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Why does downtown Chicago seem safer than downtown L.A.?
February 4, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I attended a computer conference in Chicago in 1995. We stayed at a hotel downtown. We went walking along the lake to the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. I've never felt safer in any of my travels. We saw a lot of cops on bicycles and cars. People were walking and jogging along the lake. Moms with baby strollers were enjoying the sunshine. It was hard to believe this was a big city in 1995. In contrast, we stayed at the Biltmore in L.A. There were scary people hanging around right outside the door. We were warned not to even walk to a restaurant unless we were in groups of 10. Does Chicago have special police protection downtown? How do they keep it so clean and welcoming? My trip there was the best travel experience I've ever had.

— aceplace57, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Boy, we sure had you fooled, didn't we?

Actually, you raise a touchy subject. For starters, although downtown Chicago arguably has less crime than downtown L.A., it seems clear you're not basing your favorable impression on the police blotter. Rather, in 1995 you saw more ordinary people on the streets here (joggers, moms with babies, cops) and more "scary people" in L.A. — and by scary I'm guessing you mean homeless. Chances are you'd say the same if you visited both towns now. Los Angeles mayor Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa has described his city as "the capital of homelessness in America." The homeless are especially conspicuous in downtown L.A., where the Millennium Biltmore Hotel is. Chicago has its share of homeless people, and more than its share of crime — but neither is especially high profile downtown, notwithstanding the occasional incident. That's not because of police sweeps, though. Rather, it's fair to say Chicago, for better or worse, has moved its problems somewhere else. 

The first thing to realize is that, although crime has dropped in both towns, Chicago as a whole was somewhat more dangerous than L.A. in 1995 and is considerably more dangerous now.  Here are the numbers for 1995 and 2008, as compiled by the FBI:

VIOLENT CRIME 19951
 

MURDER2

ROBBERY

AGGR. ASSAULT

City Number Rate/100K Number Rate/100K Number Rate/100K
Chicago 824 30 30,086 1,094 39,025 1,419
Los Angeles 849 24 29,134 841 38,945 1,124
VIOLENT CRIME 2008
Chicago 510 18 16,553 589 17,032 602
Los Angeles 384 10 13,422 349 11,798 306
1Rape statistics not comparable. 2Includes nonnegligent manslaughter. Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, Table 8, "Number  of Offenses Known to Law Enforcement."

The rates tell the story. Even in 1995 Los Angeles was safer than Chicago, and today it's a lot safer.

Not so downtown. Direct comparison between central business districts is difficult, since workers far outnumber residents and crime rates per x population don't mean much. One way to get around this problem is to compare crimes per square mile. Here's what we find: 

DOWNTOWN1 VIOLENT CRIME 2008
 

MURDER

ROBBERY

AGGR. ASSAULT2

City Number Rate/Sq.Mi. Number Rate/Sq.Mi. Number Rate/Sq.Mi
Chicago 7 0.8 806 93 534 62
Los Angeles 6 1.2 547 111 523 106
1For Chicago, downtown = 1st (Loop and near south side) and18th (near north side) police districts, 8.63 square miles. For L.A., downtown = LAPD Central Division, 4.91 square miles.  2For Chicago, combines aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Source: CPD, LAPD annual reports.

Conclusion: downtown Chicago is noticeably safer than downtown L.A.

Let's turn to homeless populations. Here the difference between the two cities is striking. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles had 69,000 homeless people as of 2008, the most of any U.S. city. Of these, 57,000 were "unsheltered," i.e., on the street. Chicago in contrast had only 6,000 homeless, of whom 1,600 were on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) reports a larger number — 21,000 on any given night, 74,000 over the course of a year as of 2006 — but most of those people are doubled up with friends or relatives, not living in cardboard boxes and such. Why the big disparity in people on the street? The obvious explanation is the weather, although you'll get some debate about that. The point is, homelessness is a lot more visible in Los Angeles than here.

