Murder on the move?
Some say CHA teardowns causing jump in Southeast Side slayings

January 3, 2007

Earline Wasp was still reeling from her 17-year-old son's fatal shooting steps from her front door in November when she learned last Friday that someone else she knew was killed in the Altgeld Gardens-Murray Homes on the Far South Side.

"I am on my way. I am fittin' to move,'' said Wasp, who grew up in Altgeld and is raising a 10-year-old son there. "To me it's like the devil's playground. It's where everybody come and do they dirt. I want to get my son out of here.''

Department officials say intense gang conflicts are to blame for a citywide increase in homicides -- and the same is true in Calumet.

What sparked the conflicts is not clear.

Some cops and criminologists suspect one factor could be the Chicago Housing Authority's massive tear-down and rebuilding effort, which began six years ago and has affected South Side housing.

Gang members recently released from prison might also have caused some of the problems, others said.

Department officials held a meeting last week with area commanders to talk about the increase, which has hit pockets of Calumet, South Chicago and Morgan Park police districts.

"We have to examine each district down to the beat level and beyond that,'' Deputy Supt. Charles Williams said. "Every homicide. What was the homicide and what caused this?''

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While there were 33 more murders last year in Calumet, homicides dropped from 124 to 106 over the same time period in the neighboring Wentworth Area, home to the Robert Taylor Homes on the State Street corridor.

The high-rise Taylor Homes -- once the largest public housing complex in the country with 28 buildings -- were torn down as part of CHA redevelopment. Smaller developments on the corridor have come down as well.

Residents from the shuttered buildings now live in neighborhoods across the city.

Some law enforcement sources have heard of gang members relocating from Taylor to the Calumet area.

CHA buildings were historically prey to gang members who used them to sell drugs, turning thousands of dollars in profit a day and creating an intolerable level of violence for residents.

While CHA lease-holders may not necessarily be responsible for the drug-dealing and violence, associates or extended family members involved in gangs could be.

Gang members who lost a place to do business after a building came down may be trying to establish themselves in new neighborhoods, clashing with dealers already there, said Dennis Rosenbaum, a University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist.

Or a gang member released from prison might go home to a new block. Gang members on the move can create conflict just by crossing rival territory, Rosenbaum said. "You are combining gangs from different areas and different neighborhoods,'' he said.

Robert Goerge, a researcher at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, said it would be difficult to prove CHA relocation has led to a crime increase -- especially because relocated residents comprise no more than 4 percent of any community.

Goerge suspects gentrification pushing people out to the edges of the city is more likely to blame.

"It's complicated. . . . It might not be the new families who are committing the crimes. It might be just the upheaval in the city . . . the displacement of the poor.''

Altgeld residents believe gang conflicts on the sprawling property caused recent shootings, including four homicides since September.

"That has nothing to with relocation," said Bernadette Williams, president of the local advisory council.

But Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) suspects CHA reconstruction has been a factor. Residents have been relocated during the ongoing upgrading of homes, and he thinks it's led to turf disputes.

Beale plans to install more police surveillance cameras in the neighborhood. "It just puts people on notice that somebody is watching.''

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No matter the cause for the increase of the violence, police are considering several ways to combat it.

Williams said officers assigned to CHA units in the Wentworth Area could be reassigned to housing units in the Calumet Area. He also is looking at open job positions in the Calumet and South Chicago districts to see how he could get those positions filled.

Units specializing in tamping down street violence also can be sent to the area.

"We will take a look at how personnel can be reallocated very quickly,'' Williams said.

Police Supt. Phil Cline has already dispatched more cops to Calumet. All 240 officers from the Targeted Response Unit -- teams sent into high-crime areas -- were sent there for an entire weekend in December. Not one shooting was reported, Cline said.