CHICAGO- All maps tell a story. On their surface they display information spatially but underneath they uncover social relations, historic legacies, and tell the personal narratives of people interacting with space. And the story that emerges in mapping Chicago homicides is an important one.
As head of the data team for My Block My Hood My City, I created this map to highlight the stark polarization of the city and the need to better integrate communities.
After analyzing homicides locations in conjunction with demographic data, I found that of these thousands of homicides from 2010-2015, two thirds of them occurred in neighborhoods that are two thirds or more black. Compared to just over 12% in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods and under 2% in predominantly white neighborhoods, it is clear that violence is not equally shared.
Unfortunately, this is not news. Most Chicagoans understand the disparities that exist in the city so studies like these can seem repetitive. But the significance of this map, and other studies like it, lies not in the data displayed on its surface but in the social interactions that create it. While what is occurring is certainly of importance, only in understanding why something is occurring can change happen.
That is why the story this map tells, the story of Chi-Raq, is an important one.
With the mention of that term, many readers may have moved on from this piece, and with understandable frustration. With massive clusters of homicides isolated in the South and West sides of the city, to many Chicagoans, Chi-Raq, the city more deadly than a warzone, is not the city they know nor is it the reality they face. For this reason, there has been constant backlash to the city’s new name, dating from the term’s inception to Spike Lee’s recent film. However, is this image of Chicago really a misrepresentation? More importantly, is our outcry over the term Chi-Raq really more important than the larger socioeconomic, racial, and violent disparities that it brings up?
The truth is, the story of Chi-Raq is not one that I know. I live in a community outside of this isolation of violence and like many of my neighbors cannot empathize with this problem. Despite being located mere miles apart, my experience in Edgewater is completely different from that in Englewood or Austin. But through working with MBMHMC and engaging with this data below its surface, I have begun to understand the narrative of inequality that emerges.
In order to comprehend the significance of research, there is a need for comprehensive reexamination of how we react to these studies and how we train our researchers. In my graduate studies in public policy we examine race relations, poverty, and inequality—all the necessary makings of a public servant—but theorizing and researching oftentimes keeps these ‘phenomenon’ at an arm’s length; the line between objectivity and apathy blurs. While objective research is essential to unbiased results, we cannot sacrifice the narratives of the people who represent each of these data points for the sake of pragmatism. We cannot forget the human element of urban policy.
Similarly, for city officials and community members to continue a blasé approach towards reading these stories is a form of complicity, permitting the city to continue its violent polarization. Instead of becoming numb to statistics and these stories, we instead need to mobilize when Chicagoans like Bettie Smith, Quintonio LeGrier, and Tyshawn Lee are killed. We need to call our aldermen, protest, and make our dissention known.
In the end, this map tells the story of Chicago’s segregation. This story is not just one depicting a lack of cultural integration but one telling of a social isolation which disproportionately impacts black communities. But just because this may not be the story of your Chicago does not mean it is a story you should ignore.
Matthew Pietrus is a geographer and current master’s candidate in public policy at Northwestern University.
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