Mere numbers don't tell the whole story, though, and it's here we get to the touchy part. In addition to likely having had a smaller problem to start with, Chicago over the past 40 years has made a concerted effort to rid its central area of the scruffy element, including not just the homeless but down-on-their-luck types generally. Here's a partial list of what was done:

  • Skid row demolition. The Loop at one time was ringed by single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels — what used to be called flophouses, where a sleeping space could be had for 50 cents a night. The biggest concentration, with some 2,800 rooms, stood on west Madison Street. It was torn down in the early 1970s using urban renewal money and ultimately replaced by luxury housing. Many other SROs have been razed since. According to figures compiled by CCH, the number of SRO units in the city dropped from 53,000 in 1973 to 13,000 in 1996.

  • Removal of homeless encampments. The best known of these was on Lower Wacker Drive, where dozens of homeless could be found sleeping on loading docks and other out-of-the-way spots on any given night. In the mid-1990s, the city began forcibly removing these individuals, tossing out their belongings and fencing off the places where they stayed. This led to an outcry and legal action by homeless advocates; more on this below.

  • Relocation of downtown homeless shelters. This is a relatively recent development. The Pacific Garden Mission, which was located for many years in the now-gentrified South Loop, moved to a new facility in an industrial area at 14th and Canal in 2007. The Chicago Christian Industrial League's facility just west of the Loop moved to Roosevelt and California. Other shelters have also relocated.

Not all of this was accomplished gently. A class-action suit filed by CCH in the wake of the Lower Wacker sweeps resulted in a settlement in which the city agreed to give notice prior to cleaning out encampments and allow the homeless to relocate their possessions. The city has since embarked on a plan to end homelessness by 2012. One may entertain some skepticism about the likelihood of accomplishing this goal; nonetheless, having talked things over with CCH executive director Ed Shurna and Jim LoBianco, the city's deputy commissioner for homeless services, I'd say there appears to be a genuine effort to get people into housing or programs and not simply to harass them into going somewhere else. Be that as it may, while "scary people" haven't disappeared from downtown Chicago, you're less likely to see them than you might have been 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, the city has had great success in attracting middle-class residents downtown. The subject is too complicated to explore here, but a few numbers will give the idea. Between 1980 and 2000, 32,000 dwellings were constructed downtown, and the population increased 56 percent. The boom continued for quite a few years after that; some were projecting a downtown population of 165,000 by this year, more than double what it had been a decade earlier. In light of the economic crash that may be optimistic, but there's no question Chicago's core is bustling.

The result of all this, some argue, is that Chicago looks a good deal healthier than it actually is. Even today a downtown visitor doesn't need to travel very far south or west to find neighborhoods as desolate as anything you'd encounter in Detroit. The public school system has made some progress but on the whole is still dismal. The poverty rate remains stubbornly high. Los Angeles has its problems too, but over the past 60 years has done much better than Chicago and in some ways is in stronger shape now. Yet despite improvements, a business traveler staying in downtown L.A. is likely to think, what a rathole, while visitors to downtown Chicago figure, hey, my kind of town. No special police protection is required to create that impression; rather, it's the result of a longstanding policy of pouring resources into the urban core.

So, Ace, am I claiming what you were seeing was an illusion? No, not exactly. Chicago has clearly stabilized; other midwestern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Saint Louis haven't. Few would dispute that the resurgence of downtown was an important part of that. On the other hand, when you're strolling down Michigan Avenue on a nice day, it's easy to kid yourself the city's problems have all been solved, and they haven't.

The fact is, at this point most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked — and I say that fully recognizing the herculean effort required to get things this far. The north side of the city is thriving, but it wasn't in bad shape to start with. Much of the south and west sides, in contrast, needs wholesale reconstruction. For a while the housing bubble made it appear this could be accomplished quickly, but the boom is over, and it seems likely we're in for a long stretch of little or no growth. In short, Ace, it's great you enjoyed your visit to Chicago; we agree downtown is a lot of fun. But many people here are thinking: what next?  

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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