Demolitions fail to curb crime

By Editorial Board

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Aug. 31 that the Department of Buildings demolished its 100th vacant building linked to gang-related activity. These buildings are being destroyed as part of the mayor’s aggressive—and so far unsuccessful—anti-gang strategy. With a homicide rate 30 percent higher than last year’s, maybe creating vacant lots in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods isn’t the solution we need.

Getting rid of empty, structurally unsafe buildings cures the symptom of gangs using them for their operations, but the actual disease is neighborhood disorder. Leaving a vacant lot may hurt the neighborhood’s safety in the long run. These lots should be converted into public spaces, thereby removing crime and replacing it with positive change in the community. Turning empty lots into green spaces makes neighborhood residents feel safer and can even lower violent crime rates, according to a study published last August by the University of Pennsylvania. The Mayor’s Office, the Police Department and the Department of Buildings should work with aldermen in affected neighborhoods to convert these vacant lots into something useful to the community. Building parks, community centers or affordable housing could turn these neighborhoods around and should be seriously considered as a crime prevention measure.

Emanuel is quick to point out that overall crime is down 10 percent. Homicide in Englewood, one of the high-risk neighborhoods targeted by these demolitions, has gone down 25 percent, according to Emanuel. Compared to the citywide 30 percent increase in homicide, these numbers are actually troubling for Emanuel’s strategy, which relies on a narrow focus on high-crime neighborhoods.

The mayor has very little evidence to support his claim that building demolitions actually prevent crime. Instead, it would appear that his initiative has been very successful at moving crime. Emanuel’s strategy has failed, a fact the mayor is still in denial about. Chicago needs a course


The “broken windows theory,” famously implemented in New York City by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1993, states that urban disorder promotes crime. Fix the broken windows in a neighborhood, and criminals will stay away. Demolishing buildings is a step in this direction, but allowing vacant lots to take their place doesn’t do much to improve a community.

Demolition is a cheap solution. The mayor’s strategy is based on these cheap solutions. But if the city wants to reduce crime rather than maintain the status quo, it is going to take a concerted effort. Chicago may not have money to spend on community building projects, but it also doesn’t have time to wait for crime to go away.

Emanuel’s strategy does more budget rearranging than actual spending. Most of the new police officers on the streets were reassignments, not new hires. Budget cuts have actually reduced the total number of  officers. Of course the mayor can’t just summon more money, but a shrinking budget will produce shrinking results.

By now it is clear that what’s being done isn’t enough. Crime from gangs cannot be countered with destruction by wrecking crews. There must be a positive influence in these high-risk neighborhoods.