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A new program underway in Chicago intends on converting 50 vacant lots into gardens on the South and West sides. [Photo: Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Urban Violence

Fighting Gun Violence in Chicago, With Trees, Rakes, and Cleanup Crews

The city is investing millions in beautifying the public spaces where shootings are most likely to occur.

This story was published in partnership with The Chicago Reporter, an investigative newsroom focused on race, poverty, and income inequality.

Last spring, a Chicago resident fired off an email to her alderman complaining about the litter covering a vacant parcel of city-owned land near her home in the South Shore neighborhood. The appearance of the mess, she noted, had coincided with an increase in loitering outside the restaurant next door, the same restaurant where four men had been killed in a shooting two years earlier. 

The woman’s email drew a swift response from city officials. Early the next morning, a white van dropped off a cleanup crew to clear the vacant lot on East 75th Street and South Coles Avenue. The men worked for Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders and other job-seekers get back on their feet. The workers scooped empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and other detritus into plastic bags and tossed them into a garbage truck idling across the street. They also cleaned the sidewalk and trimmed a set of overgrown trees whose gnarled branches hung low, a potential hazard for inattentive passersby. “We wouldn’t want people to get hit in the eye walking by,” said Al Jacoby, the Safer Foundation’s director of transitional employment, as he watched the crew at work.

This course of events was the direct result of an innovative effort underway in Chicago to reduce gun violence by beautifying the public spaces where shootings are most likely to erupt. City leaders have bolstered spending on sprucing up streets, vacant lots, and public transportation lines, putting Chicago at the forefront of an emerging movement to harness neighborhood beautification initiatives as a prescription for the sort of violence that has cauterized daily life in the city. This year alone, Chicago directed $7.4 million to workforce development programs that put high-risk individuals to work greening areas in neighborhoods with high rates of shootings. 

The programs are backed by a wealth of research demonstrating that blight and violence often go hand in hand. One reason for the connection, scientists believe, is because blight decreases residents’ use of outdoor spaces. Criminals, in turn, are more apt to use those spaces to carry out illicit activities, believing that no one is likely to intervene. As blight begets more crime, residents flee, which leads to more blight — and more crime. 

“There is something about physical space that signals whether or not this is an area where crime can happen,” said Justin Heinze, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who has studied the impact of blight on crime rates. “This literature goes way back into the 1970s, and there’s a lot of evidence to support it.” 

Safer Foundation workers pick up garbage on a vacant lot in the South Shore neighborhood. The restaurant next to the lot was the scene of a quadruple homicide in 2017. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Similar beautification efforts have popped up in hundreds of cities and towns around the country, marking what one expert called “the most significant vacant property strategy” to have emerged over the past decade as local governments grappled with the fallout from the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis. Such programs have usually been justified as a mechanism for spurring economic growth, improving residents’ quality of life, and remedying general public safety problems.

In Chicago, gun violence is a long-running, deeply embedded affliction whose cure has eluded multiple administrations. The city has tallied 357 homicides so far this year, according to a running count by The Chicago Tribune. That is 51 fewer than last year, but still significantly more than in either New York or Los Angeles — which have much larger populations. The bloodshed has given Chicago an unwelcome level of notoriety, drawing international headlines, uprooting residents, and undercutting the local economy. 

But violence in Chicago is not distributed equally. Tourists who stay in the city’s gleaming downtown area may be baffled to learn that the city’s murder rate ranks among the highest in the country. That’s because the problem is heavily concentrated in small pockets of the South and West sides, the same areas where unkempt vacant lots, boarded-up houses, and litter are also common sights. 

Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has shown support for the beautification programs since entering office in May. This summer, she unveiled Grounds for Peace, a $250,000 pilot program that aims to convert 50 vacant lots into gardens on the South and West sides. Lightfoot campaigned vowing to reorient Chicago’s broader violence prevention approach with a smarter mix of policing and community-based programs, and though she has faced criticism for some of her actions thus far, the pilot gives her supporters something to hold up as evidence that she is moving to deliver on those promises.  

The Grounds for Peace pilot marks a partnership between the city and READI Chicago, a Heartland Alliance program that provides job training, therapy, and other services to young men who are most at risk of being perpetrators or victims of violence. Dozens of those men will be involved in greening the vacant lots, which were selected because of their proximity to high-crime areas in the neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Englewood, and North Lawndale. The work is being overseen by Urban Growers Collective, another nonprofit. The collective will train the young men in property maintenance and landscaping — skills that can help them land jobs later on. 

“This is a really progressive thing for a city to spearhead,” said Erika Allen, the co-founder of the Urban Growers Collective, as she supervised READI participants planting sunflower seeds across a lot in Woodlawn in July. “These guys are really trying, and in the end, they’ll walk away having done something that impacts everybody in a positive way.” 

