Columnist

A tale of two cities: New York vs. Chicago

By Nicole Gelinas |  

June 12, 2016 |  

Chicago skyline. (Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Can you be a global city when you can't keep your most vulnerable people safe? Two weeks ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the stage at that city's Field Museum of Natural History to open the second annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities. In front of global visitors from London to Hong Kong, Emanuel talked up his city while notably failing to acknowledge what was in the headlines all week: If you're young, poor, black and male in Chicago, you're in constant mortal peril.

Emanuel was subdued compared to last year. He went through his paint-by-numbers speech in monotone, touting “an economic plan that focuses on talent, transportation and technology.” He said, too, that three separate studies rank Chicago in the world's top 10 cities. “Our city continues to be a high quality living experience for people of diverse backgrounds,” he concluded, rushing off the stage.

Well – a high quality living experience, unless you were one of last month's 66 murder victims.

Yes: 66 Chicagoans died in May – the highest number in 21 years, and a 40 percent increase over last year. May's last victim was Fabien Lavinder, just 15 years old. June's first victim was Victor Felix, 16.

The Chicago conference organizers didn't dwell much on their hometown woes, but the news crept in. After Emanuel left, one audience member asked the urban experts Wednesday night what kind of advice they might give to Latin American and African cities plagued by violence. “You don't see violence in Chicago?” retorted former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, now a local philanthropist.

Paulson quickly caught himself, trying to reassure the audience that downtown Chicago was safe. Yet, just three days before, Pamela Johnson died near the city's famous lakefront, close to downtown, after she ran into highway traffic to escape six robbers. Hyatt hotel president Mark Hoplamazian said the next day that meeting and convention planners “are paying attention” to the death toll.

Contrast Chicago's experience to New York's. The day after Emanuel sheepishly avoided talking about what was really going on in his city, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proudly trumpeted his own city's murder statistics.

Murders in New York were down 19.4 percent in May, or seven lives saved. So far in 2016, New York has had 133 murders. That's two months' worth of homicides for Chicago in five months, when we've got triple the population. As the mayor's office said, “New York City remains an exception to the increasing trend of violence being experienced in cities across the nation.”

Why the difference? A big part of it is competent policing and prosecution. New York's gun arrests are up 20 percent this year – meaning the city is arresting people with illegal weapons before those people shoot other people.

And we have financial resources that other cities don't have. As Emanuel said Wednesday night, Chicago is the only city on global places-to-live lists that isn't either a financial or political capital.

But it's also the political climate. De Blasio is not a good mayor in many respects – from engaging in the appearance of pay-to-play deals with developers and other big donors, to failing to fund investments to reduce subway overcrowding, to ballooning the budget with unaffordable raises for city workers.

But de Blasio has understood from the beginning that the one thing that would surely end his mayoralty would be a spike in violent crime. The mayor knows that New Yorkers will not accept the excuses that other urban mayors throw out: that they can't stem crime unless society first fixes poverty and other ills.

And so de Blasio has allowed his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to do what it takes to keep the body count – and other violent crimes, such as robberies – down. As the mayor said last week, “precision policing is working.”

De Blasio says he is a progressive mayor. He hasn't been able to fix the problems that got him elected: New York is still expensive and unequal. But keeping the murder rate to record lows is the most progressive thing de Blasio has done. New York continues to keep its young, poor people alive – and being alive in a city divided between rich and poor is better than being dead in a more equal city.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Follow her on Twitter @nicolegelinas

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