Every May I head to Chicago for a week (a long story, over a drink perhaps…). Great city. Lovely setting beside Lake Michigan. Wonderful architecture. Sensational shopping. Fantastic museums. Pleasant parks along the lakeshore. Easy to get around, but who would want to, who would dare to, anymore?
This year the murder rate in Chicago is up almost 80% on last year. Yes, 80%. No misprint. And that’s compounding on a rise of 20% from the year before — a trend heading towards a total that may well exceed 800 by the time this year is done. Sure, Chicago has seen years with more murders: 970 in 1974 and 943 in 1992. But this time there’s a remarkable difference to the crime statistics: the clear-up rate for murders has plummeted. Some 70% of murders were solved back in the early 1990s. But last year it was just over 30%. Put it another way: Two out of three Chicago murderers now get away with it. Scot free. Permanently.
All this is happening on Barack Obama’s home turf, just around the corner from where he used to live in the South Side’s Hyde Park, in the second term of his supposedly “transformative” presidency. And in the city where Barack’s buddy and former right-hand man, Rahm Emanuel, is current mayor.
These killings are not mass murders perpetrated by isolated, unhinged loners. This is gang violence writ large, with retribution after retribution after retribution. It is tearing apart the mainly black suburban communities that make up the South and the West of Chicago. But more recently shootings have spread into other areas of Chicago.
Chicago’s police, fearing they will get shot (or videoed shooting someone who later turns out to be unarmed — are intervening less and less, it seems. Instead, they come by later to stretch out the tape, mark out the corpses, pick up the cartridges, photograph stray bullet-holes, and hope that a witness dares to come forward. If Crime Scene Investigation is your buzz, then the Windy City is a sure bet for a long, steady career.
In the meantime, the afflicted suburban communities continue to scatter, regroup, mourn, depart and ultimately degenerate. Parks are emptying. People spend more time indoors, behind curtained or shuttered windows. Local shops and small businesses close. Youth unemployment skyrockets. Those that can are up and leaving Chicago for somewhere less threatening, more promising and far, far away from this mess. The most recent census data (from 2010-14) showed 150,000 people leaving Cook County (where the violence is centred), with only 70,000 moving in. Once, Chicago was proudly America’s Second City. Recent population flight means its metropolitan population will soon slip to fourth, behind an expanding Houston, in the ledger of America’s great cities.
That decline is despite Chicago remaining a commercial crossroads. Chicago O’Hare is still America’s third-busiest airport (after Atlanta and Los Angeles), but once was the busiest in the entire world.
After all, this is the city that in the 19th and 20th Centuries opened up the middle of America’s vast North to the rest of the world – initially via the Illinois and Michigan Canal down to the Mississippi, and then via ships on the Great Lakes, down the St Laurence Seaway to the Atlantic.
This is where so many modern concepts of civilisation – frozen meat, skyscrapers, vacuum cleaners, zip fasteners, dishwashing machines, nuclear power, even the Pill – first emerged on to the world stage. It is the same city that nurtured the talents of Frank Lloyd Wright (along with Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin), Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney, Milton Friedman and Oprah. Vast, iconic companies that everyone has heard of — Boeing, Kraft, Sears, Caterpillar and McDonalds, to name but a few — are still based here. But one wonders for how much longer they will remain amid the growing violence.
Where now is the Community Organiser in Chief? Where now is the man who promised in Chicago’s Grant Park back in 2008 to bring “hope and change” to the whole nation, including its ‘hoods? Where now is the man who waves a long, disapproving finger at so many of the world’s problems but stays away from the festering sore that violent South and West Chicago have become?
Despite travelling in a 50-vehicle bulletproof motorcade, surrounded by hundreds of armed Secret Service and police protectors, the nation’s first black President is noticeably absent from the city that nurtured his legal and academic career, launched him as a State legislator and then as a Federal Senator. Absent also is wife Michelle, not to mention Hillary Clinton, who also grew up here.
Why are mainstream media outlets across the US not demanding action to control the violence and reduce the deaths in America’s Second (make that Fourth) City? Why does the surge in gun violence remain only a second-rate issue?
Perhaps it is because there are a number of cities in America where matters are even worse than in old Chicago. St Louis (where the Ferguson riots occurred after the death of Michael Brown), Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and Memphis all have higher murder rates per capita than does Chicago. All are cities with a high percentage of black Americans, high unemployment, high educational failure, and high drug use. None of them shows signs of long-term improvement.
How can police and the justice system deal with this massive, multi-city problem, when one misstep, mistake or overreach by them is amplified by gotcha journalists into being the issue, not the epidemic of lawlessness and violence? When will America wake up to its dangerous, degenerate urban mess? We can only hope the next president will take this issue more seriously than Obama. Like so many other Chicagoans he will be voting with his feet, having reportedly purchased a post-presidency home in a gated community in far-off Southern California.