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Crime in Chicago raises concerns for would-be visitors from across northern Illinois

Shaw Media reader survey shows a reluctance to head into the city this summer after well-publicized crime and violence coverage

FILE - In this July 29, 2021 file photo, fans gather and cheer on day one of the Lollapalooza music festival at Grant Park in Chicago. Chicago health officials on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, reported 203 cases of COVID-19 connected to Lollapalooza, casting it as a number that was anticipated and not yet linked to any hospitalizations or deaths.  (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar File)

Michelle Novoselac lives in one of the most populated metropolitan areas in the county. Russell Miller lives in a rural community of fewer than 500 people.

Both are Illinoisans, but they also have this in common: neither plans to visit Chicago this summer, despite the city being a regular destination for both of them.

Chicago is home to world-class museums, two MLB teams, eclectic restaurants, a majestic lakefront and vibrant parks. It also hosts Lollapalooza, an international music festival that opens July 28. But a wave of well-publicized crime and violence appears to be concerning for even those from northern Illinois who made Chicago a go-to place for adventure.

“I used to go to Chicago for a lot of things. Especially when I lived up there, I was always in Chicago,” said Miller, who once resided only 12 miles from the Loop but now lives in the Bureau County village of Ohio. “But not anymore.

“Violence is so nonselective. It’s not like they’re robbing somebody because they have money. They’re robbing somebody just to rob them and maybe kill them. It’s terrible.”

Novoselac, 48, who lives in 6,200-resident Lakemoor, a northwest suburb, was more pointed.

“Right now, I’m terrified to even go anywhere near the city,” she said. “I wouldn’t go into the city to save my life at this point.”

Novoselac said that feeling is common among her peers. Age and the coronavirus pandemic also play roles in their reticence, but the violence is the main worry.

To be sure, thousands of people still commute from the suburbs to the city each day for work or play. But if 400 responses to an unscientific Shaw Local News Network online survey are any indication, Miller, Novoselac and her friends hardly are alone.

When respondents were asked how often they visit Chicago for fun now compared with five years ago, a solid majority – 233, or 59% – reported fewer trips. Only 28% of respondents suggested the pandemic might be a factor.

About 61% of respondents noted news reports regarding Chicago crime or violence affect whether they would consider a visit this summer. A controller for a McHenry-based trucking-transportation company, Novoselac said those reports are exhausting.

“Things are being posted in your face 24/7,” she said. “It’s on your phone, on your computer. It’s just like a constant reminder that’s a place you don’t want to be.”

The statistics

The news reports don’t appear to be unfounded.

MoneyGeek.com analyzed FBI crime statistics and determined Chicago was the 21st most dangerous major city in the U.S. In a bit of irony, perhaps, the safest city was the Chicago suburb of Naperville.

According to the Chicago Police Department, there were 797 homicides in the city in 2021, an increase of 3% from 2020. But the increase is 60% from 2019 and 21% from 2017.

Most violent crimes in Chicago are not in areas tourists and day-trippers tend to frequent, according to CPD data. Homicides are concentrated most heavily in West Side areas, including North Lawndale, and in South Side neighborhoods such as Englewood and Pullman.

Overall, the number of reported crimes in seven categories in Chicago was up 3% in 2021 from the previous year but down 22% compared with 2017, according to the CPD. The categories are homicide, criminal sexual assault, robbery, aggravated battery, burglary, theft and motor-vehicle theft.

Shooting incidents in 2021 totaled 3,561 citywide, a 9% increase from 2020 and a 29% jump from 2017.

In the CPD reporting area that includes the Loop, the Near North Side and Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, crimes reported in 2021 were higher by 12% year-over-year but lower by 20% from four years earlier. Shootings were up 13% (323, up from 285) compared with 2020 and more than 50% compared with 2017.

That reporting area is one of five in the city and stretches from the South Loop along Lake Michigan to the Evanston border.

At a more granular geographic level, shootings in the CPD district that includes the Loop and Grant Park were up by 57% in 2021 (up to 55 from 35) and by 267% compared with four years earlier. Overall crime was up 12% from 2020 but down 22% from 2017.

