BY MICHAEL LANSU
Homicide Watch Chicago Editor
When the weather is nice, Ehrick Harper likes to sit outside of the Chatham Great Choice apparel store where he works.
Harper, 38, knows the store is on a particularly violent stretch of East 79th Street, but says he makes the two-hour commute from the West Side because he needs work.
“I have to feel safe — it’s my job,” Harper says with a smile as he glances over his right shoulder at his co-worker.
The store closes at 7 p.m., and residents say the bustling commercial strip near Cottage Grove changes for the worse at night, just in time for Harper’s bus trip home.
“You put too many people in a [bad] situation and it reaches a boiling point,” Harper said. “When there is no economic structure for people, they tend to stray or they try and make something out of nothing. That means violence, or whatever they need to do to get it cracking, as they say on 79th.”
The store is in the middle of 2 1/2-mile stretch that divides the Avalon Park, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, South Chicago and South Shore communities.
The stretch has had nine homicides since the start of 2013. Two other 79th Street slayings in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood make it the street with the most killings since the start of 2013, according to data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
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Robert Tracy, Chicago Police chief of crime control strategies, noted that 79th Street is a busy transportation hub that goes through several neighborhoods and gang conflict territories.
“When you have more people on the street, there are more people interacting and violence can be more in those areas,” Tracy said.
A majority of the murders happened between King Drive and Yates Boulevard, which is just west of where six people were wounded when gunfire erupted outside a laundry at 79th and Marquette on June 2.
“I don’t stay out late. I changed my route when I went different places because certain areas were more prone to shootings than other areas,” former resident Barbara Whigham, 59, said. “Certain appointments I changed because on the weekends it was worse. If I did something on the weekends, I made sure somebody picked me up and brought me back, because even the CTA isn’t safe.”
Tracy did note, however, that technological advances allow police to use CTA surveillance video to capture images of crimes that may occur outside the bus.
The most recent murder happened May 29 when gun violence erupted in the 700 block of East 79th Street — less than a block from the Great Choice — and 58-year-old Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep special education teacher Betty Howard was killed while working her second job at Kale Realty.
Prosecutors said Dominique Hodrick, 23, was attempting to shoot a rival inside a passing vehicle, but the bullet went through the wall of the real estate office and struck Howard in the chest. Hodrick, of the 7900 block of South St. Lawrence Avenue, is being held without bond while he awaits trial on murder charges.
The shooting that killed Howard was one of seven slayings along the stretch that happened between 5 p.m. and 4 a.m.
“I’m in the house at six o’clock every day because I’m afraid I might get shot,” said Tracy Davis, 46. “My mother lives on the West Side in Oak Park, and she’s afraid of me getting hurt. She wants me to leave the South Side, but I’ve been here all of my life.”
Several longtime residents believe the area has gotten worse in recent years, and they blame an increase in teenage violence.
“The teenagers are taking over,” said Marion Knight, 62. “It’s not like it was when we were teenagers. They have no respect for their elders.”
Andre Rowell, 56, said he tried to help a young relative get off the street by offering to help him find a job.
“They need to find some jobs for these people,” Rowell said. “If they had something to do, then they wouldn’t be out on the corner selling loose squares, cigarettes, dope and crack and s–.”
While some residents say the area is getting worse, there has been a 50 percent decrease in murders along the stretch compared with the same period last year.
Police have deployed additional resources in the area, including officers on foot posts and in “impact zones,” CPD’s Tracy said.
“There is real progress,” Tracy said. “It’s not just on 79th Street, but throughout the city. … Other than two or three districts, we have reductions in crime throughout the city.”
— Contributing: Kaley Fowler