Chicago shows that 18 Chicago neighborhoods have a population of 90% African Americans. The West and South sides are heavily populated with Hispanic/Latinos and African Americans, while the North Side of the city is mostly white.

The Chicago Tribune referenced a study, previously conducted by The Apartment List, which highlighted how Chicago is the 13th most segregated metro area in the United States with “76 percent of the region’s African-Americans required to move to reach complete integration in 2016.”

Not only are the neighborhoods segregated by race, they are also areas that face extreme poverty and lack necessary resources. Abandoned homes, vacant lots, an abundance of liquor stores and trash-filled streets are common sights in West and South Side neighborhoods.

Isaiah Hinton is a 22-year-old former student at the Illinois Institute of Art and who works as a content creator and has lived in East Garfield Park for 12 years. He said the West Side “doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look neat” and is filled with “broken houses,” and essentially looking “like the stereotypical version of a ‘hood.”

Magana, 22, who grew up on the South Side, relocated to the West Side in the Garfield Park neighborhood two years ago. He spoke about the demographics and the socioeconomic factors he believes are contributing factors to the homicide rates in his area.

“There is an empty lot in every corner," he said. "it's very dirty, there is nothing but broken glass everywhere and most of this is liquor bottles. There are liquor stores on every corner and gas stations are on every corner.”

Both of their descriptions of the West Side are prime examples of how deprived the neighborhoods are in terms of financial resources and basic services.

Many city leaders place the blame for gun violence on gangs and gang rivalries. During a 2018 press conference, former CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson insinuated that violence occurring in Chicago neighborhoods is due to gang rivalries.

“A lot of those gatherings probably had a gang nexus to it and rival gangs saw them out there,” he said.

Hagedorn disagreed with Johnson's view. He stressed the importance of dispelling the theory of violence in Chicago relating to gang violence.

“What’s important about violence is that we have to get away from this gang stuff," he said. "[The issue of] concentrated poverty, and unless we deal with that we’re not going to deal with violence."

Living in areas rooted in concentrated poverty can impact the lives of the people living in the affected community. The violence in the environment can make people fear for their safety and that of their loved ones. 

“If I’m a victim of gun violence or someone else is, we are going to become more self aware and more angry of our surroundings," Magana said. "This is when people start to carry weapons … these are ways how people become criminals because they carry guns, but they have no choice. They carry these guns for protection.” 



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