Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chicago Safety Mythbusting: Two UChicago Campus Safety Myths

UChicago students love to worry about safety. High profile Chicago crime, combined with local incidents and anecdotes, contribute to a constant state of vague dread about our collective safety, like an impending problem set for O-Chem or upcoming B.A. thesis draft. And as with most widely-upheld beliefs, the UChicago crime scare does have some truth. Our students are certainly victims of both theft and violent crime, with many incidents occurring in Hyde Park and even on campus itself. But as might be expected, there is far more myth than reality to these fears. Veteran PhD candidates, eager first-years, and even wide-eyed prospective applicants have more misunderstandings about local crime than they do about Plato's cave, Kant's categorical imperative, or Machiavelli's prince. Local Chicagoans are no better, with most residents thinking that anywhere south of Roosevelt and west of Western is a veritable warzone.

In this new series on Chicago safety, I am going to leverage criminological, social work, and martial knowledge to pry apart the myths from the realities. Because much of my audience does attend the University itself, many myths will focus around UChicago. Other posts will tackle myths from across the city, leaving our home of Hyde Park. Some myths will be knocked down from their public pedestal. Others will have their core of truth revised and refined. Still others might be flat out "proven" (a rare occurrence, to be sure). In the end, I hope to give us both a better understanding of Chicago safety and heightened knowledge about Chicago crime and violence.

Finally, if there are any safety myths that YOU want to try and bust or confirm, post a comment, send an email, find me on Facebook, and just ask your question!

(NOTE: For a discussion about the tools and sources used to assess the myths, see the section at the end of the article on "METHODS")

The Midway and South of 61st Street
University construction projects south of the Midway raise a lot of questions. Will UChicago threaten to expand south of its traditional border, 61st Street? How will community members react to increased University presence and rising housing prices? Where on earth is all that money coming from during a recession? And, most importantly for our purposes, are students safe when they journey south of the Midway? Today, we are going to look at two common myths (and realities) about South Campus safety at UChicago. The conclusions are given up here in nice bullet points for easy access. The arguments and supporting evidence are given below.

  • MYTH #1: "Students get mugged while crossing the Midway!!"
    REALITY: Students might get mugged after crossing the Midway, but it is still extremely unlikely
    VERDICT: Busted!
    • Don't worry about the Midway! It is exceedingly unlikely that you will be a victim of violent crime.
    • Incidents are more likely to occur immediately after you leave the Midway than when you are crossing
    • The Midway crossing is basically 100% safe during the day.
    • The Midway crossing is safest from November through April.  
    • Be aware after crossing the Midway on BOTH sides.
    • Crimes that occur around the Midway are generally strongarm robberies with no weapons

And the second myth of the day...

  • MYTH #2: "It's unsafe to journey south of 61st Street!"
    REALITY: "There are specific areas and times south of 61st Street that are unsafe" 
    VERDICT: Mostly Confirmed
    • The area south of 61st Street (North Woodlawn) has significantly more violent street crime than the rest of Hyde Park.
    • The area bordered by Woodlawn Avenue in the west, Stony Island in the East, 61st in the North, and 63rd in the South is the most dangerous part of North Woodlawn, with more violent incidents. This is called the "Red Zone".
    • The area bordered by Woodlawn Avenue in the east, Drexel in the West, 61st in the North, and 63rd in the South is comparatively less dangerous, with fewer violent incidents. This is called the "Green Zone".

    • In both zones, all types of violent crime (robberies, batteries, assaults, etc.) are equally likely.
    • In both zones, crime happens throughout the year regardless of weather or temperature; always be alert and aware!
    • In both the Red and Green Zones, crime is highest between 4:00 and 11:00 PM. Looking at just the Red Zone, the least safe time of day is between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. For the Green Zone, crime is more evenly distributed throughout the late afternoon evening.  

Of course, all of you should be leery of conclusions without evidence. The supporting arguments are detailed below. I only give the takeaways for those that don't necessarily have time (or interest) to work through the statistics, data, and argumentation.

Myth: "Students get mugged while crossing the Midway!!"

Reality: Students might get mugged after crossing the Midway, but it is extremely unlikely 
VERDICT: Busted!

