This week’s cover of National Review features a bullet-riddled picture of the Chicago skyline heralding a Kevin D. Williamson report on gang violence in Chicago titled “Gangsterville.“ It’s a story straight out of HBO’s The Wire––except, of course, it is not true.
A Plan for Transformation
The premise underlying Williamson’s story–that the fall of Chicago high rise housing has scattered its gangs into nearby neighborhoods––is hardly news. Since 1995, the Chicago Housing Authority has been pursuing a $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation that has leveled whole swaths of high rise public housing, much of it the worst in the nation. Cabrini Green, The Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Henry Horner, the Dearborn Homes, ABLA, the Ida B. Wells, Darrow and Madden Homes. Gone. Over the last 18 years, the CHA plan for transformation has knocked down 82 high rise towers resulting in the loss of 22,000 public housing units and displacing as many as 100,000 residents.
It has been a cataclysmic disruption in the urban fabric of Chicago –– but it may also be remembered as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s finest achievement. On the site of the old Cabrini-Green, the headquarters of Groupon now anchors a revival of near north side development and shopping. Historic Bronzeville has been reborn where squalid high rises once stood. Land values around the United Center are skyrocketing without the threatening presence of the Henry Horner Homes. Replacing the torn down high rises are new low rise apartment complexes where one of every three units is set aside for CHA residents. (The others are for sale or rent at market rates.) But the transformation has not gone as smoothly as planned. The bureaucracy for relocating displaced tenants moved considerably slower than the wrecking crews, and new construction lagged during the housing recession.
Thousands of the displaced tenants were given federal rent vouchers to seek new housing in the city and suburbs, but many of the hardest to place moved in with relatives or, worse, simply fell off the radar. They arrived in their new locations with their problems intact, including gang loyalties that Williamson, National Review’s deputy editor, believes lie at the root of a new kind of gang warfare in Chicago.
Not Your Father’s Gang Warfare
Chicago’s dominant street gangs of the Seventies grew up inside the projects, dealing drugs in the hallways of the high rises and providing a kind of outlaw justice in places where legitimate law enforcement refused to tread. They were organized by corners, by buildings, and by projects in a military-style hierarchy that gave rise to mega-gangs like the Black P. Stone Rangers, Latin Kings and Black Gangster Disciples, who at one point numbered as many as 30,000 members.
Federal prosecutors started going after the drug kingpins long before the CHA transformation started. Gang leaders like Jeff Fort, David Barksdale and Larry Hoover drew long sentences in the 1970’s and, even though they continued to direct gang operations from their cells, their control started to wain. In the 1990’s, state and federal officials began using RICO statutes to round up their lieutenants and underlings, and Illinois prisons overflowed with gang leaders. As the CHA transformation proceeded, the gang members in the projects dispersed with their families (or grew up and out of the gangs). A new generation of gang members (in fact, many generations) took their place. Although they may still identify with the colors or symbols of a major street gang, this new generation operates in smaller “cliques” of friends who battle over turf, drug connections or, commonly now, who has the baddest Facebook page. They have all the trappings of a gang––including ready access to weapons––but not a lot of leadership (or more appropriately, strong male role models in the community) that can guide their actions.
“You have juveniles rising to positions of power, and they just don’t have the street smarts or wisdom that even a Jeff Fort would,” Art Bilek, 82, the executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, tells Williamson. “They’re doing impulsive things that the old guard just wouldn’t have dreamt of. And the money is bigger now, too. Before, the money went straight up to Hoover, Barksdale or Fort, but now you have 1,000 leaders all competing for that. And you have the street gangs, the Mexican cartels, the narcotics, and the violence forming a unitary cultural phenomenon.”
Not Content With Common Knowledge
This little disquisition on the history of gangs is a long way around to telling a story the Chicago media has covered in depth, and it pretty much captures the sum and substance of Williamson’s National Review story. If that were all Williamson did in the piece, you could say he threw a few darts at the gun violence problem in Chicago and landed them in the zone of common knowledge.
But Williamson apparently wanted something with a little more pizzazz so he has written into the story his own personal journey into Chicago’s heart of darkness that, alas, he took with the doors locked and the windows rolled up. His 3,000-word essay is drive-by reporting at its worst. It bristles with incidents that are suspect, to say the least, and contains factual errors that should have been caught, or at least questioned, by the editors of a magazine that wants to be taken seriously on the national stage. Williamson interviews only three Chicagoans in the piece––none of whom is a cop, teacher, student, storekeeper, gang member or victim in any of the neighborhoods he visited––and he skews the geography of the city so wildly it is unclear he knew where he was when he observed the things he says he saw.
An Apocryphal Opening
He begins his adventure in Chicago with what appears to be an apocryphal tale of meeting a drug dealer named Freckles on Division Street in a revitalized Cabrini-Green. The encounter supposedly takes place across the street from a popular Starbucks and Dominick’s grocery, next to a refurbished Seward Park, a block away from a new police station, in front of a new mixed-income apartment complex called Parkside of Old Town––on a freezing cold day in January.
“Hey man. Hey man. What do you need?” a light-skinned black guy with freckles reportedly asks Williamson. “You buying?”
When Williamson responds by asking Freckles what he is selling, Freckles “explains in reasonably civil terms that he is not in the habit of setting himself up for entrapment on a narcotics charge,” Williamson writes. Now I’ve walked that block of Division Street in warmer weather and frequented that Starbucks many times. Although I can’t say such an encounter could never happen, I can say it has never happened to me.
