Murder by Structure: How Street Gangs Built the Great American City

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project looks to support the academic leave of the Principal Investigator (PI) to complete a manuscript titled, Murder by Structure: How Street Gangs Built the Great American City. The book is under contract at Oxford University Press and the requested funds will partially support the academic leave of the PI to revise and complete the manuscript during the 2022-2023 academic year. Why does violence erupt on the same streets year after year, decade after decade, and not other streets just a few blocks away? Virtually every city in the United States—even “safe” cities—show the same pattern of violence stubbornly concentrated on the same streets and in the same neighborhoods.[1-3] Because neighborhoods struggling with gun violence are often portrayed (especially in the media) as “violent” and “dangerous,” it’s tempting to fall back on hackneyed and racist characterizations of “bad people” and “bad places.” But such explanations are myopic, ignoring history and the intentional natures of cities that have largely shaped where violence concentrates. Cities are built. From the tallest skyscraper to the sewer system buried beneath the streets, cities are built upon the plans and decisions of those who wield the power to build or destroy. City Planners and City Makers determine where kids play and where they go to school. They decide who has access to jobs, health care, food, and justice. What’s more, cities themselves are “connected,” what happens in one neighborhood impacts what happens in other neighborhoods. The City we see and feel comes from powerful connections and disconnections between places and institutions, the connections or barriers between the ghetto and City Hall, between corner stores and corporate boardrooms, and between prisons and universities. On their face, crime maps of our cities appear to show a snapshot of people and their problems. But dig a little deeper and these maps are a record of the decisions and actions of City Makers across decades. Murder by Structure examines how the concentration of violence in particular neighborhoods results not simply from the policies and plans of powerful City Makers, but also from struggles and battles of neighborhoods and one of their fiercest defenders: street gangs. By tracing the evolution and development of street gangs in Chicago, this book will reveal how the crime maps we see today are the product of violent turf wars of the past, not just turf wars between gangs, but also street wars between gangs and the police, and political and economic turf wars between Black and Latino communities and The State. It’s a story of how, as White gangs evolved, they wove their own networks into the political and economic fabric of the city, and on their way up and out of gangland built barriers (physical and social) to keep Black and Latino gangs from following the same paths out of gangland. When Black and Latino gangs tried to improve their own lot, they were met with brutal opposition. Gangland become its own prison, with visible and invisible walls surrounding neighborhoods, schools, and job markets. The patterns of violence we see today—where it happens and which groups and neighborhoods are involved—all rest upon networks of violence and relationships built over nearly century.
Effective start/end date1/3/228/31/23


  • Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation (Agmt 1/30/2023)


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