Heavenston: The story of gang violence in Chicago suburbs

Nicole Stock
5 min readFeb 12, 2018


When shots rang out in the neighborhood, Isaac Sageman’s parents always told him the same thing: get on the ground and don’t move, while they called the police.

Sageman is now a freshman at Northwestern University, and he spent all of his childhood living in a home just a few blocks away from Evanston Township High School (ETHS), in a place some people have called “Heavenston.”

“I grew up within five blocks of the high school, and I know there were friends of mine, or people I knew, that were in gangs in the area. In my neighborhood there was violence,” Sageman said.

The violence in Evanston is nowhere near comparable to Chicago, however, according to Commander Joseph Dugan of the Evanston Police Department (EPD), there are approximately 10 street gangs in Evanston.

To some, this comes as a surprise, as Evanston has a national reputation for its safety and affluence, the very same elements that have attracted lower income black Chicagoans attempting to escape the crime and poverty of Chicago. However, perhaps so much of the violence in Evanston goes unseen because it’s concentrated primarily in one area of the city.

“The area north of the high school, that’s where the worst stuff happened; that was where the shootings of occurred. There was a freshman when I was a first year at the high school who was actually killed by a family feud, in some kind of gang situation,” Sageman said. “I knew him. That was a very messed up situation.”

According to a 2015 map of shootings and shots fired calls to the EPD, violence is concentrated in the area of town bound by Church Street, Emerson Street, and Dodge Avenue, with a smattering of violent incidents at the southern tip of Evanston, bordering Rogers Park.

These are also the target areas for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2, which is a program funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that rehabilitates foreclosed or abandoned properties at or below 120 percent of the median area income, according to the City of Evanston.

Sageman said he believes the low socioeconomic nature of the area north of the high school contributes to gang involvement.

“The area north of a high school is the lower income district of Evanston. That’s where the more impoverished families live, so that’s where the less fruitful upbringings happen. That leads to the need of safety and an extra element of family that a gang might bring,” Sageman said.

Sageman also said gang violence was not often discussed the high school, so as to not compromise the sense of safety.

“It’s kind of hush hush around [ETHS] because not a lot of people want to talk about it. They want there to be a sense of security,” Sageman said.

Dugan said the violence is often sporadic. According to the City of Evanston, there have been two murders in 2016 thus far, and three in 2015.

However, the EPD has put programs in place to curb the violence, such as the Violence Reduction Strategy and the Problem Solving Team.

“We have at least two detectives every night that go out. They’re targeting known shooters, known people that carry guns, known areas where [conflict] is happening,” Dugan said.

According to Dugan, as of October 2016, the EPD had removed 81 guns from the street.

Dugan said he also thinks the Problem Solving Team has been helpful in allaying the fears of residents in the neighborhood.

“They go door to door in the areas where stuff is happening, and get some insight on what’s going on. The residents are there out 24/7, so they know stuff they might not be comfortable saying or calling the police about,” Dugan said.

Dugan said the EPD also looks to involve federal forces whenever possible.

“We always look to partner up, especially with the federal agencies. They have bigger resources, the crimes get charged federally, the jail time is stiffer, there’s more availability,” Dugan continued. “We got a known person that we catch carrying a gun, a gang member, we’ll always look to take it federally. The ATF will take the case and dismiss the state case and they’ll charge him federally with carrying a firearm, and the penalty is a lot stiffer.”

Dugan also said the EPD monitors social media accounts of gang members to try to anticipate retaliation or instances of gang violence.

“Before gang members marked their territory with tagging and graffiti, but now it’s all over social media. That’s the new tagging format. They take pictures of themselves with guns and they disrespect other gangs. It may be the anniversary of someone’s death, or if somebody does get shot, they’ll post things about them, bad mouthing them. It tends to fuel this activity,” Dugan said.

According to Dr. Desmond Patton, the assistant professor of Social Work at Columbia University, social media provides a platform for humanizing youth who are often criminalized based on where they live or gangs they’re affiliated with.

“They’re not coming on social media being initially aggressive,” Patton said. “We’re seeing young people using social media in the same ways as in young people who live in suburban contexts.”

Patton also said that in his study of 8 million tweets of youth involved in gang activity in Detroit, only 4 percent of their tweets were violent or describing criminal activity.

“They’re not spending all their time talking about violent criminal activity,” Patton said. “When the conversation is happening, it’s often times rooted in offline contexts that are surrounded by trauma, grief, stress, and just everyday life that could be troubling.”

Patton said the way young people use social media to display their feelings provides an opportunity for youth services to intervene and prevent violence.

“They are often times crying out because they are tired of being in a community afflicted by violence, they are tired of trauma and grief and they’re calling out for support and help. That prevents the violence,” Patton said.

A map of target areas for the Neighborhood A heat map of shots fired calls and shootings.

Stabilization Program 2.