Should we be giddy about our cities when so many are suffering in them? | Bleader

Should we be giddy about our cities when so many are suffering in them?


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Mayor Emanuel speaks at Chicago State University in late July, at a forum on urban violence
  • Chandler West for Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Emanuel speaks at Chicago State University in late July, at a forum on urban violence
Kids used to dream of being president, Thomas Friedman observed a week ago in the New York Times. But because of congressional gridlock, that job now is just plain frustrating. The "most exciting innovations in governance" are happening at the city level—and therefore, Friedman predicted, children will soon be saying they want to be a mayor when they grow up. "Except in Detroit, mayors today have more fun."

I picture a Chicago kid telling her parents at dinner one day, "I wanna be mayor when I grow up."

"Not president?"

"Nope. Air Force One and the Rose Garden are cool, but the most exciting innovations in governance now are right here in Chicago."

This child probably wouldn't be one of the many African-American kids for whom the most exciting innovations in governance included the closing of her school.

Fifty schools were closed in Chicago this year because they were underused. They became underused because African-Americans have been leaving Chicago, because the most exciting innovations in governance have reduced the supply of housing they can afford. And because the most exciting innovations haven't done much to improve their schools, or cut their jobless rate, or make their streets safer.

The schools were also underused because one of Chicago's most exciting innovations has been charter schools, which don't appear to have closed the achievement gap between whites and minorities, but have siphoned off students from the regular public schools.

Friedman went on in his column:

If you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up—from its major metropolitan areas—than from the top down. Washington is tied in knots by Republican-led hyperpartisanship, lobbyists and budget constraints. Ditto most state legislatures. So the great laboratories and engines of our economy are now our cities.

And he quoted our very own Rahm Emanuel about how terrific it is being a mayor today. "I worked for two great presidents, but this is the best job I’ve had in public service,” Emanuel told Friedman.

(In public service. Because as awesome as being mayor is, it's probably runner-up to pulling in $18 million in two-and-a-half years as an investment banker.)

Friedman may indeed have been standing on his head when his optimism spilled out of him. He'd just read an "important new book"—The Metropolitan Revolution, by a pair of Brookings Institution scholars, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. In it, they wax rhapsodic about cities and metro areas.

"A revolution is stirring in America," Katz and Bradley declare. "Empowered by their economic strength and driven by demographic dynamism, cities and metros are positioning themselves at the cutting edge of reform, investment, and innovation."

They must have started this revolution without us. Chicago, like many big cities, is suffering. I'm not even talking about the city's major budget problems. I'm talking about the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans.

* * *

The north side, where most white, non-Hispanic Chicagoans live, is full of vibrant neighborhoods. But well over a half million of Chicago's 2.7 million residents are poor. The vast majority of them are African-Americans and Hispanics who live on the south and west sides.

And more than 260,000 Chicagoans—almost 10 percent of the city's population—are living in extreme poverty: they're in households with incomes that are less than half of a poverty-line income.

In seven of Chicago's 77 community areas, more than 20 percent of the residents are living in extreme poverty. These seven communities have something in common besides poverty, as do the city's seven communities with the least poverty: The seven poorest communities range from 92 to 99 percent African-American; the seven least-poor communities range from 65 to 97 percent white.

The concentrated poverty that pervades the seven African-American neighborhoods above (and many others in Chicago) dependably reproduces joblessness, failing schools, single-parent families, poor health, drug addiction and drug dealing, and abandoned and foreclosed buildings. It makes violence almost normal, and tragedy an expectation. It shortens and constricts life, for generation after generation. As I noted last October, one of every 11 white children in Chicago is poor. Among African-American children, it's more than one in two.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I drove down 63rd Street from Cottage Grove to Western, a bleak four-mile stretch that runs through Woodlawn, Washington Park, Englewood, West Englewood, and Chicago Lawn—African-American neighborhoods not yet touched by "economic strength and demographic dynamism." Here you see long stretches of sprawling vacant lots. The blocks with commerce have liquor stores and convenience shops with signs in caged windows: "Don't shoot—I want to grow up" (with a photo of a child); "These premises protected by video surveilance"; and, most everywhere, "We accept LINK" (the electronic card for food-stamp benefits).

