How Chicago reclaimed the projects, but lost the city.
By Kevin Williamson
Chicago – Hey, man. Hey, man. What you need?” The question is part solicitation, part challenge, and the challenge part is worth paying attention to in a city with more than 500 murders a year. The question comes from a young, light-skinned black guy with freckles. We’re in the shadow of what used to be the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects, only a 15-minute walk from the Hermès and Prada boutiques and the $32 brunch at Fred’s that identify Chicago’s Gold Coast as highly desirable urban real estate, a delightful assemblage of Stuff White People Like. Just down Division Street from the boutique hotels and the more-artisanal-than-thou Goddess and Grocer, Cabrini-Green is still in the early stages of gentrification, though it does have that universal identifier of urban reclamation: a Starbucks within view of another Starbucks.
All that remains of Cabrini-Green is sad stories and the original section of row houses around which the projects grew up. Those row houses are being renovated as part of the foundations-up effort to rebuild the neighborhood. Even the name “Cabrini-Green” is being scrubbed from memory: The new mixed-income development on the site of the old Cabrini-Green Extension heaves under the unbearably pretentious name “Parkside of Old Town.” But some of the old commerce remains, and Freckles is pretty clearly an entrepreneur of the street. “You buying?” I ask what he’s selling, and he explains in reasonably civil terms that he is not in the habit of setting himself up for entrapment on a narcotics charge.
Cabrini-Green has had its share of tourists — in 1999, the film Whiteboyz found a group of Wonder Bread–colored hip-hop fans from Iowa visiting the site. But real estate and the scarcity thereof is the ruling fact of urban life, and once downtown Chicago began to evolve from a place in which people worked in factories and warehouses into a place in which people work in litigation offices and university classrooms, Chicago’s near north began to fill up with the sort of people who prefer urban lofts to suburban picket fences, public transit to car commutes, and $32 Sunday brunches to church, all of them living in the orbit of Cabrini-Green. Chicago is a very liberal place, but it’s a very liberal place in which about half of the very liberal public-school teachers preach the virtues of the city’s very liberal public schools while sending their own kids to private schools. Chicago may vote for the party of housing projects, but nobody wants to live next to one, or even drive past one on the way to Trader Joe’s. One local tells of the extraordinary measures he used to take to avoid driving by Cabrini-Green, where children would pelt his car with bottles and trash whenever he stopped. And eventually, he learned not to stop at all, blowing through red lights on the theory that it was better to risk a moving violation than risk what the locals might do to him.
So they tore down Cabrini-Green. And they tore down the Robert Taylor Homes and the Henry Horner Homes and practically every other infamous housing project in the city. And in doing so, Chicago inadvertently exacerbated the crime wave that now has the city suffering more than twice as many murders every year as does Los Angeles County or Houston.
You cannot really understand Chicago without understanding the careers of Larry Hoover, David Barksdale, and Jeff Fort, the three kings of the modern Chicago criminal gang. Chicago has a long history of crime syndicates, of course, including Al Capone and his epigones. In the 1950s it had ethnic street gangs of the West Side Story variety, quaint in pictures today with their matching embroidered sweaters and boyish names: the Eagles, the Dragons. But in the 1960s, marijuana began to change all that. Marijuana, that kindest and gentlest of buzzes, was a major moneymaking opportunity, both for the international syndicates that smuggled it and for the street criminals at the point of purchase. Inspired partly by Chicago’s long mob history, partly by the nascent black-liberation ethic of the day, and a great deal by the extraordinary money to be made, Chicago’s black gangs came to dominate the marijuana business — an enterprise model that would soon become supercharged by cocaine and heroin. David Barksdale built a tightly integrated top-down management structure for his gang, the Black Disciples, while Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort did the same thing for their organizations, the Gangster Nation and the Black P-Stone Rangers, respectively. Barksdale and Hoover would later join forces as the Gangster Disciples, a group that, though faction-ridden, remains a key player on the Chicago crime scene today, with thousands of members — 53 of whom were arrested for murder in 2009 alone.
Fort had real organizational flair and transformed the P-Stones, a gang dating back to the 1950s, into one of the first true modern gangs, combining racialism, neighborhood loyalties, a hierarchical management structure complete with impressive-sounding titles, and the shallow self-help rhetoric of the 1960s into something new — and holding the whole thing together with great heaping piles of money. His audacity was something to be wondered at: He formed a nonprofit organization and managed to convince city and federal officials that he was engaged in efforts to help disadvantaged urban youth. Government grant money was forthcoming, and soon the Gangster Disciples got in on the action, founding their own project, called “Growth and Development” — note the initials. Bobby Gore and Alfonso Alfred of the rival Vice Lords secured a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Like the Mafiosi of old, Chicago’s new generation of gangsters learned to recycle some of that money into political campaigns and donations to influential ministers.
