According to city data, Austin has experienced more than 30 homicides this year — more than any community area in the city. That would, naturally, put it in the heart of what has now become a national dialogue about Chicago’s gun violence crisis.
Most recently, the New York Times published an interactive piece of digital reporting that might be considered a model of the form. The June 4 report, called “A Weekend in Chicago: Where Gun Violence Is a Terrifying Norm,” lays out the city’s sickness in a terrifying mélange of video, photos, Instagram postings, data from original surveys and infographics.
In one scene, Times reporters capture a gun buyback event at Universal Missionary Baptist Church, 539 N. Cicero Ave., in Austin. By the end of the event, 61 weapons — “rifles, revolvers, even replica guns” — are given to authorities in exchange for $100 gift cards.
The ceremonial act, however, is not quite enough to surmount the history of mutual distrust between cops and community that feeds into the heightened sense of vigilante justice on the West Side. That feeling is described succinctly by longtime Austin barber Herb Harrington:
“Every week it’s someone else,” Harrington tells Times reporters. “It’s retaliation, this person for that person, and it doesn’t stop. Every time there’s a body down, there’s going to be another one and another one.”
Over at the Trace, which describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States,” the cumulative effect of the chaos Harrington describes is condensed into the story of 38-year-old Joy Brown.
Brown moved from Austin to a nearby suburb in January because, as she told Trace reporters for an article published last month, “Everyone I grew up with is getting killed.”
The fear of violence, the Trace notes, “is propelling the flight of African-American families like the Browns. From 2000 to 2014, Austin’s black population declined by more than 21,000, or about 20 percent, according to estimates from U.S. Census data and from The American Community Survey.”
The Rev. Robin Hood, a prominent North Lawndale anti-gun violence activist, told Trace reporters that he has several cousins and siblings who have been killed by gunfire. When the violence is reinforced by chronic joblessness, a lack of community investment and a growing sense of hopelessness, as the Times survey reflects, migration seems to be the last, best option for many people.
“Why would people want to live in a neighborhood like this?” Hood asked.
According to Forrest Stuart, a University of Chicago sociologist, that primal fear of violence “can trump the emotional ties that might make people hesitant to leave their communities,” the Trace notes.
“‘I don’t want to be shot’ can overcome any obligation some people may feel to be close to family,” Stuart told Trace reporters for a story entitled, “Gunfire is Reversing the Great Migration in Chicago.”