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A 'Rigid Geography of Violence' Found In Chicago's Six Decades

Since gun violence suddenly began to rise, researchers have been asked to explain what caused the rapid increase and what can be done to reverse it. Short-term trends can distract us from the question of how cities got to this point, and how they can move toward a sustained period of low violence. Writing in The Atlantic, Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey discusses an analysis of violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods over nearly six decades, from 1965 through 2020. Chicago is not close to the most violent city, but it is the only city with data available to track murder in individual neighborhoods over such a long time. In a remarkable pattern, the level of violence in the city has risen and fallen sharply over the past half century, but the distribution has not changed significantly. The group of neighborhoods on the West and South Sides that had the highest level of violence in the late 1960s have continued to have the highest level of violence in every single period since.


This rigid geography of violence, which has persisted even as the economy has changed and new populations have moved into and out of these neighborhoods, raises the question of why are some neighborhoods so vulnerable to so much violence? The answer, Sharkey says, requires thinking less about specific neighborhoods and cities where violence is common, and more about larger metropolitan areas where inequality is extreme and the affluent live separated from the poor. And it requires thinking less about individual criminals and victims, and more about bigger social forces, including demographic shifts, changes in urban labor markets, and social policies implemented by states and the federal government. Nearly six decades of data on violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods point to an unmistakable conclusion: Producing a sustained reduction in violence may not be possible without addressing extreme, persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, and income. The forces that have left American neighborhoods vulnerable to rising violence are entirely distinct from the people who live in those neighborhoods.

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