54th and Ellis shooting (copy)

Two representatives of the non-profit Chicago Against Violence watch police activity at the site of a homicide that took place on 54th Place just east of S. Ellis Ave. on Tuesday, Nov. 9. 

This is the first story in a series exploring public safety in Hyde Park. 

In the wake of a well-publicized string of violent incidents in Hyde Park in November, including the fatal shooting of 24-year-old recent University of Chicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, discussions of public safety have proliferated after both Chicago police and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) announced new initiatives on campus and beyond. 

Yet elderly residents who live in the neighborhood have mixed reactions about safety there, and many see the violence as a systemic issue that localized changes won’t fix. 

“I feel about as safe as I always did,” said Barbara Roy, 90, who has lived in Hyde Park since 1967. “I’m not terribly uncomfortable at night. If I was with someone, I would go anywhere.” 

Some older residents said they take precautions like walking with a dog or in groups with other neighbors. Many have been the victims of violence themselves or know others who have. 

“I feel cautious now,” said Kathryn Williams, 82. She has experienced break-ins and thefts, but not in Hyde Park. “I don’t walk if I think it’s unsafe, so I try not to walk after dark, and I try to walk with someone.”

After Zheng’s death, “it caused a lot of people to feel different about our place in the community,” said Anna York, 76, who has lived in Hyde Park since 1982. “It’s a wonderful place to live, but there are these really serious issues that are here with us.”

Since Zheng’s death, both UCPD and CPD have said they will increase the number of patrols and security cameras in use, with the latter department also planning to conduct more traffic stops. UCPD has announced the establishment of a victims services unit and 24-hour “strategic operations center” that will “make real-time and proactive adjustments to police and security deployments while also improving emergency communications.” 

But elderly residents do not seem enthusiastic about any of these solutions, instead seeing the problem as broader than anything the university alone could address. 

“I think it’s deeper than cameras,” York said. “I think the cameras are a Band-Aid, those other strategies are a Band-Aid. What could really fix something is real change for the people who don’t have jobs, who don’t have homes, who don’t have the things that they need, who don’t get respect.”

Joe Marlin, 89, liked the idea of having more cameras, while Williams said she finds the presence of the university’s unarmed security personnel comforting. 

The suggestion of a larger police presence drew complicated reactions from older residents, with many ending up on the fence about what they would prefer. 

“I have really mixed feelings about it,” said Williams, who has lived in Hyde Park for 41 years, “I can understand both sides very clearly. If you don’t need the police, no, you don’t want them here, but if you need them, you’re happy they’re here.”

For some residents, the violence that sometimes occurs in Hyde Park is nothing new, while others have seen a change over the decades they’ve lived there. 

“My impression is that it’s not as safe,” said Marlin, who has lived in Hyde Park since 1953, aside from one year living elsewhere. “It seems to me like you rarely ever heard of gunfire in Hyde Park… Now, there’s a considerable, to my impression, increase in the frequency of people using guns in personal encounters on the street to steal things… It’s not unique to Hyde Park. It just didn’t used to be here.”

Though longer-term data is difficult to come by, UCPD crime tracking for the past 15 years indicates a general decrease in violent crime in the community. 

The sense of unease that some elderly residents feel is not tied to their neighborhood, nor have they thought of leaving Hyde Park. 

“This is just big city living,” said Williams. “I think one doesn’t know where one is safe these days.” 

After her children finished school, Williams said she debated moving elsewhere but wanted to stay where she had built up a community of friends and had access to the university’s resources. Now, she and the other members of Chicago Hyde Park Village are trying to ensure that elderly residents can stay in Hyde Park, feel safe and age in place. 

“That’s the conundrum we find ourselves in. We are clustering together figuring out, ‘how can we hang onto this?,’ ” she said. “I want to be in Hyde Park. I think that there’s a place for seniors in the urban environment. We don’t all have to go out to the pastures.” 

Those interested in getting involved with Chicago Hyde Park Village can contact info@chpv.org or call 773-363-1933. 

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