In fact, though they trafficked in narcotics and murder with equal ease, as often as not it was financial crimes ranging from misappropriation of federal money to mortgage fraud that brought down many of the top Chicago gangsters. Fort went to Leavenworth in the early 1970s for misuse of federal funds and continued to run his operations from federal custody until just a few years ago, when he was shipped off to the ADX Florence supermax lockup in Colorado and his communication with the outside world severely curtailed. Hoover got 200 years for murder and a life sentence for a federal narcotics charge but also continued to run his organization from prison.
Those government grants may not have amounted to very much, drops in the roaring river of money that the drug business was generating, but government contributed mightily to the growth of the modern gang by providing the one key piece of infrastructure that the Barksdales and Hoovers of the world could never have acquired for themselves: the high-rise housing project. The projects not only gave the gangs an easily secured place to consolidate their commercial activities, they helped to create the culture of loyalty and discipline that was the hallmark of the Chicago street gang in its golden age. With most members living and working under the same roof, the leaders could quickly quash intra-gang disputes or freelance criminality. Fort, Hoover, and Barksdale were children of the 1940s and 1950s, men who came of age before the cultural rot of the 1960s — practically Victorians by the standards of the modern gangster. They were (and are) brutes and killers, but they managed to maintain some semblance of cohesion and structure. Barksdale went so far as to collect taxes — fees from unaffiliated drug dealers operating on his streets.
When the towers came down, Chicago’s organized crime got a good deal less organized, and a number of decapitation operations run by the Chicago police and federal authorities had the perverse effect of making things worse: Where there once were a small number of gangs operating in a relatively stable fashion under the leadership of veteran criminals, today there are hundreds of gangs and thousands of gang factions. Chicago police estimate that there are at least 250 factions of the Gangster Disciples alone, with as many as 30,000 members among them. Vast swathes of Chicago are nominally under the black-and-blue Disciples flag, but in reality there is at least as much violence between those Disciples factions as between the Disciples and rivals. Some are one- and two-block operations, many with young teens in charge. The Barksdales and Hoovers may not have been Machiavellian in their subtlety, but they were far-seeing visionaries compared with the kids who came streaming out of the projects in their wake.
Mr. Butt is dearly missing his AK-47. He’s a native of Pakistan, where Mikhail Kalashnikov’s best-known invention is as common as the deer rifle is in the United States, but in Chicago he cannot possess even a pea-shooter, which has him slightly nervous in his role as my ghetto tour guide, chauffeuring me through the worst parts of Englewood and Garfield, the biggest battlegrounds in Chicago’s 21st-century gangland warfare.
“In Pakistan, everybody has an AK-47,” he says. “But it’s not like here. They don’t go walking into a school and shooting people.” I ask him if he thinks that applies to the case of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by Islamists for the crime of wanting to go to school. He allows that this is a fair point. He points out Bridgeport, home of the venerable Daley clan, and informs me wistfully that in the old days blacks simply were not allowed to cross the bridge into Bridgeport, a social norm enforced with baseball bats and worse. Mr. Butt is a big, big Daley fan — “He was very strong, strong with the mob!” — and no fan at all of Chicago’s new breed of gangsters. “On the South Side, it is just like Afghanistan. Every square mile has its own boss, and everybody has to answer to him. From the business district through 31st Street, everything is perfect.” Perfect may not be the word, but I get his point. “Below 31st Street, everything is jungle.”
Mr. Butt locks the doors, and we cruise through Englewood and environs. Martin Luther King Drive, like so many streets named for the Reverend King, is a hideous dog show of squalor and dysfunction, as though Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s depressing reportage in 1965’s The Negro Family had been used as a how-to manual. Mr. Butt points out the dealers, who don’t really need pointing out. It’s about 8 degrees outside, and the Windy City is living up to its name. In the vicinity of Rothschild Liquors, grim-faced men in heavy coats smoke cigarillos and engage in commerce. Mr. Butt’s habit of pointing out miscreants by literally pointing them out brings scowls from the street. Lying low is not Mr. Butt’s strong suit.
Mr. Butt informs me that for many years the South Side dealers favored gas stations as bases of operation, which makes sense: Cars have a legitimate reason to be pulling in and out. Plausible deniability keeps probable cause at bay. Nobody is flying any obvious gang colors, no gold bandanas for the Four Corner Hustlers or crowns for the Latin Kings. But maybe that is simply because it is so godawful cold and even the proudest gangster is bundled up. I’ve been told to look for Georgetown gear to identify the Gangster Disciples, but it may be that the Hoyas have become passé.
Commerce is impossible to hide completely, however, and in truth it doesn’t look like the locals are trying particularly hard to hide it. A maroon Cadillac sedan of Reaganite vintage comes slowly rumbling around the corner with four very serious-looking young men inside. Another young man in a heavy coat, carrying a plastic grocery bag that I suspect is full of commerce, comes out of a house to parley. Maybe they’re talking about the weather, but probably not.
Mr. Butt takes me to see the sights: In front of Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School, there’s commerce. On Garfield Boulevard, at 58th and Ashland, in front of the various storefront churches, pawn shops, tax-refund-loan outlets, the mighty wheels of endless commerce roll on and on.
