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Brighton Park Gang Violence: 'This Is A Crisis'

By Ed Komenda | January 13, 2017 8:20am
 The intersection of 43rd and Rockwell streets is a well-known trouble spot in Brighton Park where gangs fight over territory and seek revenge.
The intersection of 43rd and Rockwell streets is a well-known trouble spot in Brighton Park where gangs fight over territory and seek revenge.
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15th Ward

BRIGHTON PARK — For people living within a mile of Shields Elementary School, gang shootings are a part of life — but the people who have been here longest will tell you it wasn't always this way.

"I've lived here for 27 years," said one Brighton Park woman who would not share her name out of fear of gang retaliation. "I've seen it go from halfway decent to just disgusting. In the 1960s and '70s, this was the safest neighborhood in Chicago."

Brighton Park was a place where families walked the streets at all hours of the night, grabbed a bite to eat at booming restaurants and enjoyed weekend screenings at the Brighton Theatre.

Now it's a place where neighborhood folks feel safest behind locked doors.

From 2013 to 2016, the number of shootings each year in Brighton Park jumped from 16 to 64 — a 300 percent increase, according to a DNAinfo analysis. The number of people killed during that time increased from one in 2013 to 10 in 2016.

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 State Police. The larger the circle, the more shootings on the block:

Around 6 p.m. Wednesday, another gang fight erupted in the 3700 block of South Western Avenue, leaving a man dead and four other people wounded. 

A carload of gang members rolled up on a van filled with Satan's Disciples, a rival street gang, according to Chicago police.

Someone in the car sprayed the van with an assault weapon, killing 18-year-old David Gonzalez and wounding four others, authorities said. The victims who made it to Stroger Hospital alive were 18, 21, 22 and 25.

Investigating the scene, Police Department detectives found .223-caliber bullet casings fired from an assault weapon. Their discovery matched the size of ammunition used in a Dec. 16 shooting that killed two people and seriously wounded two others in front of a neighborhood market just blocks away.

"It’s tragic," said 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez. "We’re not talking about gangs that used to beat each other up. These are weapons of war that they’re using."

Fewer resources, more shootings

It's a complicated question with no easy answer: What's at the root of gang violence in Brighton Park?

A lack of resources, including school funds, employment services and after-school programs, has been one of the biggest contributors to gang violence in Brighton Park, neighborhood advocates say.

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, points to the $15 million in budget cuts at Brighton Park schools that put teachers, librarians and counselors out of work.

“This is a crisis, and there needs to be new resources put in the community," Brosnan said. “Schools have a vital role to play in violence prevention. You’re cutting their capacity to address violence.”

In 2012, the state budgeted $30 million to fund two programs that aimed to keep Chicago kids off the street and out of trouble. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative created 80 jobs for young adults and 50 for parents to serve as mentors in 20 Chicago neighborhoods. The Safety Net Works offered school-based counseling and crisis intervention to derail violence on the streets.

During its next budget-cutting season, the state slashed the funding in half. Today, those programs don't exist.

Over the next four years, the number of shootings in Brighton Park increased by 250 percent — from 15 in 2013 to 54 in 2016.

“This is the worst it’s ever been,” Brosnan said.

A citywide problem

In nearby Back of the Yards — a place struggling with its own gang violence — neighborhood advocates describe a similar resource-stripping that 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. With nowhere to turn, many teenagers turn to drugs and gangs — like La Raza, 50 Strong and the Latin Saints.

Many of the victims in gang shootings around Brighton Park and Back of the Yards are high school dropouts, according to Brosnan. That was the case for one 17-year-old shot several times a block from Shields Elementary last month and pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital.

In this gang-ridden slice of Brighton Park, about 37 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2013 analysis. Almost half of the population over 25 is without a high school diploma and half of residents between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed.

“They’re not in school. They’re disconnected,” said Brosnan, a neighborhood advocate since 1999 who has spent years watching kids fall out of the school system and end up in body bags. “They dropped out of school, and no one ever saw them again."

The solution, Brosnan said, has nothing to do with the number of police on the streets and everything to do with how state and city officials use resources to guide youths and help families survive tough economic times.

Today, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council uses grant money from the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council to run the “Leaders of Tomorrow” program, offering case managers and counselors to neighborhood schools to work with truant students.

"There needs to be more," he said. "It’s clearly not enough."

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