This myth is less common today than it was probably five years ago, but I still hear it spoken casually amongst students. In the big picture, from January 2009 through February 2013, the Midway was actually one of the safest place you could be in all Hyde Park (unless you were playing Humans vs. Zombies, but undead crime is excluded from the CPD dataset). In that 4 year time period, only ONE single violent incident occurred on the Midway itself. Indeed, you were more in danger right after leaving the Midway and getting onto the streets than you were during the crossing! But that being said, the raw number of incidents was comparatively tiny. It is just very, very unlikely that you would be the victim of violent crime around the Midway. 

The map below illustrates violent street crime (assault, battery, robbery) on and immediately around the Midway from January 2009 through February 2013.

Midway violent incidents, January 2009 - February 2013
You can see that single Midway crime right under the Hospital on the left (under the E.59th St. label). That incident was a Simple Battery that occurred in 2011 just before 7:00 PM. Except for that incident, however, the Midway crossing was completely devoid of crime.

Only after looking past the grassy Midway itself do serious incidents start to occur, but there are still just not many. According to the CPD, there were 15 such reports in the past 4 years, distributed evenly across all years; less than 4 per year. They can be seen on the streets bordering the Midway (59th St. and 60th St.). Although there just aren't many incidents to analyze, I can still offer some (tentative and statistically insignificant) conclusions about Midway safety.

  • MOST IMPORTANT: There is not a lot of violent crime around the Midway!!
    TAKEAWAY: Don't worry about the Midway! It is exceedingly unlikely that you will be a victim of violent crime.
  • Of the violent incidents that occurred around the Midway, almost all of them happened between 4:00 PM and Midnight.
    TAKEAWAY: The Midway crossing is basically 100% safe during the day.
  • The vast majority of incidents occurred between May and October, with only a few occurring in January, November, or April.
    TAKEAWAY: The Midway crossing is safest from November through April. 
  • There were as many violent Midway incidents on 59th Street as there were on 60th Street.
    TAKEAWAY: Be aware after crossing the Midway on BOTH sides.
  • Only one of the violent incidents involved a weapon (a knife). None involved handguns. Almost all others were hand-to-hand, strongarm robberies.
    TAKEAWAY: The most common Midway crimes are robberies, but they are less "serious" than other violence around Hyde Park.

I offer these conclusions as a concerned and overprotective martial artist/self-defense instructor than as a social worker and statistician. In the final analysis, the Midway is one of the safest places you can be on campus no matter the time of day or year.


Myth: "It's unsafe to journey south of 61st Street!"

Reality: "There are specific areas and times south of 61st Street that are unsafe"  

According to most UChicago students, 61st Street is where the big bad South Side really starts. From a technical perspective, it is the municipal boundary between Hyde Park and Woodlawn, a historical divider between the University and its southmost neighborhood. Unlike with the Midway myth, the 61st Street myth actually has better supporting evidence. It turns out that there is quite a bit of violent street crime in this area, and all of it has the potential to affect students and community members. The map below gives some idea about just how many incidents that the CPD reported in the past 4 years.

North Woodlawn (i.e. "South of 61st Street") violent incidents, January 2009 - February 2013
MORE DOTS! (excuse the computer game joke). But seriously, that's a lot of dots. In fact, if we look at our entire crime dataset from January 2009 - February 2013, the incidents in the North Woodlawn area above (61st - 63rd Street, Cottage - Stony) account for a spectacular 45% of all area crime (approximately 700 of 1550 incidents). But is that meaningful? Or just clever spinning of percentages?

North Woodlawn area comparison
Let's look at that a little more critically. The area south of 61st Street comprises roughly 15% of the total geographic area of the UChicago/Hyde Park region as I have defined it (it's actually probably closer to 10%, but we can be generous). The adjacent map shows that comparison between the "UChicago/Hyde Park" and the "South of 61st" areas. The 61st zone is shaded in red.

Knowing that this Woodlawn area makes up 15% of the total geographic area of Hyde Park lets us look at crime distribution. Specifically, now we can see if it is significant that 45% of crime occurs in this 15% of the community. This is one of the few times where you don't even need statistics to verify that this is a giant imbalance, but it is nice to confirm mathematically.

After running a hypothesis test of sample proportions, we find that there is a hugely significant difference (Z = -27.59, P < .001) between the distribution of crime south and north of 61st. This gives strong statistical suggestion that we should not be expecting a whopping 45% of crime to occur in just 15% of the community.

