A handful of neighborhoods with histories of violence are the primary source of a recent surge in killings in Chicago, New York and elsewhere
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A murder wave in U.S. cities that started last year is carrying forward into 2021, and a growing body of research shows a pattern behind the rise: It has been concentrated in relatively few poor neighborhoods, typically Black and Hispanic, with persistent histories of violence.
As elected officials and communities search for solutions, recognizing this geographical reality is essential, say social scientists and police officials who have studied the murder wave. Police and other city authorities will need to focus their efforts on a few areas that have missed out on the urban renaissance of the past two decades as their middle-class residents have fled. Controversy over policing has complicated matters after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, for the killing of George Floyd, a Black man. “The problem isn’t going away,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. “People in my world are very nervous about the summer of 2021.”
Homicide is up 9.1% in New York so far this year and 22% so far in Chicago, following double-digit increases in both places and in many other cities last year. Mr. Ludwig calculates that nearly three-quarters of Chicago’s homicide increase in 2020 was concentrated in a cluster of eight of the city’s 25 police districts, mostly in the city’s predominantly Black South Side and largely Hispanic West Side.
Similar patterns have shown up elsewhere. New York saw a 47% increase in homicide in 2020 concentrated in a patch of Brooklyn neighborhoods with a long history of violence, including Brownsville, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. It also hit the south Bronx and the Harlem section of Manhattan, said Michael LiPetri, the New York Police Department’s chief of crime control strategies.
In St. Louis, six of 76 neighborhoods, representing 7% of the city population, accounted for half of the 2020 homicide increase to 264 from 194, said Richard Rosenfeld, a crime researcher at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. They tended to be minority and poor, he said. In Philadelphia, most of the increases in shootings and homicides were concentrated in areas northeast and southwest of the city center, places long plagued by violence, according to data compiled by David Abrams, a crime researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Ludwig describes the pattern as a little-noticed new form of inequality—one of public safety. In 1985, he said, the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago had about twice as many murders per capita as safer ones. In recent years that difference stretched in some places to 16 to 1—making the problem an epidemic in some neighborhoods and hardly on the radar in others.
“The rising inequality of safety means that people in the most impacted areas have fewer and fewer allies who also care about this,” he said.
For much of the past 20 years, violent crime receded in American cities. A range of factors led to the decline, including the waning of a national crack cocaine epidemic. Some places gentrified, drawing in business and more affluent residents, but others lost people and became even more isolated, segregated and poor. Many of these areas saw hospitals, schools, churches and businesses—the institutions that tie a place together and create order—shut down. Losing that social and economic infrastructure left them prone to gangs and violence.
When Covid-19 swept through American cities last year—with lockdowns closing schools and courts and constraining policing—these neighborhoods faced a new wave of gun violence, gang activity and murder, researchers and police say.
Distrust of police in many neighborhoods grew after Mr. Floyd’s killing, making it even harder for police to maintain order. Police in some places became reluctant to engage amid a public backlash over their tactics and behavior, and residents became less willing to help with tips and information.
Mr. Rosenfeld and Mr. LiPetri said that the problem may have been made worse because police were drawn away from violent neighborhoods to city centers to monitor protests against policing and, in some cases, to respond to rioting and looting. “That is a sad irony,” said Mr. Rosenfeld.
Researchers have shown the economic and social fabric of neighborhoods is central to crime. Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, describes cities as networks of neighborhoods, like archipelagoes connected to each other by business, transportation and social bonds. The most vulnerable become islands where others rarely venture in or out, leaving them connected mostly to other disadvantaged neighborhoods—a pattern that is, he says, a powerful predictor of the violence that is now resurfacing.
“This argument is being proven,” Mr. Sampson said in an interview. His 2012 book, “The Great American City,” documented a neighborhood effect on crime in Chicago. A second edition, due out next year, shows how “neighborhoods are the nodes of a network,” he said: While some have become centers for concentrated affluence in the modern city, others have become centers for economic and social ills.
Chicago is a case study in these patterns. Last year it led the nation in homicides. It recorded another 195 this year through May 2, up 35 from the same period in 2020.
Researchers have shown the economic and social fabric of neighborhoods is central to crime.
The nation’s three largest cities—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—enjoyed a revival of their downtown cores in the past two decades, but redevelopment reached farther and more evenly in New York and L.A. In Chicago, investment flowed largely to the mostly white and more prosperous North Side.
Clarence Glover, owner of Majestic Florist in Chatham on the South Side, said the area was upscale and lined with Black-owned businesses when he opened his shop in 1984. Today, his flower shop and a large funeral home are among the last remaining Black-owned businesses. “We don’t have jobs for young people anymore,” he said. “Young people are just out to rob and steal so they can get something for themselves.”
Many Black families with the means to leave Chicago have done so. The city lost nearly 300,000 Black residents, or about a quarter of its Black population, since 1990. Some mostly Black neighborhoods lost around half their residents. In 1990, the three cities had a similar number of poor and violent neighborhoods, according to Mr. Ludwig’s crime lab. Today, Chicago’s most troubled communities are poorer and more violent than those in the other two cities.
One difference is gun laws, said Brendan Deenihan, the head of the detective bureau for the Chicago Police Department. He said that New York and California were quicker to impose mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, helping to get guns off the street and to stabilize neighborhoods.
Many of the residents who moved out were the ones most equipped to put brakes on bad behavior, said Lance Williams, a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University. “Somebody’s grandmother who could step outside and say, ‘Stop that s---.’ Or somebody’s brother who had a reputation for being tough and could say, ‘Hey, you, go home,’” said Prof. Williams, a former outreach worker. “There’s no, ‘Hey!’ anymore.”
Sheree Tribett, 58, left the South Side neighborhood near Mr. Glover’s flower shop for a nearby suburb in 2013 after two of her sons and a nephew were killed in separate shootings within a few blocks of each other. Her oldest son, Joe Brooks, moved out too, but continued to work at a grocery store on the family’s old block.
Mr. Brooks, 34, was killed by gunfire from a passing SUV last Memorial Day weekend. No arrests have been made in any of the four killings.
Ms. Tribett has moved back into the city but never goes to her old neighborhood. She said it broke her heart that Joe had still worked there. “He loved the neighborhood,” she said. “He loved his friends also. He always said he was good, because he was the big brother.”