And I am aware (as Freckles no doubt would have been as well) that Chicago decriminalized possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana last year, so a drug dealer on a cold day worrying about entrapment by a clueless white guy is doubly suspect, but no more so than in other instances when Williamson’s peculiar talent for sniffing out a drug deal (what he calls “commerce”) leads him to places no one else can find.
The Mysterious Mr. Butt
This talent soon comes into play when Williamson allows a mysterious man known only as Mr. Butt chauffeur him into “the biggest battlegrounds in Chicago’s 21st century gangland warfare”––two neighborhoods that Williamson calls Englewood and Garfield (but the rest of know as Englewood and Garfield Park).
Mr. Butt is a Pakistani native who “dearly misses his AK-47,” Williamson writes, and complains he cannot so much as buy a peashooter in Chicago where he needs it most. (Let’s skip over the fact there are six gun shops in Chicago that will sell Mr. Butt a weapon if he meets the qualifications. Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.)
As Williamson’s “ghetto tour guide,” Mr. Butt locks the car doors and sets out along Martin Luther King Drive––“a hideous dog show of squalor and dysfunction,” Williamson writes––even though King Drive neither crosses or abuts Englewood or Garfield Park. Mr. Butt tells Williamson he is a big fan of the old Mayor Richard J Daley and “wistfully” remembers the days when blacks were barred from crossing a bridge into Bridgeport by youths toting baseball bats and worse. “From the business district through 31st Street, everything is perfect,” Mr. Butt says, “Below 31st Street, everything is a jungle.”
Follow the Commerce
In the vicinity of Rothschild Liquors at 1615 W. 79th Street, Williamson and Mr. Butt sit in their car watching “grim-faced men in heavy coats smoke cigarillos and engage in commerce.” Soon enough, they observe “a maroon Cadillac sedan of Reaganite vintage . . . slowly rumbling around the corner with four very serious-looking young men inside. Another young man in a heavy coat, carrying a plastic grocery bag that I suspect is full of commerce, comes out of a house to parley.”
On Garfield Boulevard “in front of various storefront churches, pawn shops, tax refund-loan outlets, the mighty wheels of commerce roll on and on,” he adds. Even in front of the Alexander Graham Elementary School, set back on a residential street in Canaryville, Williamson sees “commerce” taking place across from the school yard.
If I were to judge only by the article, I’d say Englewood in January is one big open air drug market. But I had a chance to go down there last week (when the temperature was a more hospitable 50 degrees) and the scene was quite a bit more subdued. The parking lot outside Rothschild Liquors was empty, for instance, and while the intersection at 79th and Ashland teemed with people, most were waiting for a bus. I did observe four young teenagers (not grim-faced men smoking cigarillos) hanging at the edge of a gas station next door. Whether they were scouts for a drug deal or not, I couldn’t say. But I saw no baggies change hand . . . and after spending more than an hour driving around the neighborhood, I can definitively report maroon Cadillac sedans from the 1980’s are in short supply.
I also saw no drug dealing on Garfield Boulevard, where Williamson may be surprised to learn there are no pawn shops or tax-refund-loan outlets. IT IS A RESIDENTIAL BOULEVARD, FOR GOD’S SAKE! There is a White Castle, a Phillips 66 station, a flower store, and a currency exchange at the intersection where Garfield meets Ashland Avenue, but the only commerce taking place there was through the drive-in window at the White Castle.
In Williamson’s story, he places Garfield Boulevard at Ashland Avenue and 58th Street (three blocks south) so to give him the benefit of the doubt, I drove south on Ashland looking for commerce. I passed plenty of storefront churches and two tax refund-loan outlets, but there were no pawn shops and, more important, hardly any people on the street to do commerce with.
Finally, I pulled up in front of the Alexander Graham School. (It was not easy to locate because Williamson mistakenly calls it the Alexander Graham Bell School in the article.) It was President’s Day and the school grounds were deserted. But I found Mary Galvin, a crossing guard there for the last 10 years, chatting outside with a teacher. They laughed when I suggested Williamson saw drug dealing outside the school grounds.
“That’s preposterous, and I should know,” Galvin said. “Sure we have our gang problems”––a 19-year-old was shot just blocks away four months ago––“But it had nothing to do with drugs. It was some kind of gang thing.”
What Williamson Missed
In his eagerness to tie Chicago’s rising murder rate to a disintegrating gang structure set loose in the neighborhoods, Williamson missed a golden opportunity to ask the people who live there what they think will end the gang violence. Had he done so, he would no doubt have heard calls for more police on the street, more after school programs, job training services and/or family counseling in these neighborhoods.
They understand that the demise of the housing projects didn’t just spread around the gangs, it spread around the poverty. So the city has to widen its safety net to provide essential social services to citizens where they now live.
It’s no accident the two neighborhoods Williamson visited lead city statistics in both murder and poverty statistics. Poverty and gun violence are inextricably linked. Some 40 to 42 percent of the residents of Englewood and Garfield Park live below the poverty line––and the murder rate is between 36 and 48 homicides per 100,000 residents. In the five wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago, by contrast, only 3-5 percent of residents live in poverty and the murder rate is 0-5 per 100,000.
Chicago’s homicide spree is nothing to be proud of. The rise in homicides from 435 in 2011 to 506 last year represents a 17 percent jump that merits all the attention it is getting.
But let’s not be too simplistic in analyzing the numbers. If the whole problem stemmed from the start of the CHA plan for transformation, we should be celebrating. Last year’s 506 homicides was a 39 percent drop from the 828 murders recorded in 1995. And let’s not be too doctrinaire about the complicated dynamics that are fueling this problem.This is real life, not another episode of The Wire. So next time, Mr. Williamson, try opening your mind before you open your mouth.