Chicago – Hey, man. Hey, man. What you need?” The question is part solicitation, part challenge, and the challenge part is worth paying attention to in a city with more than 500 murders a year. The question comes from a young, light-skinned black guy with freckles. We’re in the shadow of what used to be the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects, only a 15-minute walk from the Hermès and Prada boutiques and the $32 brunch at Fred’s that identify Chicago’s Gold Coast as highly desirable urban real estate, a delightful assemblage of Stuff White People Like. Just down Division Street from the boutique hotels and the more-artisanal-than-thou Goddess and Grocer, Cabrini-Green is still in the early stages of gentrification, though it does have that universal identifier of urban reclamation: a Starbucks within view of another Starbucks.
All that remains of Cabrini-Green is sad stories and the original section of row houses around which the projects grew up. Those row houses are being renovated as part of the foundations-up effort to rebuild the neighborhood. Even the name “Cabrini-Green” is being scrubbed from memory: The new mixed-income development on the site of the old Cabrini-Green Extension heaves under the unbearably pretentious name “Parkside of Old Town.” But some of the old commerce remains, and Freckles is pretty clearly an entrepreneur of the street. “You buying?” I ask what he’s selling, and he explains in reasonably civil terms that he is not in the habit of setting himself up for entrapment on a narcotics charge.
Cabrini-Green has had its share of tourists — in 1999, the film Whiteboyz found a group of Wonder Bread–colored hip-hop fans from Iowa visiting the site. But real estate and the scarcity thereof is the ruling fact of urban life, and once downtown Chicago began to evolve from a place in which people worked in factories and warehouses into a place in which people work in litigation offices and university classrooms, Chicago’s near north began to fill up with the sort of people who prefer urban lofts to suburban picket fences, public transit to car commutes, and $32 Sunday brunches to church, all of them living in the orbit of Cabrini-Green. Chicago is a very liberal place, but it’s a very liberal place in which about half of the very liberal public-school teachers preach the virtues of the city’s very liberal public schools while sending their own kids to private schools. Chicago may vote for the party of housing projects, but nobody wants to live next to one, or even drive past one on the way to Trader Joe’s. One local tells of the extraordinary measures he used to take to avoid driving by Cabrini-Green, where children would pelt his car with bottles and trash whenever he stopped. And eventually, he learned not to stop at all, blowing through red lights on the theory that it was better to risk a moving violation than risk what the locals might do to him.
So they tore down Cabrini-Green. And they tore down the Robert Taylor Homes and the Henry Horner Homes and practically every other infamous housing project in the city. And in doing so, Chicago inadvertently exacerbated the crime wave that now has the city suffering more than twice as many murders every year as does Los Angeles County or Houston.
You cannot really understand Chicago without understanding the careers of Larry Hoover, David Barksdale, and Jeff Fort, the three kings of the modern Chicago criminal gang. Chicago has a long history of crime syndicates, of course, including Al Capone and his epigones. In the 1950s it had ethnic street gangs of the West Side Story variety, quaint in pictures today with their matching embroidered sweaters and boyish names: the Eagles, the Dragons. But in the 1960s, marijuana began to change all that. Marijuana, that kindest and gentlest of buzzes, was a major moneymaking opportunity, both for the international syndicates that smuggled it and for the street criminals at the point of purchase. Inspired partly by Chicago’s long mob history, partly by the nascent black-liberation ethic of the day, and a great deal by the extraordinary money to be made, Chicago’s black gangs came to dominate the marijuana business — an enterprise model that would soon become supercharged by cocaine and heroin. David Barksdale built a tightly integrated top-down management structure for his gang, the Black Disciples, while Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort did the same thing for their organizations, the Gangster Nation and the Black P-Stone Rangers, respectively. Barksdale and Hoover would later join forces as the Gangster Disciples, a group that, though faction-ridden, remains a key player on the Chicago crime scene today, with thousands of members — 53 of whom were arrested for murder in 2009 alone.