Regular readers of this space might recall that I have a love affair with Chicago. I take Amtrak in, revel in the incomparable offerings of symphony and jazz, art and museums, all within walking distance, and follow up with dinner from an endless selection of clever restaurants.
Yet I continue to be haunted by the paradox of mindless street violence playing out daily, almost in the shadow of this oasis of high culture.
How can the two worlds exist side by side, I wonder, in a civilized society?
I have written about this before, based on visits I have made to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Yet I feel compelled to weigh in again, for the violence, now chronicled in leading national and international publications, threatens to mar this great American city.
In recent weeks, there have been incidents of apparently lawless groups of youth brazenly walking off their gang turf and into the vibrant city center, generating high anxiety among the culture seekers.
Violence in Chicago is actually down significantly from what it was in the 1990s. But it wasn’t much reported then, as it is now, and most present mayhem occurs within a few poor, largely minority neighborhoods to the west and south of the city center.
According to the Heartland Alliance, a poverty research group, in 2016, African-American men aged 15-34 represented just 4 percent of Chicago’s population, yet made up more than half the city’s murder victims.
Many other victims have been innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of young gang members, who often seek murderous revenge for as little as a social media slight about a gang member’s girlfriend.
With teenage prefrontal cortexes not fully developed, and few positive authority figures in their lives, these gang members have little concept of right and wrong.
Guns flow into their neighborhoods in a torrent from Indiana and downstate Illinois, fueling gang members’ violent impulses.
According to my friend Berto Aguayo, a former gang member who has worked for an anti-violence group, two-thirds of black high school dropouts do prison time. Sixty to 80 percent of black 16- to 24-year-olds are without jobs. And there are precious few suitable marriage partners for young women, who nevertheless want to have children, and do.
The dominant American culture of opportunity, work and reward is largely out of reach, or has been rejected. For example, doing well in school in gang-infested neighborhoods is not “cool.”
In other words, in these desperate, high-violence settings, an alternative culture has been created, with gangs fulfilling the deep-seated need for a sense of belonging.
The local schools, which exist after all to educate, plus phalanxes of social workers and do-good groups seem not enough to transform toxic, deep-rooted, anti-establishment cultures.
So, what can be done to transform young minorities so often headed for a life of gangdom?
One idea would be to get them out of the neighborhood. That’s what others who can do so are doing; blacks are fleeing violent neighborhoods in Chicago.
I propose we renew the national Civilian Conservation Corps, this time for teens otherwise headed for trouble.
From 1933 through 1942, three million young men (mostly white; Southern segregationist political leaders resisted enrolling African-Americans) worked and learned in wilderness camps, where they planted ga-jillion trees, prevented soil erosion and the like.
Half the CCC members lacked a high school education, and 70 percent were malnourished when they entered the program. When World War II broke out, CCC graduates became a core element of the burgeoning armed forces.
Second, back in the ’hoods, we need to reinstitute the old “cops on the beat” concept, where police become a part of the neighborhood, establishing trust and communication.
This is easier said than done, as it would require more police, yet where would the money come from? Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is, after all, looking at an increase of $400 million next year in just the cost of helping keep solvent his undernourished police, fire and city employee pension funds.
Third, parents and grandparents (mostly mothers and grandmothers, that is) in gang-infested neighborhoods must be counseled on how to be more effective at rearing their children. As many of the children are already in the compensated foster care of their grandmothers and other relatives, the counseling could be required in return for compensation by the state.
I weep that gang violence is marring the city I love.
Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.