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Jenna Barnes/MEDILL

On Sunday, the Rev. Michael Pfleger led a group of parishioners to the spot a 22-year-old man was shot to death four days earlier. Their message was "Enough!" But some worry that all people see is "Too much!"

To outsiders, a South Side march to end violence still emphasizes violence

by Jenna Barnes
March 06, 2012


Jenna Barnes/MEDILL

Pfleger leads men in a march through Auburn-Gresham to protest neighborhood violence.

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Jenna Barnes/MEDILL


Jenna Barnes/MEDILL


Betty Jo Swanson has conquered crime on her block and is trying to spread safety all over Chicago.

Rhythmic shouts echoed for blocks as a seemingly impenetrable chain of men marched along West 79th Street – with anger in their eyes and determination in their hearts.

“Stop your killing! Stop the shooting! Stop the violence!”

At the head of the pack was the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who led the men from St. Sabina Catholic Church to the White Castle restaurant a couple of blocks away.

A 22-year-old man had been murdered in the restaurant’s parking lot barely four days before.

As the crowed reached the lot and began to circle around Pfleger, their shouts faded away, and a deafening quiet struck the air.

The only people left in motion were news videographers, buzzing around the huddle to capture the moment for all of Chicago to see later that night.

“This is where he lay, for hours, in this spot,” Pfleger said, “bleeding, shot in the head on this spot.”

The march was intended to show gang members in Auburn-Gresham that their neighbors would not accept violence and shootings any longer.

But does a march matter? Will it make a difference? Are the gang members paying attention? Pfleger says yes, but at least one parishioner wonders.
Chris Williams, 17, who has attended St. Sabina his whole life, said amid the Sunday march that while important and necessary, that even an anti-violence protest can feed into the stereotype of danger on Chicago’s South Side.

Williams said he understood the need to instigate change. But his point is that residents on the North Side might hear a different story.

“They get that it’s just another march for peace because the South Side is just so violent that everybody’s shooting up places.”

Because of the stereotype fueled by seemingly constant crime and a centurylong history of class and race division, the South Side is a no-man’s land for North Side residents. But many South Side residents are fighting to change that image – peacefully.

The Image

As a real estate agent, Bob Warren is in a prime position to witness the perception of the South Side. He sells houses all over the city for Real People Realty and spends much of his time on properties in Englewood, which is considered to be Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood.

“Coming from the North Side, the only things people would know is what they read or hear,” he said. “They don’t really interact with people down here.”

That lack of interaction makes it easy for North Side residents to see South Siders in a different light, he said.

“People have this misconception that they have different values,” he said. “The values are the same no matter where you are at. Everybody wants to go to school. Everybody wants a job. Everybody wants their children to stay out of trouble.”

But North Side residents can become numb to the constant bad news coming from the South Side.

When Jimmy Kryger was growing up in suburban Park Ridge, he was always told that the South Side was the dangerous part of town and that he should avoid it at all costs.

Now a graduate student at Northwestern University, Kryger has never visited the South Side, except for the occasional White Sox game. The same is true for most of his friends, he said.

Kryger, like many other Chicagoans, associates crime and violence with the South Side, especially when he watches the news.

“When you hear something bad on the North Side, you’re like, ‘This is terrible,’ but on the South Side it’s like, ‘It’s OK, that’s what happens down there,” he said.

The Numbers

While it’s true that most of the city’s violent crime occurs on the South Side, lumping each South Side neighborhood and police district together as one entity fails to paint an accurate picture of city crime.

The 8th Police District, in which Chicago Lawn is located, saw more than 10,000 so-called index crimes reported, such as murder and burglary, in the last year – more than any other police district, according to Chicago Police data.

But not all South Side districts outranked North Side districts in number of reported index crimes.

The 19th Police District, home to North Side neighborhood Lakeview, ranked fourth in index crimes over the past year, with 8,341.

That’s nearly a quarter more index crimes than occurred in the South Side’s 2nd Police District. There, 6,131 index crimes were reported in the past 12 months.

The History

The perception of crime and violence isn’t the only thing fueling the perception gap between the North and South sides. There’s a larger historical context in which the division’s seeds are planted.

With the steel mills, railyards and stockyards of the late 19th and most of the 20th century, the South Side has long been the working-class side of town, according to Richard Taub, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

Wealthy North Side residents wanted nothing to do with the dirty, rank stench of South Side industry, he said. This played out even within ethnic groups, as evidenced by the lace curtain Irish of the North Side and the shanty Irish of the South Side.

Examples of class distinction are visible today in the modest sizes of many older South Side homes in Pilsen, Canaryville and Bridgeport, compared with the brownstone mansions and large homes in North Side neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and Sauganash, he said.

The division was exacerbated by the Great Migration from the South; by the 1960s, there were more African-Americans in Cook County than there were in Mississippi, according to Dominic Pacyga, history professor at Columbia College.

Bigotry led to disinvestment in South Side communities, he said.

In 1971, the stockyards closed; the last steel mill shut down about 20 years later, he said.

Those closures had devastating effects on the local economy.

Thousands of people fell into poverty after losing their jobs, Pacyga said. And from poverty emerges violence.

Combine the lingering social prejudice with the persistent poverty and violence, and what appears today is a force that continues to deepen the divide between the two sides of town, Taub said.

The Future

Many South Side residents are determined to bridge the divide by improving the safety and quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Jean Carter-Hill, the executive director of Imagine Englewood If, a community group designed to keep kids safe with after school programs, is working to raise money to develop a community center for the neighborhood.

She’s striving to make positive change in hopes of improving safety and the neighborhood’s image in the eyes of other Chicagoans.

“For years we talked about how whenever there’s a crime, the news can say Englewood,” she said, “but when it’s something positive going on in Englewood, we can’t get the media out here.”

Betty Jo Swanson, president of the 79th and Carpenter Block Club, said she feels the same way about the image of her neighborhood, Auburn-Gresham.

Her block was once named the worst block in Chicago because of rampant gang violence, but the great-grandmother of seven stood up to the gangs and pushed them off of her street.

Now, she’s trying to spread neighborhood safety to Chicago’s city limits.

“We’re fighting the stereotype,” she said. “Our goal is to just keep reaching across every block, joining hands. When we reach all the way across the city, I’ll say we have reached our goal.”

These women are leaping over the hurdles placed in their paths by history and by crime, just as the men at St. Sabina march on in the spirit of peace.

“We will not tolerate shooting,” Pfleger chanted, echoed by dozens of protesters.

“There will not be genocide in this city, in this community.”