Robbie Johnson is raising her family’s fourth generation of children in North Lawndale. As a little girl there, she felt safe and free — but the neighborhood, she said, has changed. “It was easier for me to walk to the corner store,” Johnson said. “Now, I don’t want my son walking nowhere.” Even though he’s 21, she continues to drive him around the corner to the gym. 

Johnson doesn’t just look out for her own children. As the outreach community coordinator at The Firehouse Community Arts Center, Johnson is also looking to connect with the youth who are causing harm. “I’m not afraid of my children in my community,” she said. She’s sympathetic, and understands that kids are just trying to survive; with the higher cost of living, she said, many have resorted to violence to feed themselves and their families. But other residents, she added, are scared of young people; when they see them, they run into their homes. 

The sense that the peace has been shattered in certain parts of Chicago is backed by data, even as gun violence declines in the city overall. In 2023, North Lawndale recorded the highest increase of shootings, going from 147 in 2022 to 166. While the city saw a 16 percent decline, North Lawndale joined 16 other neighborhoods that saw the opposite — more shootings in 2023 compared to 2022. Three areas experienced the most gun violence in their history since 2010: Fuller Park, West Elsdon, and Hyde Park. Residents and organizers said the rise is a wakeup call for the city to be more proactive in certain neighborhoods and further invest in resources residents continue to ask for: affordable housing, employment, community centers, and youth programming.

The disparity between neighborhoods, Johnson said, is clear. “How is it that we got all these killings and then next door, in Oak Park, there’s no killings?” Johnson asked. “It’s devastating.” Many people, she said, give up, because the problem seems intractable.

Time and time again the city has said it will invest in communities most affected by gun violence. But several advocates and residents told The Trace that many still feel left behind. Chicago’s Community Safety Coordination Center has 15 high-priority community areas where it has focused its efforts in reducing gun violence. Only four of the 17 neighborhoods that saw a rise in shootings in 2023 are included. This year, Mayor Brandon Johnson narrowed that list even further in his community safety plan, which focuses on 10 block groups in Englewood, West Garfield Park, Austin, and South Lawndale. Just one of the 17 neighborhoods that saw an increase in 2023 is on this shorter list.

The Firebird Community Arts Center, where Robbie Johnson works. Rita Oceguera for The Trace

The mayor’s and deputy mayor of community safety’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

‘An Idle Mind Is the Devil’s Workplace’ 

Take a trip to North Lawndale. Organizers and residents say the streetscape alone is evidence of disinvestment. “North Lawndale is an almost deserted, forgotten community,” said Stephen Gilbert, the director of youth and community development at My Block, My Hood, My City. Instead of grocery stores and recreational centers, he said, liquor stores and gas stations dot most corners.

“My grandmother used to say: ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workplace,’” Gilbert said. If youth aren’t provided recreational activities and opportunities, he said, they feel “hopeless.”

Many residents feel frustrated and excluded. “You feel like the money is not distributed equally,” said Heriberto Flores, a resident of West Elsdon, where shootings have quadrupled from four in 2010 to 16 in 2023. While the numbers may seem low, the gun violence has made an impact on the small community, Flores said in Spanish. He’s lived in the area for two decades and he’s noticed more criminal activity from youth. He himself weathered four burglaries in the past six years.

One common thread people mentioned is youth involvement on all ends of the crisis. Chicago Police Department data shows that young people under 30 were the victims of almost 55 percent of shootings in 2023; they also made up 66 percent of homicide “offenders” in 2022.

Flores runs a soccer club called Deportivo 59 Futbol Club. In 2022, a few teens ran through Pasteur Park shooting at each other during practice. He was told that bystanders threw themselves to the ground. No one was hurt, but it had a lasting impact. “There were people who didn’t return to the program,” Flores said. “They were scared the hoodlums would come back.”

It seems like the government waits until there are many fatal shootings before they take action, Flores said, noting that it would be “better to be proactive rather than reactive.” 

A soccer field in the West Elsdon neighborhood of Chicago. Rita Oceguera for The Trace

Changing Neighborhoods See Cracks in Community Unity

Many neighborhoods experiencing heightened gun violence are also seeing demographic changes. In 2004, when Flores moved into West Elsdon, he had more white neighbors, many of them Polish. During that time, he said, he often saw police patrolling. But as his Polish neighbors left and more Latinos moved in, he slowly stopped seeing police. They need to be more responsive, he said.

In March, he said, someone tried to break into his home while his wife was alone. He hurried to get home, but was 40 minutes away. She called the police but it took them more than two hours to arrive. “I don’t understand why the police don’t pay attention to us.” As Latinos, he said, they often face language barriers. “Sometimes we don’t build up the courage to speak up and ask for things we deserve.”

Similarly in North Lawndale, Johnson said residents used to know police officers by name. Now, she said, they don’t know the officers, those running to become their elected officials, and often, their own neighbors. 

“We’re missing the village that we had when I was a young girl,” Johnson said. If she was getting into trouble, a neighbor would call her out or call her mother. Back then, she said, the community would help raise the kids together. Nowadays, she said, parents have to make a choice: work longer hours or cut back to watch their kids. Often, poverty makes that choice for them.

Calvin Brown, system program director at the Southwest Organizing Project, said his group is using block parties to reconnect the village. His organization serves four areas that experienced more gun violence in 2023: West Elsdon, Gage Park, Ashburn, and Chicago Lawn. As the weather warms up, he said, residents want to enjoy the neighborhood, but are afraid to do so.

His organization throws block parties on streets where criminal activity has occurred. There, they show perpetrators the life their neighbors wish to have — one where kids are able to ride their bikes and play freely without fear of being shot. The organization is also able to facilitate conversations between the perpetrators and those affected by violence, Brown said. Sometimes they come to an understanding on how to keep illicit activities away from children.

Numbers Don’t Tell the Full Picture

These neighborhoods are more than just numbers, advocates and residents said, and sometimes a sense of progress — or tragedy — gets lost in the data. Announcements that cheerlead reductions in gun violence, Gilbert said, can feel like they’re meant to pacify when in reality, “one life is too many.”

He said he wants the city to act faster in response to neighborhoods in need. “We’re losing kids. We’re losing community members,” he said. “We need to be more about that action than just talk.”

Nancy Goede, parish pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church, said “people are experiencing more economic desperation.” That need, she said, led to more armed robberies in Hyde Park. Shootings in the affluent neighborhood have increased in the past three years, reaching a high of 19 last year.

But rather than giving that area more resources, Goede said, the city should help the struggling neighboring communities and focus on the poverty and racist structures that drive violence.

Chicago’s Fuller Park neighborhood saw the most shootings since 2010 last year. Rita Oceguera for The Trace

The narrative around gun violence has changed dramatically, said Dan Kotowski, the board chair of One Aim Illinois, a gun violence prevention organization. “Elected officials realize that they will be held accountable if they don’t support policy measures that keep people safe.” He said prevention includes calling out the gun industry that makes and distributes firearms.

Kotowski, who is also the president and CEO of Kids Above All, an organization focused on child welfare and education, noted that the top cause of death for children is gun related. “We need to exhaust every single measure, every single component of resources that we have available to make sure that our kids are going to be safe.”

A neighborhood’s jump in gun violence doesn’t necessarily mean that the area is on the downturn, said Edwin Galletti, vice president of violence intervention and prevention services at UCAN Chicago. He’s seen fewer incidents overall, he said, but more mass shootings in which modified weapons injure more victims.

“Numbers can be skewed,” Galletti said. “But in the end, data does tell us what’s going on; and what it tells us is that it [the city and community’s response] is working, but it’s not done.”