The State of the Union isn’t the only speech President Obama will give this week. On Friday, he’ll address the nation from Chicago. The speech will be about gun violence and murder in the nation’s third largest city and across the country.
Last year, Chicago had 506 homicides, the most since 2008. Per capita, that's worse than both New York City and Los Angeles. In January, 42 people were killed, setting a pace that would surpass 2012. In fact, gun violence is actually down across the city overall since the early '90s. But certain neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city have been decimated by violence -- neighborhoods like Englewood. And it's not just the people who are suffering. The economy of Englewood has also been devastated.
An empty corner lot on 63rd Street
At one time, 63rd Street, a major east-west thoroughfare across the heart of Englewood, was a vibrant economic strip anchored by major department stores like Sears. Today, most major retailers, including the big grocery chains, have abandoned the area. Vacant lots, empty buildings and boarded-up businesses now dot the landscape where thriving enterprises once operated.
It’s not just 63rd Street. The same is true of just about any other commercial street in Englewood and many of the residential areas in the South Side as well. One reason is that Englewood has one of the highest homicide rates in the city. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates. Forty percent of the people who live there are unemployed. And for those who do work in Englewood, dealing with violence has now become part of the job.
“Yeah, I was here. I heard the shots, but I didn’t see what happened because I was in here working,” says the head barber at Headhunterz near 63rd Street, where a 20-year-old man was shot in the face three times just the day before.
“They had it all taped off yesterday,” says the barber, who didn’t want to give his name for fear of gang retaliation. That’s a very real concern since most of the violence in Englewood and other parts of the city is the result of warring gang factions competing for control of drug sale turf.
The view from the barber shop. A man was shot three times in front of the business.
The barber was willing to talk about how he's had to change the way he does business because of the violence. Unlike other barbershops, the Headhunterz front door is always locked and they do not take unknown walk-in customers. “If I don’t know you, that’s it, especially at certain hours,” says the barber. “I just don’t take them. It’s just not worth the risk.”
Such precaution is part of the cost of doing business in Englewood, which fewer and fewer people are willing to do anymore in the neighborhood.
Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says that violence not only destroys business, but that every homicide in Chicago reduces the city's population by 70 people: people who may have occupied a now boarded-up home, owned an auto repair shop or grocery store or paid taxes that kept cops on the streets and kids in schools.
“One thing that happens when violence is driving people and business out of the city is that it obviously reduces the tax base, which denigrates the ability of the city government to address the violence problem, which generates more violence, which drives out more tax base,” Ludwig says.
“So that’s a very unfortunate cycle. What you wind up with in some of these very disadvantaged neighborhoods is even bigger concentrations of poverty, and all of that further fuels the risk of violence in the neighborhoods,” he says.
Ludwig estimates that the total social cost of violence in Chicago is $2.5 billion each year. And the common thread between cities with soaring murder rates is segregation -- both racial and economic. Englewood is almost entirely black and now almost entirely poor.
Syron Smith is an exception to that rule. The 37-year-old office manager owns a home near Englewood with his wife, Jamika, and their 15-month old daughter, Mariah. Smith may be middle-class now, but he grew up in high rise housing projects -- mostly black, mostly poor -- and definitely violent.
“I was born in ’75, so I remember at 6 years old , which was ’81, asking my mom, 'Why were blacks killing each other?'” says Smith.
It’s a question he and many others are still asking. It’s also a major reason that Smith spends almost all his free time as a community organizer, working to stop the violence in neighborhoods across the city. “The black community has to feel good again,” he says. “If you don’t feel good, you’re not trying to do nothing, you’re not motivated. With the beat down happening all the time in these neighborhoods, I tell them, ‘You’re in the oven, and the temperature’s high. When do you have time to feel good?’”
Syron Smith during a meeting with teens that he mentors
So, 12 years ago Smith founded National Block Club University and spends nights and weekends mentoring teens. He tries to make them feel good about themselves. He teaches them that education is the only way to break the cycle of violence in the community, and that education also leads to economic prosperity.
Fifteen-year old Melik Phipps and 13-year-old Khalil Stringer are two of the teens that Smith mentors. They understand that to do well in life, they've got to go to school. But they say getting an education in Englewood can be complicated sometimes. “I’m concerned that just walking home from school there might be a shooting somewhere in my area, and I’ll probably get shot,” says Phipps. “I’m very concerned about that.”
The violence weighs heavily on the boys. And they’ve seen what living with violence does to people.
“People just don’t feel safe going anywhere,” he says. “They have to watch their backs. They feel like they have to carry a weapon on them. They just don’t trust anyone who walks by them. People don’t seem too nice these days.”
It's hard for the boys to concentrate on the future when the present is so perilous.
But Khalil's got an idea he thinks could solve a few of Englewood's problems. “Like all these abandoned fields? They should make more libraries so that I could actually go somewhere in my neighborhood to concentrate,” he says.
It’s a small idea to help solve a giant problem. But maybe his generation is a good place to start.