“They do this to their own neighborhood,” Mr. Butt says, exasperated. “They make it a place no decent person would want to be. Why do they do that? It’s very bad, very scary at night.” This from a guy who vacations in Lahore.
Malala Yousafzai was a 15-year-old schoolgirl who got shot for a reason — a terrible, awful, evil reason, but a reason. (Say what you like about Islamic radicalism, at least it’s an ethos.) All of Chicago is aghast at the story of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot — and, unlike Malala Yousafzai, killed — apparently for no reason at all, at 2:20 in the afternoon in a public park. Miss Pendleton was a student at King College Prep, and a majorette in the school’s band, which had the honor of performing at President Obama’s first inauguration. Miss Pendleton had just recently returned from a trip to the president’s second inauguration when she took shelter from the rain under a canopy at Harsh Park. Miss Pendleton was not known to have any gang connections — in fact, she appeared in a 2008 video denouncing gang violence.
The shooting of Miss Pendleton commanded the attention of the White House and, naturally, that of President Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago and fecklessly reshuffling the organization chart of the police department. The usual noises were made about gun control, and especially the flow of guns from nearby Indiana into Chicago, though nobody bothered to ask why Chicago is a war zone and Muncie isn’t. But the mayor’s latest promises did not impress 17-year-old Jordyn Willis, who organized a march in Miss Pendleton’s memory. “He can’t control his city,” Miss Willis told the Chicago Tribune.
It’s not clear that anybody can. Chicago has had three police superintendents since 2007. Current superintendent Garry McCarthy, formerly the head of the Newark police, has instituted the data-driven CompStat system first developed by the NYPD. But in a city in which 15-year-olds are running criminal enterprises and shooting each other over the slightest of slights, it’s not clear that even the best policing practices will be sufficient.
“Some gangs require a shooting as part of the initiation,” explains Art Bilek of the Chicago Crime Commission. Mr. Bilek is a wonderful anachronism, a very old-fashioned gentleman who uses the word “wisenheimer” without a trace of irony and refers to his former colleagues in the Chicago Police Department as “coppers.” Now in his 80s, he joined the police force with a master’s degree in hand at a time when it was unusual for a cop to have an undergraduate degree. He eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant in Chicago and chief of the Cook County sheriff’s police, and founded the academic discipline of criminal-justice studies along the way.
“The purpose of tearing down the projects was to regentrify the neighborhoods. And now, where there had been projects, you have chain stores, exclusive restaurants, delis, everything people want. But it also sent those gangs out into the neighborhoods, into new places in the city and the suburbs, places where they had not been.” He estimates that about 80 percent of Chicago’s homicides are gang-related.
He sketches a pyramid. “In the old days, you had a Jeff Fort or a David Barksdale at the top of the pyramid. You had a very rigid structure, like the old Mafia, with a boss at the top, enforcers, and advisers. There was very strict enforcement of the rules — they’d beat you, maybe even kill you. And to an extent, the gangs could cooperate, because you had some structure. And you had it all going on in the projects, in those tall towers of criminality. And life was terrible for the people who had to live there. At the same time, you have a strong incentive to take those projects and do something else with them, to create revenue-producing lands — public housing pays no taxes. You can get rid of the towers, but the gangs that were in them don’t just go away.”
Worse, the move out of the projects has made it easier to bring juveniles into the gangs. “In the homes, they had a limited number of juveniles at any given time. Now, it’s unlimited,” he explains. “You have juveniles rising to positions of power, and they just don’t have the street smarts or wisdom that even a Jeff Fort would. They’re doing impulsive things that the old guard just wouldn’t have dreamt of. And the money is bigger now, too. Before, the money went straight up to Hoover, Barksdale, or Fort, but now you have 1,000 leaders all competing for that. And you have the street gangs, the Mexican cartels, the narcotics, and the violence forming a unitary cultural phenomenon.” He’d like to see stricter gun control and stiffer sentences — “burying them” — for violent offenders. He cites procedural changes in the legal system making it more difficult to secure charges as a factor in the growing violence.
Chicago was the only U.S. city to break 500 murders last year, and that is a spike — but a spike only over the past few years. Chicago has seen these waves before: In 2008 the city saw 516 murders, and it had nearly 1,000 in 1974, the year David Barksdale’s past finally caught up with him and he died of kidney failure resulting from a gunshot wound suffered years before. Things have been worse in the past, but there is a sense that Chicago is moving in the wrong direction. New York City had nearly 2,000 murders in 1974, and more than 2,000 the year before. But those numbers are unthinkable today: New York City finally got control of itself, which is a big part of the reason why Rudy Giuliani, a thrice-married recreationally cross-dressing pro-choice big-city liberal, was taken seriously as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Rahm Emanuel would need a miracle worthy of his surname to follow a similar path, to get Freckles to give up commerce and to get Mr. Butt to regard him as something other than a municipal joke. Chicago may have torn down the projects, but building the city is a different thing altogether.