"With these actions we are sending a clear message to gang members: you will find no shelter in the City of Chicago," the mayor said in a written statement.
To make sure news outlets got the message, the mayor's office sent out a press release last night announcing that the demolitions would start today on a dozen buildings in high-crime communities on the south and west sides. Then they sent out another press release about it this morning.
"This comes just three days after Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent [Garry] McCarthy announced a new initiative that will help Chicago Police tackle crime by identifying, securing, and demolishing vacant buildings," the third release said. "This represents an unprecedented amount of coordination for demolitions in a day."
I'm not so sure about that. At the very least, there's nothing remotely new about this "new initiative."
That's not to say that the city shouldn't do something about empty buildings. A couple of years ago residents of the 8100 and 8200 blocks of South Winchester, a middle-class part of Auburn-Gresham, struggled to get the attention of the city after a shooting on their street; to them, it was no coincidence that the incident happened outside an empty home that was being used as a party spot. Another man was shot and killed in almost the same place last summer.
This spring residents at community policing meetings in west Humboldt Park complained to police about abandoned buildings that had become heroin shooting galleries. Eventually two people were found dead in the properties after apparent overdoses.
These are just two examples that I've reported on. For years I've heard block club leaders and community policing volunteers ask city officials for help in securing and policing abandoned buildings that attract squatters and dealers storing their drugs—and send a message that the neighborhood is out of control. Over the last five or so years the continuing foreclosure crisis has left thousands of additional homes empty, making matters far worse.
So kudos to Mayor Emanuel and other city officials for getting on the problem.
But like almost every other "new initiative" he and McCarthy have announced in response to the city's epidemic of violence—and announced again, and again—it's largely an old, ongoing policy that's being repackaged. In other words, Emanuel may not-so-subtly knock his predecessor for all the messes he left us, but he's fine with taking Mayor Daley's ideas and calling them his own. There have been highly publicized sweeps of street-corner drug markets; highly publicized reassignments of police from desk jobs to street patrols; highly publicized efforts to engage the community's help; highly publicized crackdowns on liquor stores and other "problem businesses."
Each time around the mayor and police chief present their plans as if they were the first ones smart enough to implement them, though that's simply not the case.
In the matter at hand: mayors for the last 40 years—and probably before that—have been promising to level decrepit buildings as a way of fighting crime and revitalizing neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 1986, tear-downs outnumbered newly constructed buildings by more than 11,000, Crain's reported in 1989.
By the time the second Mayor Daley took office that year, development was picking up, but crime was surging even faster. In 1992—a year when Chicago would record 943 murders, the second-highest total ever—Daley made bulldozing abandoned buildings a top priority, calling them "a breeding ground for gangs, a sanctuary for dope dealers, and a dark haven for rapists," the Sun-Times reported.
Daley boosted the budget for demolitions, from about $3.2 million to more than $7 million a year, and eventually to about $10 million. And he made good on his promise to start knocking stuff down. As a new state law gave the city authority to "fast track" the condemnation and demolition process, Daley had more than 1,000 buildings razed every year through much of the 1990s.
In fact, Daley's demolition policy was so aggressive that in 1997 homeowners sued the city, claiming that it had torn down their property without adequate checks and balances. The mayor defended the program: "These buildings are havens for drug dealers and gang [members] . . . This is a wonderful program."
A federal appeals court eventually upheld the city's law. By that time a building boom was underway in the city, and Daley began responding to calls for more affordable housing with his own modest plans.
Emanuel has done that too—and presented it as a new initiative. But the city doesn't have nearly enough money to rehab all the boarded-up homes that could be inhabited again.
At best, all of this shows again that Mayor Emanuel is a skilled politician who understands messaging and, in this case, knows that maintaining public confidence is a critical part of establishing safe streets.
At worst, though, it's a dishonest way of avoiding some of the real issues that make Chicago a persistently violent city. They start with a history of gangsterism and thievery, ranging from guys on the corner in white T-shirts to men in suits cutting deals downtown with public funds; and a string of once-proud neighborhoods that have been crumbling for decades as drug markets replaced mills and factories as the primary employers.