Decline in murders skips Austin

Homicides in Austin and nine other communities constant despite a national decline, a Medill analysis shows

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By ERIN HALASZ

Fewer people were killed in Chicago last year, and between 2000 and 2007, the murder toll dropped 30 percent. There's also been a nationwide drop in murders in recent years.

That would seem to be good news, but not if you talk to people in Austin and some other Chicago communities.

In those neighborhoods, it's a different story.

A Medill analysis of city homicide figures reveals that for Austin and nine other Chicago communities, the number of murders has remained constant for much of the 2000s despite a steady nationwide drop during that span.

In 2006, an average of 16 people were murdered in Washington Park, Chatham, North Lawndale, South Shore, Near West Side, West Pullman, East Garfield Park, South Chicago and Auburn-Gresham. That's 141 lives taken. That same year, 33 people were killed in Austin.

The Medill review found that from 2000 to 2005, the number of murders in each of those years was virtually the same for those communities.

All tolled, 298 people were killed in Austin during that span, and 969 people killed in the other communities, a total of 1,267.

To explain Chicago's continued violence in certain neighborhoods in contrast with an overall drop, some point to the State Street corridor and the largely vacant land where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. They recall the old Henry Horner Homes on the city's West Side and wonder what happened to the gangs that trafficked drugs there.

"Where have these folks gone?" said Elce Redmond, an organizer for the South Austin Coalition Community Council.

Redmond and others emphasized the importance of community stability in reducing violence.

"Here you have the destruction of public housing-the displacement of all these families," Redmond said. "These families are trying to integrate into the community and some-not all, but some-are involved in illegal activities."

Murder, he added, results from gangs, drugs and a "cultural violence" that the Chicago Housing Authority failed to address as it demolished public housing.

John Hagedorn, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points to New York where housing complexes were torn down and new housing erected on the same site. There, the poverty rate remained the same but the incidence of violence plummeted.

"Rates in Chicago have not gone down to the level of cities like New York or San Francisco or Seattle-other cities with high murder rates that have dropped," said Hagedorn. "Chicago hasn't followed that pattern."

Hagedorn links some of the continued violence in Chicago to gangs trying to establish new neighborhood territories after no longer being able to control their drug trade in the housing complexes.

Most CHA residents, he insisted, are law-abiding. But Hagedorn was interested in the ones who weren't and interviewed gang members for a study he conducted on organized violence.

Most of the people he spoke with had moved from the Robert Taylor Homes into an area on the far South Side. The area is known as "the hundreds" for its high-numbered street names.

The interviewees reported rampant violence of murderous retaliations and street wars over unclaimed turf.

"There wasn't any doubt in the kids' minds that being pushed into a new neighborhood caused more violence," Hagedorn said. "Everyone described the same phenomenon. They called it the 'Wild, Wild West.'"

In these neighborhoods, people do not feel safe, Redmond added.

"People are afraid of being shot," he said. "Since they [the shooters] are lousy shots and cowards, they shoot innocent people."

The Chicago Housing Authority, however, maintains that it is not a factor in these violent areas.

Housing officials deny that the lingering violence in some South and West Side communities has anything to do with relocating former public housing residents.

"We are a scapegoat," said Bryan Zises, a CHA spokesman. "In my opinion, it's more about assumptions and prejudices against poor people."

Relocated residents make up, at most, 1.5 percent of the population of any city neighborhood, said Zises, adding that about 85 percent of crimes committed at CHA properties were carried out by non-residents.

He added that the crime in public housing existed because of the buildings, not because of the people in them.

"When you have a concentration of poverty, you have criminal behavior. But when you de-concentrate it," said Zises, "I think that the venues for crime don't exist."

Under federal law, people with violent or drug-related criminal backgrounds can be evicted from public housing. They're also prohibited from receiving vouchers for an undefined number of years after committing a crime.

Some former public housing residents fall into this category, but few know where they have gone.

"We're not Big Brother," Zises said. "No one's required to let us know where they are."

Zises also knows of no statistic or fact that would show that the rise of crime has anything to do with relocation.

Redmond scoffed.

"What else is he going to say?" he asked. "In their analysis [relocation] was the best thing that ever happened."

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