Of course, this is not enough to just conclude that the area is unsafe. Before we all flee in terror from South Campus and other housing south of the Midway, we need to take a closer look at the crime even within the Northern Woodlawn area. Things aren't quite as bad as they first seem, especially once we start going block by block. 
To start, we really need to remove that giant block of dots on Cottage Grove (on the far left of the map). The same goes for the column of dots in the lower right corner off of Stony. These are areas that UChicago students and staff do not travel; even employees of the University will pick up public transportation north of these areas just to avoid this kind of violence, getting on the bus around 57th Street. There is a larger issue of community violence and University engagement at play here, but that is beyond the scope of this specific article; as you know from my previous posts and career, I am very much dedicated to that issue, but it is too much to tackle here. I am willing to assume that students and community members will willfully avoid these areas, so it is reasonable to remove those dots from the picture for a close analysis.

Interestingly enough, even if we remove the Cottage and Stony dots from the picture, we still find a significant difference between crime in the North Woodlawn area and the rest of Hyde Park (p < .0001)!

THE "SAFER" ZONE: 60th -> 62nd, Drexel --> Woodlawn) 
THE "LESS SAFE" ZONE: 60th --> 62nd, Woodlawn --> Metra)
Within the North Woodlawn area itself, there are still important crime differences between blocks. It turns out that most of the crime is again happening within a comparatively small set of blocks, just as a disproportionate amount of crime was occurring in North Woodlawn compared to the rest of Hyde Park. I have marked out the boundaries of this distinction defined above, showing the higher crime and lower crime areas of North Woodlawn. The map below shades those two areas in green (the "safer" zone) and red (the "less safe" zone).

"Green Zone" vs. "Red Zone", North Woodlawn
(I shouldn't need to disclaim this to my audience, but just in case, this coloration and exercise is not to make any judgment or valuation about residents in this area, the South Side, or even criminals. This shading is simply done to provide safety tips to UChicago students, and although that might perpetuate South Side inequities to some extent, my primary obligation to the students that I teach in self-defense club is their own personal protection. The "Green" zone is colored as such because it has higher relative safety to the "Red" zone, and that distinction needs to be made.)

Violent street crime is not evenly split between these two areas. In the past 4 years, the red zone had 107 violent street crimes. The green zone had 92. If we were to just compare raw numbers, that doesn't seem like a big difference. Unfortunately, the comparative SIZE of those two areas makes the crime difference imbalanced. The green zone is roughly 1.5 times the size of the red zone, but has only 85% of its crime. The question we again must ask: Is this a significant difference?

Using the same test as earlier, I confirm that there is a significant difference (Z = 2.8, P < .01) between the number of crimes in the green area and those in the red area. Although that does not necessarily mean that you are individually more likely to be the victim of red zone crime than green zone crime, it does mean that the red zone just has more crime than the green zone.

Having confirmed, or at least strongly supported, the red and green zone distinction, I can now break down the crime that occurs in these areas to answer a few questions. First: Are some crimes more likely to occur in one zone than the other? For example, am I more likely to get robbed in the Red Zone than in the Green Zone? Or assaulted? It turns out that, although the two areas have significant differences in number of incidents, they have no difference in crime distribution. The table below breaks down the violent street crime by type, separating the two colored zones.

# of Violent Incidents in North Woodlawn
Crime "Green Zone" "Red Zone"
Simple Assault 14 12
Simple Battery 21 28
Agg. Assault: Firearm 5 8
Agg. Battery: Firearm 7 11
Agg. Assault: Other 0 1
Agg. Battery: Other 2 8
Strongarm Robbery 18 17
Armed Robbery: Handgun 22 16
Armed Robbery: Other 3 5
Homicide 0 1
TOTAL 92 106

Going incident by incident, you will notice that the distribution of crimes appears to be roughly the same in each zone. In fact, statistically speaking, the distribution of crimes in the green and red zones is completely insignificant (χ2 = 8.72, DF = 9, p = .46). This suggests that no individual crime is more likely to occur in one zone than in the other, even if the red zone has comparatively more total crime than the green.

What about the months during which these crimes occur? Everyone in Chicago knows that summers are far more dangerous and violent than wintry months. Does that hold true in the North Woodlawn area near UChicago? Close analysis shows that, for the most part, crimes are more or less equally distributed throughout all months in a year. That is to say, in both the red and green zones, there are just as many violent incidents in December as in July (at least, with two noteworthy exceptions...)

