After a shooting, I want to know: What is safety?

The police and crime scene across the street from my house.

I had just sent my son down the street to the dry cleaners when I heard the shots. It was more than pop-pop-pop, it was a frenzy of shots answered by what sounded like automatic fire. 

Working in my front office, as soon as I heard the first shots, I peered out the front window across the street. The noise was coming from behind houses across the street, under the L tracks. 

Across the street an old man wearing a chin-mask had stopped to look down a gangway between the houses. Were they filming an episode of Chicago PD today? They’d used the location twice before. It seemed like too many shots to be a real exchange of street gunfire.

Then I heard screaming. From a woman. No, this is real. Dial 911. “I’d like to report gunfire.” How much gunfire? “A lot. A LOT.” How many shots did you hear? “More than I could count. Automatic fire.” Alright, we’ll let them know.

Then, I called my son. “Get inside. Stay at the dry cleaners until I call you.” OK, Dad. I will.

I stood, looking out my window. I could hear some kind of car vrooming. Neighbors were peering out windows. Stepping outside. 

Sirens, the sounds of revving engines. I thought I heard cars racing down the alley under the L tracks across the street. Then a police car racing down my street. An unmarked car. 

Run down my stairs to the front door. Go stand on the porch. More neighbors coming outside now. A frenzy of police activity now. I call my son, tell him to come straight home. He’ll have to walk past the house with the gunfire. So, I stand on my steps, watching down the street for him. More cop cars. They’re running down gangways between houses. 

I’m craning my neck, looking for my son. He’s 13, skinny-tall, looks adolescent. And there he is. Wearing his hoodie up. Head down, hands in pockets. Damn it. Cops are blocking the street intersection up the block, where he’s walking. I make a broad gesture to him: Get over here. Walk a few houses down the sidewalk towards him. I’m afraid to go too much more into the crime scene area. A cop drives up the street, looks out his window at my be-hoodied son, says something. Then gets out of his car. Son is confused, says something back. I get closer, make a scooping motion: I will not allow my flock to be swept up in this. “Get inside. Get inside.” The cop sees me, loses interest. Gesturing to the house. Son goes in. I stay on the porch to make sure the scene gets safe.

Immediately I think: I was stupid to not tell him about putting down the hoodie. I should have walked farther down the street. Thank God, he’s safe. What if the bullets had headed towards my house? Would our wood walls have stopped them?

From what we know, two groups exchanged fire in the alley under the L. A woman was hit and taken to a local hospital. Her car was riddled with bullets. A garage across the alley was filled with holes. Nobody apprehended. No explanations.

It’s the second time there was serious gunfire on our block. The last one was four years ago when a nighttime robbery went bad after one thief shot the other in the head on the front steps – right across from my house. I heard the shots from my living room, and saw the slumped, dead body through the same window. There were a lot fewer cop cars that time. I can’t figure out why this time seemed worse.

This time, after the cops were around for a bit, putting up crime scene tape around the house in question, neighbors began to come out. One guy had filmed some of the craziness on his phone. We traded bits of information. It all centered on that one house everyone agrees is a problem. It has illegal apartments, absentee landlord, lots of turnover. My wife and I call it “the crack house”, because when we first moved in 15 years ago, there was a police or ambulance call to the building every six weeks, often more.

The neighbors and I tell stories to each other about how we live in a “safe neighborhood”. Reassuring ourselves. But we’re half a block from a major L stop, next to a major street, Western Avenue. There’s always lots of people going through the area from lots of places.

There was that front porch killing. But then there was the time seven years ago when the tenants in the house next to us converted it into a meth lab. A stream of people going in and out of the house at all hours. Propane canisters going in, big, black duffle bags going out. Overflowing garbage in the alley, and plastic sheeting over the windows. We called the police, they ransacked the trash, and the meth operation disappeared.

Three years ago, my son and I were coming home from lunch on a school off day, and we saw a guy walking out our back door, then turn and walk to the gangway to the front. Wearing a backpack and a ballcap, we figured he was a friend or cousin of our downstairs tenants. But then we got to the door and saw it had been smashed in. I took off after the guy, but he was long gone. Raced upstairs, saw our bedroom had been ransacked, jewelry and a laptop taken. Called the police. They caught him days later, sent him to jail, but the jewelry, including a precious necklace I’d given my wife early in our marriage, was gone forever.

Is our block safe?

Statistics for my police district show that historically, we’re at about the same number of reported crimes as five years ago, after a big dip in crime during the Covid years. But compared to a district that includes Englewood, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, we have a third less reported crimes, and they have many more violent crimes and murders per year – whereas we often have none. The crimes my area reports are often property crimes, whereas theirs is a lot of violent crime. How much property crime do you suppose gets unreported in Englewood? Probably a lot. Their statistics probably don’t tell even close to the whole story.

So, what is safe?

I have no idea. But my wife and I have no plans to move. So there’s that.

With fifteen years into our house, we’re the old-timers now. It’s us that are now bedrock of a community. My wife has organized an anti-NIMBY group. I used to run the neighborhood news website. My son hangs out with the dry cleaner.

Now I realize: We are what makes the block safe. And, simultaneously that is a welcome and frightening burden.