BACK OF THE YARDS — The 4800 block of South Laflin Street looks like many blocks on the Southwest Side: Decades-old houses and apartments dot the street a block from Hamline Elementary School. A block west, there’s even a playground where you’ll sometimes see neighborhood kids playing.
This stretch of road was also one of Chicago’s most dangerous blocks in 2016, a place plagued by gang shootings.
“It’s been a conversation that’s been before the commander and chief of patrol about how we move forward on these things,” said the alderman for the area, Willie Cochran (20th), who is facing federal corruption charges but continues to serve.
“All of [the victims] are gang members. People are coming from outside the community and targeting their group. That’s not something we're comfortable with.”
In 2016, the number of shootings and the number of people shot citywide both rose by about 47 percent compared to 2015, according to data compiled by DNAinfo. The spikes have affected neighborhoods across Chicago.
The map below shows how many shootings occurred on each block, based on data from the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police. The larger the circle, the more shootings on the block:
In Back of the Yards, about 30 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2013 analysis. The neighborhood is part of the New City community, where about a third of the population over 25 is without a high school diploma and half of residents between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed.
The 4800 block of South Laflin Street is a piece of the neighborhood advocates and residents feel the city has particularly abandoned.
“We’ve seen a structural removal of resources,” said Claudio Rivera, a 35-year-old Back of the Yards resident and clinical psychologist at the Lurie Children’s Hospital. “This is a low opportunity area.”
The lack of resources has been one of the biggest contributors to gang violence in Back of the Yards, Rivera said.
The resource-stripping hit neighborhoods all over the city in 1990, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin closed 40 churches and schools to pull the Archdiocese of Chicago out of debt. St. Rose of Lima, the first Irish parish in the Back of the Yards, was one of those churches.
Opened in 1881 at 1456 W. 48th St., St. Rose was a safe haven for families and troubled teens navigating the streets without guidance, but the church held its final mass that summer.
“It was the only institution that was providing some family support,” said Rafael Yanez, a lifelong Back of the Yards resident and crime prevention officer for the Chicago Police Department who started the UNION Impact Center in 2007, a nonprofit that has worked with more than 1,500 youths. “A lot of the area has been abandoned by many institutions, including Chicago Public Schools and the Catholic church. It’s an area that really hasn’t received the support it needs to lift it up.”
The hole in the neighborhood is one residents have felt, according to neighborhood advocates. With nowhere to turn, many teenagers turn to drugs and gangs — like La Raza, 50 Strong and the Latin Saints.
“It’s like a cycle that never ends. Back of the Yards is the back yard of the city. It’s been abandoned. It’s been left behind," said Yanez, who ran for alderman of the 15th Ward in 2015. "Because that area has been abandoned, the gangs have been really aggressive in recruiting."
Another problem brewing in the neighborhood has to do with stigma — the idea that teenagers with arrest records are hopeless cases.
People who grew up in Back of the Yards say navigating trouble and learning from mistakes are nuances of life of the South Side that can't be ignored.
“There’s a bit of a misconception that maybe if a kid joins a gang or commits a crime or has an unexpected pregnancy or drops out of school that there’s nothing to do to help, [that] they’re hopeless,” Rivera said.
“I think about myself and my peers, and I can’t name one person from this community that hasn’t done something they regretted or what was risky as a teenager. Some of us were given more chances and opportunities. Others were shunned and boxed into this idea that they lost their way,” he said.
This neighborhood's struggle is compounded by a mistrust in public officials.
A federal grand jury last month indicted Cochran on charges of wire fraud, bribery and extortion. Prosecutors say he took $25,000 to support a gambling habit and $5,000 to pay his daughter's college tuition from a 20th Ward fund he set up to help kids and other local residents.
“You can’t have much faith in these elected officials,” Rivera said.
In an interview with DNAinfo Chicago, Cochran said his legal troubles will not get in the way of his job.
“The indictment has nothing to do with me carrying out my tasks. I have to do what I’m supposed to be doing to help the people of the 20th Ward,” Cochran said. “My legal team will handle the other part of that.”
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