North Woodlawn Violent Incidents by Month
Month "Green Zone" "Red Zone"
January 7 2
February 8 4
March 8 8
April 6 11
May 4 12
June 8 9
July 11 8
August 10 7
September 9 11
October 8 10
November 9 11
December 4 13
TOTAL 92 106

There were no significant differences in the distribution of violent crime in the two zones (χ2 = 15.12, DF = 11, p = .18). Although some months might appear different at first glance (notably May and December), when considering all the months together, that kind of variation is just to be expected. As a whole, this information is quite interesting because it challenges conventional ideas around Chicago seasonal crime. At least in these two areas of North Woodlawn, crime happens throughout the year no matter the temperature or weather. That suggests travelers in these zones need to maintain awareness and caution no matter whether it is the middle of a blazing summer or a peaceful winter night.

On the other hand, we see a huge difference in crime distribution when looking at the times of incidents themselves (i.e. "crime times"). This will be unsurprising to longtime readers of this blog. Some times of the day, like 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM, are notorious for high rates of violent crime. Other times, like 6:00 AM, are consistently low. Although there are counterexamples to these trends (e.g. robberies that happen at 7:30 AM and summer nights without a single shooting at 11:00 PM), they are reliable general rules for Chicago safety.

The two North Woodlawn zones offer a great example of these guidelines in action. In both zones, 4:00 - 11:00 PM is by far the least safe time during the day, with the vast majority of annual incidents occurring then. Although there are differences in the zones themselves (red zone crime is worst at 5:00 PM, green zone is more spread out) this is a good general rule to follow. The graphs below show the time frequency of crimes in the individual and the combined areas.

I apologize if the Christmas color scheme offends anyone's optical sensibilities.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of any of these graphs is the outrageous 5:00 PM spike in the red zone. That is just not the best time to be out and about in North Woodlawn unless are accustomed to being aware and ready at all times. Indeed, that entire period from 4:00 PM until 11:00 PM is just not particularly safe. Closer examination of the data shows that these time trends hold steady (more or less) throughout all months of the year. As such, I am comfortable making these generalizations about crime time in the area.

This is also where it is helpful to support statistical data with personal experience. Having lived in the area for 3 years now, I can say that these times of day are absolutely unsafe. I have never been the victim of violence in this area, but I have definitely felt threatened and intimidated while going for runs or walks during the nicer months of the year. Groups of young men will glare, taunt, goad, and generally posture as you go by. I have been followed by an individual and a pair of individuals on more than one occasion, and I don't mean "followed" in the sense of us both sharing a route and destination. I mean "followed" in the sense of pointing in my direction, looking over their own shoulders, and trying to keep a brisk pace in time with my own. There is a time and a place for social work. But when you are walking alone on 62nd and Kimbark at 5:15 PM in May, that is not the opportune therapeutic moment.


All data comes from the CPD Clearpath statistics presented in the City of Chicago Data Portal. For the purposes of this article, I only looked at non-domestic, violent crimes that occurred in streets, alleys, sidewalks, parks, etc.; outdoor street violence that would be most likely to affect a UChicago student. This included Battery, Assault, Robbery, Homicide, and Criminal Sexual Assault. "Thefts" were excluded because there is no way to separate out actual thefts from cars or stores and the more dubious "Theft from Person" crimes.

Graphs were made in Excel using data from the CPD dataset, adjusted for the filters discussed above. Crimes were plotted on the map using latitudes and longitudes in the CPD dataset, so if there are any discrepancies between those mapped locations and the actual ones, it is because the error lies in the dataset itself.

Finally, I feel obliged to offer yet another disclaimer about community sensitivity. My goal in these posts is not to villainize certain parts of the Hyde Park/Woodlawn community, nor is it to negatively portray the residents of those neighborhoods. Similarly, my intent is not to oversimplify the complex phenomenon of community violence. All that being said, the information presented in this post is given to address student safety not student civic and community engagement. There is a time and a place for one and there is a time and place for the other, a fact that I know well as a lifelong Chicagoan, a trained social worker, and as a martial artist. There are broader social takeaways that we could draw from this information (why exactly is there more crime at 5:00 PM in the so-called red zone?), but that is not helpful in the moment of an assault or battery.


  1. Always love watching that Mythbusters show! Thanks for adding to construction site safety precautions that are currently available.

  2. Wow, doesn't sound like a prestigious university in a developed country, more like some college in the third world ! How the hell does this happen in such a rich country, look at Europe/UK/Canada for god's sake !