Focusing on violence misses the bigger story about Chicago’s communities and culture


File photo for The Chicago Reporter

Hip-hop artist K.W.O.E. poses with kids from Englewood after a June 2015 performance focused on promoting peace through music.

Chicago is often portrayed to outsiders as an unsafe place, too violent to even visit. Every time there is a mass shooting elsewhere in the country—whether in Texas, Las Vegas, or Orlando—the spotlight seems to shine back on gun violence here. Recently, President Donald Trump was quick to once again mention Chicago when he tweeted about the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting, even though that town is 1,206 miles away.

New statistics on gun violence give a mixed picture. The number of murders is down from last year, but the total so far in 2017 is over 600. That’s a number the city has reached only twice since 2003. And Chicagoans understand the reality behind those numbers. I have lived here all of my life. I work here and so does most of my family. I’ve experienced gun violence in my own family and I see it on the news practically every day. The emergency room staff of Rush University Medical Center, where I am an administrator, regularly treats gunshot victims.

When I worked at Mount Sinai Hospital not far away in Lawndale, it was common to hear ambulance sirens pass by during the day. In my first few weeks there, I spent the majority of my day looking out the window, watching ambulances bring in the most critically wounded patients. Many times, from my office, I would hear a family grieving in the emergency room entrance, anguished at losing a family member to gun violence.

Friends ask how I live in Chicago. And many non-Chicagoans believe that we are prisoners in our own homes. Because of crimes committed against our seniors, some of the elderly are, indeed, afraid to leave their homes.

Yes, Chicago has work to do to curb violent crime. I am not naïve about that. But violence is not the whole story.

For one, the larger context of this violence is often lost. When President Trump recently called Chicago a “total disaster,” actor Andy Richter started a Twitter feed with the question “What about Chicago?” It began as a broad conversation about the need for a ban on assault weapons and new laws prohibiting the sale of these types of guns. Chicago, in fact, is flooded with weapons from Indiana and elsewhere that feed the gun violence here. But the conversation on Twitter moved from assault weapons and how easy it is to purchase them, to the number of people murdered in our city. Unfortunately, because of Chicago’s image, the larger point about federal laws on gun purchases was missed.

Another example is my neighborhood, Chatham. It’s on the South Side, where much of Chicago’s violence occurs, but the community isn’t what outsiders may think. Chatham is a neighborhood filled with brick bungalows owned by teachers, bus drivers, police officers, city employees, state and local workers, and retirees from many professions. It is a stable community of middle-class, hard-working people, who participate in block clubs, have perfectly manicured lawns, and have neighbors who are friends.

We know the children who live on our block. Some of the homes are now owned by second- generation family members, who continue this legacy of community and friendship. We have minority-owned businesses lining our main avenue.

I shop in Englewood, work at Rush University Medical Center on the West Side, hang out with friends in Pilsen, visit family in Lawndale and Roseland, and get my car serviced in Back of the Yards. I go to cultural events downtown, meet new people on the lakefront, and travel through many other neighborhoods every day. All of these communities are filled with families who work hard, pay taxes and want a quality of life that lines up with their beliefs and values.

We are not a war zone. Chicago is not a “total disaster,” as the president has claimed.

Recently, the Obama Foundation Summit provided international dignitaries, celebrities, local and national activists with the perfect backdrop for the world to see Chicago as it really is. The Obamas selected Chicago as the home of the planned Obama Presidential Center with an eye toward making the city, and in particular the South Side, a global hub for culture, business and social justice. These are all hallmarks of our city.

It’s time everyone sees this bigger picture.

Rhonda L. Owens is director of administrative services at Rush University Medical Center College of Nursing and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.