Our Beautiful City of Invisible Walls

We live in a city of many different worlds and that’s one reason why, I think, violence lingers and afflicts us.

Listen to how a German journalist, who came to Chicago to write about our vortex of violence, explains how she found our lives here:

I expected Chicago to be gruesome with its headline-grabbing murder rate. It was not. Maybe it was because I was not living in a neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs and violence. I lived in picture-perfect Ravenswood Manor, where the only problem might be the overpriced latte. If I hadn’t come to the city to research gun violence, I could have lived here for two months with the illusion that it was violence-free.

In so many ways, this is a beautiful city that is full of invisible walls. Sadly, I came to believe that a fair share of Chicagoans seem to care little about gun violence — as long as no one is shot on the oh-so-Magnificent-Mile on North Michigan Avenue. Way too often I came across the argument that it’s just bad people shooting bad people. Yes, a lot of people make bad choices and, sure, a lot of people choose their way of living knowing exactly what they are doing — and liking it. But a 4-year-old girl who visits her father every week at the Cook County Department of Corrections does not choose this kind of life. It was made for her.

In Chicago, perpetrators become victims and victims become perpetrators. From my perspective, this is one of the central problems when it comes to violence. Take Juan (whose name I have changed). He’s 21. I visited him in jail where he has been locked up for months waiting for his trial on attempted murder charges. He tried hard to escape the Back of the Yards. He tried to make a living as a construction worker outside of Illinois. But he returned home, to his family.

Here’s the link to the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, which supported this effort that also included the photographs of our colleague, Carlos Javier Ortiz


This oped piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune struck me even more when I paired it with an article about the heartbreaking decline in black ownership and deep tumble of the value of homes in black communities.

Here’s the link:


These sentences graphically describe an incredible financial disaster in the Roseland community.

Now, almost one in 10 Roseland properties is vacant and the area’s homeownership rate fell to 57 percent in 2010 from 64 percent in 2000, according to the Woodstock Institute. The median home price meanwhile has dropped to $28,000 in the second quarter from $119,000 in 2005, according to Midwest Real Estate Data LLC.

The remaining homeowners, many of them elderly, live surrounded by vacant, boarded-up houses and gang violence that has led to 16 murders this year as of Aug. 30, which is a 30 percent drop from the same period in 2012.

Ernest Washington Jr., 63, bought his South Forest Avenue home for $25,000 in 1974 and had paid the mortgage down to $13,000. Now, after refinancing the house multiple times to finish the basement and make other improvements to the property, he owes $150,000 — about $20,000 more than it’s worth. His mortgage rate is 8.5 percent.

“Being that this was a stable community, what they did was put people in the area further into debt,” Washington said. 

While the reporter draws a link between the community’s financial collapse and crime, I wish there had been a broader link to what this housing wipeout has meant to the black middle class. It has pushed many out of the middle class and closed the doors to others.


Much of black wealth is linked to home values. But the value of black homes has been seriously diminished over the years because of the decline or gap in sale values in black communities. The wave of inflated and high risk mortgages that afflicted black communities in the years prior to the housing bust only made the bust all the more pernicious, and disabiling. The Woodstock Institute has well documented this story in Chicago.

But I haven’t seen this story about black wealth and black housing values explained except in publications that reach the well-informed.

It’s a story that goes hand in hand with Chicago’s segregation, its violence and its worlds that can seem so far apart.




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