A Chicago police car.
A crime scene in Chicago, 2018. Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods saw a crime decline, but recently, their violent crime rates have rebounded while other areas continue to improve.

The “Great Crime Decline” of the past several decades is one of the most amazing and laudable developments in modern urban life. Since the 1990s, the rate of violent crime in America has been cut in half, from 750 violent crimes per 100,000 people to about 350 per 100,000 by 2013. New York City is now safer than London on many measures and Washington, D.C. was recently ranked as one of the 10 safest cities in the world.

But despite this overall drop, violent crime remains disturbingly higher in economically disadvantaged areas of cities, many of which have violent crime rates that are “exponentially higher” than the national average.

That’s the sobering takeaway from a detailed new study of violent crime and urban inequality by Andrew V. Papachristos of Northwestern University, Noli Brazil of the University of California, Davis, and Tony Cheng of Yale University and New York University.

The study, published in the sociology journal City and Community, traces the troubling connection between violent crime and socioeconomic disadvantage in Chicago since the 1990s. It focuses on the change in not just the baseline murder rate but in the relative murder rate in the city’s safest and most violent neighborhoods, and details how those changes are linked to urban inequality.

To get at this, the study charts the change in the murder rate across more than 300 Chicago neighborhood clusters since the 1990s. It examines these changes in violence in light of three key factors: concentrated disadvantage (factors including the poverty rate and unemployment), immigrant concentration, and residential stability (based on the share of owner-occupants and the percent of people who lived in the same house since 1995).

It employs two different measures to gauge the change in violent crime across neighborhoods: absolute change between the city’s most violent 10 percent of neighborhoods and the rest; and relative change, which it defines as “the extent to which the actual homicide rate distribution deviates from a hypothetical distribution in which every neighborhood has identical shares of homicides.”

While Chicago as a whole got considerably safer over time, violence remains heavily concentrated in a relatively small number of less-advantaged, mainly black neighborhoods. The city as a whole experienced a 47 percent decline in homicides in the nearly two-decade period spanning 1991 and 2009. During this period, three-quarters of the city’s neighborhoods saw their homicides fall, including some of its most dangerous communities.

Furthermore, the absolute gap in homicide rates between the most dangerous 10 percent of neighborhoods and the rest of the city also fell by nearly 30 percent during this time. While that gap has ticked up since 2006, it still remains 30 percent below what it was back in 1991.

There’s something of a good news-bad news story here. “On the one hand, these results paint a portrait of progress,” the study notes. “Overall neighborhood homicides have dropped, the absolute homicide rates for most neighborhoods have decreased, and the absolute decline at the top of the neighborhood homicide rate distribution is meaningful and significant. On the other hand, the magnitude of the absolute crime gap is still disturbingly large, and since 2006 seems to be widening.”

The news is even worse when it comes to the measure of relative change. This measure grew by 10 percent between 1991 and 2009. Over the course of a period when most of Chicago experienced a dramatic decline in murders, the drop-off was far less steep in its most violent places.

The initial crime decline of the 1990s tended to include all neighborhoods, including the most violent ones. But then something of a reversal happened. By the early 2000s, the improvement in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods began to slow and even turn around. At the same time, violent crime continued to decline across the rest of the city.

This neighborhood divergence in violent crime has persisted strongly over time. “The highest- and lowest-crime neighborhoods during the peak of the crime epidemic tended to remain the highest- and lowest-crime neighborhoods relative to other neighborhoods throughout the crime decline,” is the way the study sums it up.

More disturbingly, the city’s most violent neighborhoods remain its most economically disadvantaged and most segregated black neighborhoods. The study finds a sizable connection between violent crime and concentrated disadvantage. And a part of the story is the decreasing connection between concentrated disadvantage and violence in the already safe areas of the city. As the report notes: “[T]he rise in inequality was driven by rapid improvements in safer neighborhoods during the second half of the crime decline, thereby increasing the relative gap between the most dangerous neighborhoods and the rest of the city. “

Neighborhoods that had higher levels of residential stability, with more homeowners and more long-term residents, and greater concentrations of immigrants experienced both lower levels of violent crime and more pronounced declines in it.

Despite its overall crime decline, Chicago remains a tale of two cities when it comes to violent crime: an already safe city that is getting safer and a violent city where violence is starting to increase again. As the study notes, for every one homicide in the city’s safest neighborhoods, there are more than 65 homicides in its most violent.

Bound up with socioeconomic inequality is a tremendous inequality in violence. As Patrick Sharkey has shown, exposure to violence creates high levels of stress and anxiety, which have extremely deleterious consequences on children’s cognitive ability, progress in school, and prospects for social mobility. And this works to lock both these children and their communities in a cycle of concentrated disadvantage.

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