Criminal sexual assaults in the Loop and Grant Park district were 77% higher in 2021 than in 2020 (94, up from 53), motor-vehicle thefts were up 88% (608, up from 324) and robberies increased 24% (361, up from 290). There were six homicides reported in each year.

In the district that includes River North and the Magnificent Mile, shootings were up 69% (49, up from 29) from 2020, and overall crime was up 11%. Comparisons to 2017 were 188% higher and 22% lower, respectively.

Criminal sexual assaults from 2021 to 2020 were up 95% (152, up from 78), motor-vehicle thefts were up 59% (599, up from 376) and robberies were up 24% (398, up from 322). There were eight homicides reported in that district in 2021, two fewer than the previous year.

City, police response

Readers Miller and Novoselac decried what they consider the inability of police and city leaders to bring crime under control. Among other initiatives, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has emphasized not prosecuting low-level, nonviolent crimes, per multiple reports.

“When the government is not responding to those things, that makes it pretty reasonable for people to say, ‘I’m not going to go there unless I need to,’ ” Miller said.

Novoselac added, “If they’re not going to make the city safer, then you can’t bark about people not coming down there.”

CPD representatives had no additional comment regarding the statistics, potential visitors’ perceptions or suggestions regarding how they can improve safety. That was the standard response among several Chicago governmental organizations and tourist attractions Shaw Local contacted.

Shaw Local received no responses to repeated telephone calls and emails to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office; the White Sox; the Field Museum of Natural History; the Museum of Science and Industry; the Shedd Aquarium; and the organizers of Lollapalooza, the music festival scheduled to take place July 28 to 31 in Grant Park.

The Cubs’ response was brief: “Appreciate you reaching out, but we’ll decline on contributing to this article,” media relations director Jason Carr stated in an email.

Considering their backgrounds, it might be difficult to consider Miller and Novoselac longtime Chicago-phobes.

Although Miller has lived in Bureau County at least part time for years, he is from Broadview, a western suburb of Chicago. He oversaw computer operations for the Pace suburban bus system and served on the Broadview Village Board.

Crime was among the reasons Miller relocated permanently to farm country, about 120 miles west of Chicago. He has become so ingrained there that he pursued public office again. Miller lost by 33 votes, out of more than 16,000 cast, in the 2020 election for Bureau County circuit clerk.

Miller said he visits Chicago only once or twice a year, usually for doctor’s appointments.

“I had noticed, especially over the last six or seven years, the deterioration of the area as far as crime is concerned,” he said.

City ‘never sleeps’

Novoselac grew up in Elk Grove Village, like Lakemoor a northwest suburb but one much closer to Chicago. Once she received her driver’s license as a teenager, she and her friends would frequent concerts and other big-city attractions, she said.

In the early 2000s, Novoselac’s job was based in downtown Chicago. For someone in their late 20s and early 30s, it was an attractive place to be.

“It was beautiful, and it was cool being around all the different people, the different demographics and all the food and the nightlife,” Novoselac said. “It’s like the town that never sleeps.”

Now it’s become the town to which Novoselac and her husband, Mark, never travel.

Russell Miller, of Ohio, Ill., waits to board an Amtrak train to Chicago on Thursday, June 29, 2022, in Princeton. Travelers want safety when traveling to the city of Chicago this summer.

Mark Novoselac is even more resolute in his Chicago avoidance, his wife said. He refuses to go to his son’s residence, which is near the Ukrainian Village neighborhood on the Near West Side. Michelle Novoselac said she’s never seen the place.

It’s caused a rift, Novoselac suggested. Her stepson believes crime isn’t that bad and his family is being petty by not visiting.

Novoselac acknowledged that the media might exaggerate some aspects of Chicago violence. But as she sees it, the statistics and her observations warrant caution.

“I know that these things are truly happening,” Novoselac said. “The last thing in the world [my husband] wants to deal with is going into the city and taking a chance he’s going to be jumped or carjacked or somebody will be shooting at him on the tollway.”

Put it all together, and it’s difficult to see what in Chicago might lure back the Novoselacs, at least for now.

“It would have to be a [heck] of an attraction, something that I definitely could not get out here,” Michelle Novoselac said. “It’s sad because that’s where the culture is, where all the things are. We’re in this teeny-tiny McHenry County community, and we don’t leave it.”