From a national perspective, experts say that beautification offers an apolitical option for violence prevention at a time when debate is raging over tougher gun control measures. “It’s a solution for reducing gun violence that doesn’t have to do with the Second Amendment,” said Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied beautification initiatives. “That’s a major plus for this approach.” 

Lori Lightfoot made reducing gun violence a key plank of her mayoral campaign. [Kamil Krzaczynsk/ Getty]

The budding enthusiasm for beautification comes as Congress and the White House remain deadlocked over a raft of proposals to curb shootings, including a universal background check bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had vowed to take up. One piece of legislation that has garnered much less attention is a measure introduced in April by Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from northeast Ohio. The bill would provide federal funds to help clean up vacant lots, tear down abandoned buildings, and complete other beautification projects. It has yet to move out of committee. 

Meanwhile, a diverse cross-section of the scientific community has coalesced around the notion that beautification presents an effective, low-cost crime-fighting tool, with multiple studies showing that violence tends to fall after blight is eradicated. 

In one experiment, researchers found that gun assaults dropped 29 percent in high-poverty areas surrounding vacant lots a year and a half after they were mowed, graded, or otherwise treated through a public-private partnership in Philadelphia. The study’s authors concluded that were the same treatments applied to vacant lots citywide, Philadelphia could expect to record 350 fewer shootings each year. 

The findings mirror those from another study published in August, in which scientists reported that an effort to demolish vacant and abandoned buildings in Detroit was associated with an 11 percent reduction in gun assaults. 

Importantly, neither study found that the violence was simply displaced to other neighborhoods. 

Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who was involved in both studies, said the fact that so much research has connected blight remediation to decreased levels of violence was striking. “Typically, if you run multiple studies, they don’t show the same thing,” Branas said. “But these have been triangulating to show the same findings across different scientific studies conducted in different scientific ways.” 

Researchers have long surmised that in addition to signaling that a neighborhood is not being watched or cared for, overgrown lots and vacant buildings might provide good hiding spaces for illegal guns. Ethnographers who interviewed young people as part of the Philadelphia study found that drug dealers also stowed their weapons in cars often parked in front of vacant lots or abandoned buildings. 

Heinze, the University of Michigan professor who has independently studied the impact of vacant property beautification in Flint, said the growing body of research could have implications nationwide. “There are a lot of cities in the country that have thousands upon thousands of empty, vacant, or dilapidated properties that would be candidates for this type of activity,” he said. “The more of those properties that we get greened, I think the stronger the effect on violence and crime is going to be.” 

But even as evidence builds around beautification’s amelioratory effects on crime, experts caution that the approach is not a panacea. Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress who has written extensively about the growth in vacant properties around the United States, said beautification needs to be accompanied by social services and community programs that increase community engagement and lift residents up the socioeconomic ladder. 

“If you’re going to be serious about trying to use this as a way to address gun violence, it’s got to be part of the strategy, not the whole thing,” Mallach said. “People have a tendency to look for the magic bullet that’s going to fix things, but outside of comic strips, magic bullets don’t exist.” 

Workers plant sunflower seeds on a vacant lot as part of a new pilot program called Grounds for Peace. A senior mayoral advisor who helped develop the program said sunflowers were chosen because they symbolize hope and resilience. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

Residents, particularly those who feel like their communities have long been antagonized or neglected by the local government, might look at a beautification program with suspicion and be reluctant to get involved, experts say. The problem cropped up recently in Detroit, where the city embarked on a massive tree-planting initiative only to get pushback from residents who were unhappy with the fact that they had not been involved with the planning process from the beginning. Women interviewed by one researcher said the initiative reminded them of an era from right after the city’s 1967 race rebellion, when Detroit started chopping down trees and spraying them with toxic DDT from helicopters. The city said the the trees were dying from disease; the women saw it as an effort to help law enforcement surveil their neighborhood. 

“In this case, the women felt that (after the race rebellion) the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” the researcher, Christine Carmichael, told Pacific Standard. “But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

In Chicago, organizers of the Grounds for Peace pilot say they are well aware of these pitfalls and are hoping to overcome them by building relationships with community members. “Our goal is to provide meaningful activation, and hopefully the data comes back to show that just even doing this activation has disrupted some crime patterns in the area and, because of that, it’s worthwhile to continue the program and deepen those connections,” said Allen of the Urban Growers Collective. 

Brandon Whitmore, 30, was part of a READI team planting sunflower seeds on the vacant lot in Woodlawn one scorching July afternoon. He had paused to eat a snow cone on the sidewalk when a reporter approached. “The work is more than I expected, but accomplishing this feels good,” he said, adding: “I think it will have a domino effect. Once the community sees us out here, hopefully, they’ll come together and change things for the better.” 

Some residents are less convinced. Nicole Robinson, a 37-year-old hairstylist who lives in an apartment next to the lot, said she thought the sunflowers enhanced the aesthetics of the neighborhood, but she was skeptical that the changes would make the area safer. “It’s a positive thing as far as my vision, but I don’t think it will have an effect on violence,” she said. “It takes a community to affect violence. Not that.” 