A makeshift shrine at 64th and May, in memory of a 22-year-old homicide victim
  • Steve Bogira
  • A makeshift shrine at 64th and May, in memory of a 22-year-old homicide victim

Storefront churches abound: the New Day Consolation House of Prayer, the Kingdom Builders Christian Center, and the Love Unlimited Christian Ministry Center are intermixed with Prestige Liquors and Dollar Junction.

On the sidestreets I found many boarded buildings marked for demolition with a red X. At 62nd and Langley, a man in a yellow helmet and green vest was pulling sheets of plywood from a van for the three-story apartment building he was sealing. In front of an apartment building at 62nd and Rhodes, a heavyset, downcast woman, fists on hips, was talking to a police officer who was filling out a report she seemed to be giving. At 64th and May, a tattered makeshift shrine sat in the shade of an old maple tree, in memory of a 22-year-old shot to death there last spring.

I drove three miles west on 63rd before I saw a white person. Then I saw three of them: young police officers in their bulletproof vests coming out of the parking lot behind the Seventh District station at 63rd and Bishop.

A home marked for demoliton on the 6200 block of south Wolcott
  • Steve Bogira
  • A home marked for demoliton on the 6200 block of south Wolcott

I took 59th Street back east. On Winchester, just north of 59th, a police wagon and a squad car were parked, with a half-dozen officers and detectives standing between them. Yellow crime-scene tape spanned the street. I pulled around the block and got as close as I could.

"Gunshot victim this afternoon," an officer told me.

"How's he doing?"

"Not good—critical, last I heard."

* * *

The Metropolitan Revolution opens with a quote from Emanuel: "I will not tie this city's future to the dysfunction in Washington and Springfield." Emanuel reciprocates the prominent attention with a blurb on the back cover: "Being Mayor of Chicago is the best job I've ever had in public life. Katz and Bradley totally get it: the real power to change America lies in our cities and metros."

The tenet that Emanuel, and Katz and Bradley, and Friedman subscribe to is that because federal and state government are paralyzed, the smartest cities should move ahead without them, leaning heavily on private business, which will play the roles that the feds and the state used to.

The nation is being reshaped at the local level, Katz and Bradley write—by mayors, other elected officials, and business leaders "using business planning techniques honed in the private sector." Together "they are remaking their urban and suburban places as livable, quality, affordable, sustainable communities."

A few things concern me about this view. First, can urbanites really trust business leaders, whose honed planning techniques tend to be dedicated to the bottom line, to be their new best friend? For poor and powerless city residents, the most terrifying words in the English language may not quite be "I'm from big business, and I'm here to help" (with apologies to Ronald Reagan)—but skepticism is certainly warranted. Yes, federal and state government have been dysfunctional. Let's figure out how to make them functional.

Second, little progress has been made in closing the gap in metros, where there's concentrated poverty in central cities, and concentrated affluence, and a reluctance to share the wealth, in the suburbs. The "Sunday Dialogue" in yesterday's New York Times focused on this key issue, and was much more illuminating than Friedman's Pollyannaish column. In metro Detroit, suburbanites and their political leaders "have largely turned their backs on the city," an urban planning professor noted. That's true of central cities and their metro areas throughout the nation. Regional government is badly needed, but so far it's just a concept.

Until it becomes reality, celebrating the shiny new metropolis is, to put it mildly, premature. And it's smug to talk about remade communities—"quality, affordable, and sustainable"—when misery and inequality are still rampant in so many urban areas. When Riverdale, Englewood, Washington Park, East Garfield Park, and neighborhoods like them are racially and economically integrated—be it with government or business leading the way—a metropolitan revolution truly will have occurred. But that change hasn't even begun, and there's no sign that it's around the corner.

Jillian Sandler helped research this post.

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