In Wicker Park on Chicago’s near northwest side, at the Six Corners intersection of Milwaukee, Damen, and North Avenues, stands Flash Taco. In the taqueria’s windows, signs proclaim, “We feel your struggle #BLM. We Be About It. Not Talk About It.” Adorning one of its walls is a mural of a suited-up Colin Kaepernick, gazing mournfully heavenward: today’s Hipster Jesus.
But salvation is elusive in this neighborhood, which was home to the celebrated writer Nelson Algren back when hipsters lived the life rather than posing at it for Instagram. Just a few steps to the south lies a bar and live music venue called The Point, where, one recent Sunday morning, angry words led to flying bullets, leaving one dead and four wounded. Wary club staff had called cops twice that night but got no response. Days later, in an alley near Six Corners, a man was shot in his car during a Friday afternoon robbery attempt.
Armed car-jackings in Wicker Park and adjacent Bucktown have also been on the rise: into mid-October the two neighborhoods had seen at least 86 this year, versus 50 in 2020. Citywide, car-jackings jumped 134 percent, from 603 in 2019 to 1,413 in 2020, according to Chicago police. Through October’s third week they had surged to 1,460, almost 200 percent higher than at the same point in 2019. Chicago’s 770 murders in 2020 were 55 percent higher than the prior year’s 496. Well into 2021, killings were running slightly ahead of last year.
The city’s political class, along with some neglectful parents, have played a role in bringing Chicago to this nadir of social and governmental dysfunction. In 2016, the Democratic majority in Springfield approved a law sharply curtailing prosecution of juveniles as adults for armed vehicle hijacking. There’s a price to making the city hostile for cops. Many have left Chicago’s employ, and those remaining may be yanked off neighborhood beats for use in “scarecrow policing,” in which cops sit in stationary vehicles on corners to ward off crime. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that in 2020 police made vehicular hijacking arrests in just 11 percent of cases—and Cook County prosecutors working for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx approved felony charges in less than half those instances.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tried to explain away the killings and crime as the result of “systemic racism,” but Ray Lopez, Democratic alderman of Chicago’s 15th Ward, demolished such fuzzy excuse-making last June, calling it “a foil to avoid” the primary causes: “generational gang life” and “the borderline collapse of the family unit in many of our neighborhoods.”
In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration quietly approved an analysis that today’s woke political leaders would rather ignore. The city study found that districts with the highest percentages of births out of wedlock are also those where murder, violent crime, and gang presence remain most prevalent. These South and West Side neighborhoods include what City Journal’s Rafael Mangual has called “Sub-Chicago,” a city within a city where murder rates compete for worst in the nation.
Vickie Reader, 48, is a black single mother from Chicago’s South Side. Her two daughters are now 21 and 25. One graduated from Western Illinois University and works in logistics. Another is a junior at Grambling who is eyeing a career in kinesiology, and has started a business as a hairstylist. Reader is financially independent from years working as a bill collector and investing. She occasionally drives for Lyft.
Reader grew up in Chicago’s tough Englewood neighborhood, with a married mom and dad always present. “Rules was rules,” she says. The focus: education, employment, careers. No teen motherhood. More recently though, Reader has seen the city’s black children too often exposed to drug use early by their own parents. The kids soon progress to dealing, then juvenile detention, county jail, and state prison. She sees no turnaround in sight for Chicago’s crime-ridden ghost neighborhoods.
“People are so high they’re walking around like zombies,” she says. “Everything is closed down. There’s no restaurants, no grocery stores. You mostly just see liquor stores and convenience stores. Even the buildings they’re trying to rehab, people are going in and stealing all the material off the buildings. Englewood looks terrible. No grass anywhere, no trees anywhere, no happy kids playing.” In contrast, she says, “they tore down all the projects on the West Side and rebuilt—and not to be funny, but white people have moved in, keeping it clean, keeping it up to par.”
The ways out are few, Reader says. “Everybody’s going South. Houston, Atlanta, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arizona—where it’s cheaper and safer.” Yet many can’t or won’t leave.
In Saul Bellow’s 1982 Chicago novel The Dean’s December, protagonist Albert Corde, a South Side university dean and journalist, confronts the hollowness of language that rationalizes sociopathic behavior. Corde notes, “Nobody actually said, ‘an evil has been done.’ A tender liberal society has to find soft ways to institutionalize harshness and smooth it over compatibly with progress and buoyancy. . . . These times we live in give us foolish thoughts to think, dead categories of intellect and words that get us nowhere.”
Forty years hence, Chicago—with an assist from progressives in Springfield and City Hall—is still engaged in that dishonest rhetorical project. It’s not likely that things will change until more people become more willing to speak plainly about what is happening to their city.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images