An unflinching look at violence in Chicago
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. By Alex Kotlowitz. Doubleday; 304 pages; $27.95.
WALK THROUGH Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side and there is plenty to suggest that a once-troubled neighbourhood is on the up. A supermarket has replaced a housing project, the Ida B. Wells Homes, that was notorious for gangs, drugs and murder. In Peach’s, a bustling corner restaurant, a customer who is tucking into breaded catfish and collard greens talks of a local revival. He marvels that brownstone houses nearby used to go for a song, when many were boarded up and abandoned. Now they sell for $1m or more.
Some locals fear gentrification, or the loss of a proud black history. In the 1950s over 110,000 African-Americans called Bronzeville home. Artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker would play and party on 47th Street. As the neighbourhood smartens, incoming white and Hispanic residents put a welcome dent in segregation. But poorer blacks are being squeezed out, as they are elsewhere in Chicago. The city has lost over 230,000 black residents so far this century, most from the South Side.
Above all, crime festers. Although Bronzeville has become safer in the past few years, it still endures levels of crime unthinkable in richer (and whiter) places. The number of homicides in Chicago as a whole has dropped since 1991, when 927 people were killed. The city nonetheless sees more of them (538 last year) than more-populous New York and Los Angeles combined. As many as 4,000 people are shot and wounded yearly, one every two hours. Many of them are paralysed.
Some observers liken the neglected districts in the South and West Sides of the city to war zones. The term “Chi-raq” (a combination of Chicago and Iraq) has grown popular in recent years, adopted by rappers, T-shirt makers and the film-maker Spike Lee. Once acquired, such a reputation is terribly hard to shake. Take the word of Eddie Bocanegra for that. He is a former gang member who tries to steer youngsters away from violent crime. At a recent meeting in a redbrick YMCA in Bronzeville, he spoke of how his brother, a soldier who just ended a tour in Syria, refuses to move to Chicago because of its lawlessness.
How people confront that violence and deal with its consequences is the subject of Alex Kotlowitz’s new book. His first, “There Are No Children Here”, was published at the peak of killings, in the early 1990s. It remains a model of powerful writing on a painful subject. For years Mr Kotlowitz, a journalist and author who lives in the city, immersed himself in the lives of two brothers, Lafayette and Pharaoh, as they became young teenagers. His book tells, in intimate detail, of their growing up in public housing, threatened by gangs and guns.
In his new book, “An American Summer”, Mr Kotlowitz returns a generation later to the same topic. Depressingly, much continues as before. In the past 20 years over 14,000 people have been murdered in the city. Again he sets out how sudden deaths, injuries and constant dread cut apart the already fragile lives of the most deprived. Mr Kotlowitz spent four years among some 200 interviewees. He tells some of their stories, set in the hot months of 2013 as a surge in killings occurs. “Sun’s out, guns out,” as sardonic locals say.
He tells Mr Bocanegra’s story, describing his persistent sense of guilt for killing a rival when a teenager, how he served his sentence and has since tried to make amends by counselling others to prevent more violence. More distressing are the profiles of near-random victims, such as a girl hit by a stray bullet from a shoot-out. She died in her living room while dancing at her 11th birthday party. Mr Kotlowitz notes how many parents “take out life insurance policies on their children”, fearing the cost of a funeral.
Mr Kotlowitz is a sympathetic, fluent writer. He is not one for policy prescriptions, but the accumulating accounts of suffering serve to condemn the city for letting the violence drag on. The author meets a quadriplegic man in his 20s who can find care only in a dementia home. Victims who survive are among the likeliest to become perpetrators, or victims again. The law is hardly a deterrent: only one in ten shootings leads to even a charge. Many witnesses to murders are terrified or set on revenge; few are willing to testify. Though Mr Kotlowitz does not dwell on it, relations with police are often tense. Barely a quarter of murders are cleared up.
The shifting nature of violence is also troubling. Mr Kotlowitz picks out two trends. First, many killings today seem purposeless. Although he does not romanticise the criminal past, he notes that a few well-structured gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords used to fight to control territory and Chicago’s drug trade. Then, many killings could at least be understood as part of those clashes.
Since the police broke the large gangs, hundreds of tiny cliques—police estimate 625—have risen. These can have as few as ten members, often young teenagers on a residential block. Such boys are anxious to prove themselves fearless to peers. All have easy access to guns. The cliques quickly turn to violence after a petty spat, or to assert status on the street. “People get into it over nothing”, “just because”, as one miserable teenager explains.
In your face
A second change adds to the trauma. In the past many killings were somewhat hidden. They took place in dark corners of enormous public-housing towers where gangs battled. Many such buildings have been demolished in the past few decades. Another writer, Ben Austen, last year published “High-Risers”, a gripping account of the rise and fall of Cabrini Green, one of the most notorious of such complexes.
The removal of towers that concentrated poverty, dysfunction and mayhem is welcome—it is part of what lets neighbourhoods like Bronzeville begin to recover. But a side-effect is that violence now occurs more often on ordinary residential streets where youngsters play or chat. Some murders are even streamed on social media by bragging rivals. As Mr Kotlowitz writes: “The thing about Chicago’s violence is it’s public—very public—and so each shooting or its aftermath is witnessed by many, children and adults alike.”
Where will all this end? Hopeful evidence from neighbourhoods like Bronzeville (or cities like New York) shows that economic rejuvenation, better policing and training for young people can all bring violence down. More worrying is that such facts have long been known, but officials and others have done far too little. In the face of inaction, tragedy is inevitable.