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Is Rogers Park really as dangerous as people say?
May 21, 2009

Dear Cecil:

After weeks of weighing options in the search for an ideal apartment that has the space to accommodate my expanding needs, I've come to the conclusion that the best place would be Rogers Park. Yes, I'm having a hard time hearing myself say it. My search has taken me further and further north, starting off in the South Loop and traversing through the New East Side, River North, Streeterville, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park. After all that, I've come to find a few recent condominium developments further north in the Ravenswood/Rogers Park area that have room to spare, garages to park in, and the means to actually do laundry in my own place. And with gated, secured entry at reasonable rents that don't make my eyeballs pop from my head. I could hop the Rogers Park Metra to get into the Loop within a half hour. Everything seems fine about it ... except the reputation of the neighborhood. Is it still as bad as it used to be? Even further east near the lake? Some people say they've never had any problems even after living there for many years. Still others post blogs glorifying virtually every piece of bad news about the neighborhood ... gangs, crime, shootings, etc. You'd think it was the slums of Detroit or L.A. the way some describe it. How true is it all? Is it really the hellhole it's worked up to be?  

— Anamnesis, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

Short answer: no. Slightly more nuanced answer coming right up.

As you say, some people take a dour, nay, apocalyptic view of Rogers Park. One local blog, the Broken Heart of Rogers Park, can be found at morsehellhole.blogspot.com — that tells you all you need to know right there. Another, at rogersparkbench.blogspot.com ("Conservative commentary when it's needed most") runs stories along the lines of "Violent Crime Skyrockets in Rogers Park," accompanied periodically by lurid tales evidently gleaned from a police scanner.  To give these fellows their due, while they may be prone to exaggeration, it's not as if they're making things up.  There was that murder on the 2000 block of Howard Street a few weeks ago,  and the guy who apparently collapsed in a pool of blood by the el station a couple days after that. A police crackdown has made the drug dealers on Howard less conspicuous, but nobody thinks they all found work as baristas at Starbucks. Although I suppose it ranks fairly low among quality-of-life worries, the Jarvis el station still smells like a urinal. On the other hand, the consensus among the half-dozen people I spoke to, all of whom have lived or worked in the neighborhood for years, was that crime was diminishing, shops and restaurants were opening, and for the most part Rogers Park seemed to be on the way back. 

Some might be content to leave it at that, and write an on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that kind of story. At the Straight Dope, however, we believe in applying a little science to the situation, which in this case meant digging into the crime statistics, since the alleged lack of safety in Rogers Park has long been the paramount concern. Here's what I found.

I began by reviewing Chicago police annual reports since 1996. These show trends in "index crime" citywide and by police district. Index crimes are the scary ones, ranging from murder and rape to burglary and arson. The numbers, however, are upbeat: Compared to a decade ago, crime in Rogers Park is way down.

In 2007, the latest year for which detailed statistics are available, index crime in the 24th police district, which includes Rogers Park, was roughly half what it had been in 1996, and fell faster than for the city overall. It ought to be conceded that the 24th district also includes West Ridge, which to hear some tell it is a sylvan fastness with no crime to speak of, possibly distorting the numbers. However, since 2001, the police have also been reporting crime by community area, so we can look strictly at Rogers Park:

The time horizon is shorter, and the drop is less dramatic. But the story is basically the same: Crime in Rogers Park is much lower than it was.

How does Rogers Park compare to other Chicago neighborhoods? That took more effort to establish — while the police report crime by community, and list each community's population, they don't take the obvious next step of computing crime per capita. However, a couple hours with a spreadsheet produced the following (crime info pulled from the CPD's CLEARMap system):

The index crime rate in Rogers Park ranked 59th among the 77 community areas, lower than in popular neighborhoods like Lincoln Park (#29), Lake View (#41), and North Center (#46) — seemingly an encouraging result. But it's a bit deceiving, because index crime includes both violent crime and property crime. Affluent neighborhoods have a lot of theft and burglary, but street crime is what makes people quake. So I did another calculation for violent crime alone:

This time Rogers Park ranked higher — 42nd, still not bad, and as you can see, far less than some neighborhoods. But now a delicate question arose. How did Rogers Park compare to what we might call its peer neighborhoods — those having a certain cachet? I picked 15 communities that in my observation had experienced a significant amount of revitalization. Here's how they compared.

Here, it seems to me, we get a fix on things at last. At the high end of the scale we have the Loop, with its huge influx of weekday visitors — clearly a special case. Then the Near West and Near South sides, both formerly deteriorated areas experiencing rapid change. It's not surprising that in these neighborhoods violent crime remains relatively high. At the other end of the spectrum, and to my surprise I find myself including Edgewater and Uptown in this group, we find a collection of lakefront/Brown Line neighborhoods where violent crime is low by city standards. Index crime on the north lakefront is still five times higher than in Cook County suburbs, but, notwithstanding the odd trouble spot, my guess is most residents of these neighborhoods feel things are under control.

In the middle is a group of improving areas, Rogers Park among them, where people are probably less certain in that respect, no doubt because of occasional well-publicized incidents. Two obvious observations: (1) yes, these communities are more dangerous than some parts of town, but (2) in the grand scheme, whatever the excitable element may think, things really aren't that bad.

The long talks I had with Rogers Park residents reinforced these points. People had their complaints — if I were to start selling voodoo dolls in the likeness of 49th ward alderman Joe Moore, I'd make a million bucks — but on the whole they were sanguine about the community's prospects. The hookers on Clark and the drug dealers on Howard didn't do much to class up the neighborhood, but they weren't hitting you over the head with a pipe. The high school students who hung out (and sometimes acted out) on Morse Avenue …  yes, they could probably stand some guidance on constructive use of one's time. One fellow contended that while gang members sometimes shot each other, for the most part they didn't shoot you, which I personally didn't find entirely comforting. But you had a good coffee shop on Morse now, and the attractive collection of restaurants and stores at Jarvis and Greenview compensated for the disgusting el. The main thing was, and I have thought this for years, these were city people. They weren't going anywhere; they'd deal with what problems arose. If you decide to move to Rogers Park you'll want to exercise the usual precautions. That done, don't worry about it. You'll be fine.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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