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How can I find out what neighborhoods are safe?
April 9, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Is the South Side of Chicago the baddest part of town? Need answer fast.
Dude named Leroy Brown wants to shoot some pool
…

— Oakminster, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

The folks on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board kicked this one around for a while, and the consensus was that Chicago is one of those places where things change block by block, and maybe hour by hour. One of the little researchers, who attends Lincoln Park High School, reports that the surrounding neighborhood has the possibly unique distinction of becoming safer after dark. By then the billionaires who live in the school's immediate vicinity are back from work (seriously, have you walked down Orchard or Burling streets lately? They've got enough limestone and ornamental ironwork to open their own embassy row), while the more rambunctious LPHS students have returned to their home turf, or at least gone somewhere else. Jarring contrasts are what you expect in the big city, of course, and 20 years ago if you were new in town you'd have to take your chances and hope you didn't move in next to a crack house. But we live in an amazing age. Today online tools make it easier, though still not easy, to suss out your environs.  So let's try a little thought experiment. Suppose you're newly arrived from Neptune. The mothership has equipped you with a grasp of English, a laptop, and an Internet connection. But you don't know a soul. You need a place to live — ideally reasonably safe, convenient, and well situated to observe local culture. What do you do?

Step 1. Get the neighborhoods figured out. You can't understand crime or anything else in Chicago without knowing something about the neighborhoods. That's easier said than done. The real estate sites refer to mysterious localities such as Roscoe Village and Bronzeville. Where are they? The official community area map, originally created by U. of C. sociologists in the 1920s, is no help. The city's newer Chicago Neighborhoods map is better if not altogether trustworthy — I'm sorry, the northern border of Streeterville isn't Grand Avenue. But even the best neighborhood map all by itself won't tell you much. This Graceland West, for example — is that where Elvis lives?

What you want is an interactive online map. Nothing entirely satisfactory has surfaced, but here are the best I can find so far:

  • The beer map (creator: Sean Parnell). You have to like the concept — clicking on a neighborhood takes you to reviews of the local joints. Maybe not a 100 percent reliable method of neighborhood evaluation, but it's a start.

  • Real estate maps. These are mostly produced by people trying to sell you condos and such — this one lets you click on a neighborhood for a thumbnail description. These are fine as far as they go, but real estate agents being what they are, you know you're getting a rosy spin.

  • The facts map (creator: Alex Wedemeyer). Clicking on a neighborhood pulls up demographic info. This is useful if a bit dry in spots. It's helpful to know average rent in Ashburn on the southwest side is a thrifty $496 a month. But do we really need to know the community is at longitude  minus 87.70, latitude 41.75?

  • The photo map (creator: Jordan Bettis). Clicking on a neighborhood takes you to a gallery of photos thereof, which may help answer the question: Can you see living here?

  • The typographical map, created by Chicago graphic artist Jenny Beorkrem. OK, it's not interactive. It's just cool.

  • The money map. Another noninteractive map that nonetheless provides a useful dataset: average income for different parts of town.

  • The ultimate interactive neighborhood map. Sorry, it hasn't been invented yet — but we're closer than you think. Patience, I'm saving that till last.

Step 2. Check out the crime situation. Having established in a general way where you want to live, you can now turn to the core question: Never mind the amenities, what are my chances of getting hassled, robbed, or killed? Here, I'm happy to say, the future has arrived, in the form of the Chicago Police Department's CLEARMap system. Want the names, photos, and approximate addresses of sex offenders near your prospective abode? CLEARMap can provide them. More pertinently for our purposes, it can generate a map showing all reported crimes for any two-week period within the past three months for any city address. Let's walk through an example:

  • Go to ClearMAP, click on "crime incidents," and type in 11 E. Illinois, the address of the Reader office. (What do you mean, it's not a residential building? Tell that to the proofreaders sleeping under the desks.)

  • In "search distance," select "1/2 mile."

  • In "crime types," click on "all."

  • Click "go."

  • When the map appears, click on "MapView" at the lower right. This displays all the crimes occurring in the area depicted by the map.

This produces the following:

Seeing all those little masks, you may think: (a) how nice, they're having a costume party! or (b) my God, it's a carnival of crime. The latter is more like it. By far the most common crime in River North, denoted by the masks, is larceny (theft), not unexpected in a busy commercial area. (Rolling the mouse over a symbol pulls up details of the underlying incident.) Some neighborhoods have worse problems, frankly. Notice the syringe symbols in the west side map at the top of this column? They represent drug arrests, and judging from the concentration, I'd guess you've got dealers selling on the street.


Highest crime areas (dark color), from left to right: by police district, community area, ward, and police beat

CLEARMap shows why it's silly to ask what the baddest part of town is: the more detail you get into, the murkier the answer. Its "crime summary" page graphically demonstrates this — depending on how we slice up the citywide data, we get drastically different results (see illustration above):

  • By police district. This is the way crime statistics are usually reported. CLEARMap tells us that, sure enough, two of the three districts with the most crime are on the south side and the third is on the west side. But the police districts take in huge swaths of the city and lump together all sorts of neighborhoods. We need an analysis that's a little more fine-grained.

  • By community area. The community areas are the closest to a neighborhood breakdown we can get. West and south side communities have a lot of crime, no question. But notice what's added (second map from left): the north lakefront communities, stretching from Lakeview to the Loop. 

  • By ward. Yet another picture emerges. The two most crime-ridden wards, the 42nd and 2nd, include the Gold Coast, Michigan Avenue, and the Loop, and the third-most, the 32nd, takes in the western half of Lincoln Park — a surprising result until you think: where's the most to steal? 

  • By police beat. The finest-grain detail of all, and look what it shows us: the largest cluster of high-crime beats is on the southwest (not south) side, with tough patches scattered all over.

At this point the visitor from Neptune may think: I'll never get a handle on this town. Not easily, no. But from a certain point of view, that's not a problem, it's an opportunity. Here we return to the subject raised earlier. It's not hard to imagine an interactive community information system — something that would let you click on the home of a prospective neighbor and learn, "HAS YAPPY LITTLE DOG." Privacy considerations being what they are, we probably won't ever get to that level of detail. But the day of hyperlocal news reporting looms. We see inklings of this at chicago.everyblock.com, the remarkable venture masterminded by Chicago Web genius Adrian Holovaty, whose team has done similar sites for 10 other large U.S. cities. The idea is to collect information from sundry online sources — everything from police reports to blogs — and let you sort it by ZIP code, neighborhood, ward or simply proximity to an address. In short, it's a local information system, the sort of service newspapers (if you'll forgive my dragging my own preoccupations into this) once aspired to provide — and in fact Holovaty, a journalist by training, is widely regarded as one of the potential saviors of the news business. At the moment EveryBlock skews a bit heavily toward reports of mayhem, but at times, especially when blogs get pulled into the mix, you get a glimpse of the online conversation among neighbors that may yet emerge from the cacophony of the Internet. (For an example, look for information on Uptown using EveryBlock and sort on "locations in the media.") No one claims EveryBlock represents the new face of local news in its entirety. But five minutes is enough to convince you it's a critical part.

— Cecil Adams

Follow STRAIGHT DOPE CHICAGO on twitter, assuming Little Ed remembers to send the feeds out, and if nothing else observe his fumblings with a technology that is obviously beyond him.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to cecil@chicagoreader.com or post them on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board.

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