Grounds for Peace was directly inspired by the study on the vacant lot program in Philadelphia. Lauren Speigel said she stumbled upon the research during the course of her “usual reading” not long after joining the administration of Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, as an advisor in 2018. 

Speigel believed that implementing a similar program in Chicago would help fill out the city’s anti-violence approach. “If you only provide social services and policing, it feels like you’re only getting at part of the issue,” she said. “In order to be truly comprehensive, I think we also need to look at the environment as one of the things that we can address.” 

The $250,000 used to launch the pilot came out of the extra $2 million in funding that Emanuel secured for workforce development programs before leaving office this year. Planning carried over into the new administration under Lightfoot, who campaigned on promises to reorient the city’s approach to gun violence by emphasizing more community-based programs. 

Meanwhile, the funding boost has allowed established beautification programs to hire extra workers, raise wages, and reach areas that might previously have gone untouched. 

“Historically, I haven’t operated for 12 months a year; I’ve operated for as long as I can make whatever monies they budgeted for the program last,” said Jacoby, who oversees the Safer Foundation’s Neighborhood Cleanup Program. “But this new money can put more people to work for a longer period of time.” 

A Greencorps crew digs holes in preparation to install a new fence around a vacant lot in West Englewood. Eventually, the lot will be transformed into an urban farm featuring herbs and vegetables. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

In 2018, Safer Foundation crews collected more than 60,000 bags of trash and debris, weighing an estimated 1.8 million pounds, Jacoby said. One morning in his office, Jacoby handed a reporter a map of the city. The neighborhoods where his workers had done most of their recent cleaning were circled in pen. “If you notice, the majority of our work is in some of the more violent areas of the city,” he said. 

The employment aspect of these programs is key, as social service providers who work in Chicago’s violence prevention realm say one of the main reasons people engage in criminal activities is because they can’t find another way to make ends meet. That is why the programs that gained from the additional funds are geared toward hiring people with criminal records. The programs provide them a wage for cleaning and beautifying neighborhoods while helping them obtain skills, certifications, and other services so they can eventually land better-paying jobs with local companies. 

They include people like Faith Smith, a 40-year-old mother who worked as a substitute teacher in the Chicago public school system before she got pulled over with an illegal gun in her purse. The incident, Smith said, resulted in her first and only felony conviction, a black mark that she blames for her many unsuccessful attempts to find another job. She said she applied for positions back in the school system, for a custodial position at a hospital, and to drive a delivery truck for Amazon. 

“Every job turned their back on me,” she lamented. 

Some time later, Smith learned about the Safer Foundation’s Neighborhood Cleanup Program from a friend and signed up this year. She was part of the crew that helped sweep the area around East 75th Street and South Coles Avenue in April, after the resident complained about an increase in litter near where four men were fatally shot in 2017. 

“Do I want something better? Yeah,” Smith said as she broke from hauling trash bags up the sidewalk, earbuds dangling down the sides of her face. “But without this, I wouldn’t be able to take care of my son.” 

Elsewhere, publicly funded initiatives are fundamentally transforming entire properties. At the southwest corner of 58th and Ada streets in Englewood, a city program named Greencorps Chicago has taken a grassy, trash-strewn lot and is working to turn it into an urban farm. 

A group of a little more than a half-dozen Greencorps workers fanned out across the site one overcast morning in April to begin replacing the drab chain-link fence and make way for an 18-inch retaining wall constructed of brick-filled gabion baskets, essentially small cages used to hold back earth and water. Eventually, workers plan to  lay down wood chips and fresh soil, paving the way for crops like tomatoes, onions, and herbs to take root. 

Carlos Jackson, a 78-year-old retiree, has lived in a house across the street for 40-some-odd years and said the lot has sat empty for much of that time. He was excited that the city might finally put it to good use. “It’s going to be a huge improvement,” he said. “It wasn’t nothing; now, it’s going to be something.” 

Across violence-wracked parts of the city, Greencorps workers have helped install raised garden beds, erect arbors, and fashion landscapes capable of capturing rainwater and alleviating pressure on the city’s struggling stormwater system, said Andy Johnson, the Greencorps program director. 

“What’s good for the environment is usually good for people, and what’s good for people is a strong factor in the projects we look for,” Johnson said. “We hope that we’re helping improve people’s outlook on the world.” 

Greenscorp received an additional $700,000 from the city this year, money that has allowed the program to raise wages and open positions for more employees, Johnson said. Greencorps is a partnership between the Chicago Department of Transportation and WRD Environmental. 

Jasmine Davenport, 33, said she enlisted in Greenscorp after seeing a flyer hanging in a public aid office. “Why not be a part of something that can change your neighborhood for the better?” she said. “All this gun violence is happening; we need a bright spot in the city.”