CHICAGO: It was February, the middle of lunch hour on a busy South Side street. The gunman approached his victim in a White Castle parking lot, shot him in the head, then fled down an alley.
The next month, one block away, also on West 79th Street: Two men in hooded sweatshirts opened fire at the Bishop Golden convenience store. They killed one young man and wounded five others, including a nephew of basketball superstar Dwyane Wade. The shooters got away in a silver SUV.
In July, a Saturday night, two men were walking on 79th when they were approached by a man who killed one and injured the other. This shooting resulted in a quick arrest; police had a witness, and a security camera caught the shooting.
These three violent snapshots of a single Chicago street are not exceptional. It’s been a bloody year in the nation’s third-largest city.
A spike in murders and shootings — much of it gang-related — shocked Chicagoans, spurred new crime-fighting strategies and left indelible images: Mayor Rahm Emanuel voicing outrage about gang crossfire that killed a 7-year-old named Heaven selling candy in her front yard. Panicked mourners scrambling as shots ring out on the church steps at a funeral for a reputed gang leader. Girls wearing red high school basketball uniforms, filing by the casket of a 16-year-old teammate shot on her porch.
A handful of neighborhoods were especially hard hit, among them Auburn-Gresham; the police district’s 43 homicides (as of Dec. 21) ranked highest in the city, and represent an increase of about 20 percent over 2011. The outbreak, fueled partly by feuds among rival factions of Chicago’s largest gang, the Gangster Disciples, rippled along 79th street, the main commercial drag. That single corridor offers a window into the wider mayhem that claimed lives, shattered families and left authorities scrambling for answers.
Signs of distress
The scars aren’t obvious, at first. Drive down West 79th and there’s Salaam, a pristine white building of Islamic design, and the Final Call, the restaurant and newspaper operated by the Nation of Islam. Leo Catholic High School for young men. A health clinic. A beauty supply store. Around the corners, neat brick bungalows and block club signs warning: “No Littering. No Loitering. No Loud Music.”
Look closer, though, and there are signs of distress and fear: Boarded-up storefronts. Heavy security gates on barber shops and food marts. Thick partitions separating cash registers from customers at the Jamaican jerk and fish joints. Police cars watching kids board city buses at the end of the school day.
Go a few blocks south of 79th to a food market where a sign bears a hand-scrawled message: “R.I.P. We Love You Eli,” honoring a clerk killed in November in an apparent robbery. Or a block north to the front lawn of St. Sabina church where photos were added this year to a glass-enclosed memorial for young victims of deadly violence over the years.
Then go back to a corner of 79th, across the street and down the block from where two killings occurred, both gang-related.
There, in an empty lot, a wooden cross stands tall in the winter night. Painted in red is a plea:
70,000 gang members
Up to 80 percent of Chicago’s murders and shootings are gang-related, according to police. By one estimate, the city has almost 70,000 gang members.
A police audit last spring identified 59 gangs and 625 factions; most are on the South and West sides. Chicago’s murder count reached 500 Friday — the first time since 2008 it hit that mark. In 2011, there were 435 homicides. More than 2,400 shootings have occurred. Gang-related arrests are about 7,000 higher than in 2011.
Gangs in Chicago have a long, dangerous history, some operating with the sophistication and hierarchy of corporations. Gang violence became a major theme in the city’s narrative this year.
Maybe it was because of the audacity of gang members posting YouTube videos in which they flashed wads of cash and guns. The sight of police brandishing automatic weapons, standing watch outside gang funerals. The sting of one more smiling young face on a funeral program. Or dramatic headlines in spring and summer, such as: “13 people shot in Chicago in 30-minute period.”
It was alarming enough for President Barack Obama to mention it during the campaign, noting murders near his South Side home.
Then, addressing gun violence in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, he cited Chicago again.
As grim as it is, Chicago’s murder rate was almost double in the early 1990s — averaging around 900 — before violent crime began dropping in cities across America. This year’s increase, though, is a sharp contrast to New York, where homicides fell 21 percent from 2011, as of early December.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said while murders and shootings are up, overall crime citywide is down about 9 percent. He said crime-fighting strategies against gangs — some just put into place this year — are working, but they take time.
“The city didn’t get in this shape overnight,” he said. “I think that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by advertising a Vietnam-type body count. I’ve got to tell you when I speak to people ... they generally say, ‘You know what? We don’t even hear that anymore. It’s white noise.’... The fascination unfortunately seems to be in the media and it’s become a national obsession.”