As Chicago's gun violence has increased, it has become more dispersed
Geographical concentration persists, but more areas are also impacted. Both phenomena are worthy of concern; they're also inextricably linked.
It’s absolutely true that certain districts of Chicago endure concentrated, persistent violence that never ebbs, but flows when violence rises overall. Other areas of the city have always been and remain mostly violence-free. Nonetheless, it is apparent that by 2020 heightened violence was again penetrating broader swaths of the city.
When researchers and journalists map violence in large cities they find, unsurprisingly, that racially segregated, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are the locus of most criminal violence.
This was true during the era of the “great crime decline” (the late 1990s-20teens) when the national homicide rate plummeted from over 10 per 100,000 to 4 per 100,000, and it remains true today. Violence in the notorious “O Block” of Chicago and on Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue, for instance, doesn’t ebb when murders recede in these cities. When Chicago’s homicide rate was steadily declining from over 30 per 100,000 in the 1990s to just over 17 per 100,000 in 2015, areas on the south and west sides still endured murder rates exceeding 50 and sometimes 100 per 100,000. As recently as 2021, an analysis by the Chicago Crime Lab found that the city’s four “north side” police districts had homicide rates averaging 3.2 residents per 100,000, while several “west side” police districts had homicide rates exceeding 100 per 100,000 people. (For a primer on how to contextualize homicide rates, see my post American Gun Violence: Defining the Problem.)
This is explained in a 2022 article by journalist Steve Hendershot in Crain’s Chicago Business. Unfortunately, it’s paywalled so you’ll need to use your freebies to access it. Then, scroll down to the fourth visualization, which maps the homicide rate across each police district in the city over time, from 1991 to 2020.
However, since the Freedom of Press Foundation tells me I can include a screenshot in an article commenting on another article without violating copyright laws, I’m posting some screenshots of this interactive map for those who cannot scale the Crain’s paywall.
These maps depict three clear trends. First, the darkest crimson areas on the map (district 11, Garfield Park & district 7, Englewood), which denote the highest homicide rates, never trend pink. This is true even in years when most districts are shifting from reddish to salmon or beige, like 2007, shown below.
Next, by 2020 (the last year in the visualization), numerous districts across the city are trending crimson, including many that were consistently shaded light salmon throughout the previous decades.
Finally, when you compare the 2020 map above to 1994, when Chicago’s city-wide homicide rate peaked at 33 per 100,000, they look quite similar.
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that as overall violence has increased in Chicago, driven largely by increases in firearm homicides and assaults, more areas of the city are affected by this violence, including many that were trending in the right direction for decades preceding the 2020 crime spike.
In this companion post I show how geographical patterns of gun violence over Memorial Day weekend illustrate the extent to which violence is permeating more and more areas of the city, including those that have historically been immune, especially downtown and around the lakeshore.
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