NOWLAN: Many share responsibility for downtown crises | Opinion
Not long after college, in the late 1960s, I was visiting friends on the northwest side of Chicago who were getting gentrified. My host couple and I had a stroll before a night out in the old town nearby. When we arrived at the Methodist Church on Armitage Avenue, we saw perhaps a dozen young men lounging on the wide concrete steps that led to the church’s towering doors.
“It’s Bobby Rush,” friend Gordon whispered, nodding to an obvious leader of a heated discussion going on at the foot of the Lord’s house.
Seeing us, the gang leaders (even a Downstater like me could tell who these guys were) waved to us. They put quarter-length beer bottles in our hands, and we joked about nothing for a few minutes, then walked away waving, beers in hand. The leaders of the Black Panther and Young Lords had more important things to say during their powwow.
My takeaway: At the time, there were only a few big gangs in Chicago. So, as bad as the gangs were, there was identifiable leadership. And power can speak to power, when absolutely necessary. Just as city leaders have done from time to time, through the back door, with a former gang leader, Al Capone, when needed to ensure an election runs without any chaos.
Today in Chicago there are about 60 gangs, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, and many other semi-autonomous offshoots, some on single blocks, and over 100,000 members. Gang members outnumber Chicago 9-1 police. How do you like them odds ?! No wonder so many cops yearn to leave town for more secure jobs in the neighboring suburbs.
There’s also no one to talk to the cops and city officials to. Power is atomized, and Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods often have to look like teenage hot spots.
Fast forward to Bobby Rush, a 15-term congressional veteran, to the 1980s. My boss, Governor Jim Thompson, asked me to spend time in East St. Louis, to see if there were any positive leaders. in this thirsty town across from its namesake in Missouri, which the governor could support with social and law enforcement programs.
I spent a month in and out of ESL (there was no room in the city of 40,000). I met Sister Julia Huiskamp, a kind of holy and tough of the Mother Teresa variety. There are a few like her in many of our inner city neighborhoods; not enough to make a big difference. There was a man, a college graduate, who had started a printing press. The inhabitants based their hopes on him. Printer myself, I was able to tell from obsolete equipment in his store that the business would not last a year. This is not the case.
I reported to Big Jim: There really is no effective leadership that you can cope with. The city is too far away. Models like businessmen, middle class, school teachers and cops, who lived elsewhere, have all abandoned ESL and neighborhoods like that.
Fast forward, fast to a few years ago. I am returning to ESL to participate in a panel discussion, sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council, a great wellness group. We find ourselves in a government building, the only one still standing. On my slow, determined drive through the city of 25,000 (82,000 in 1950), I see little business activity other than liquor stores and storefront churches, a flashing neon cross weakly above one of them. Entire neighborhoods are empty, littered with garbage, houses collapsing – apocalyptic.
The once bustling neighborhoods of Chicago’s south and west sides mirror ESL. You can see this by taking the # 20 CTA bus west on Madison from Michigan Avenue to Austin Boulevard, on the border with Oak Park. (I bet not.) The bus takes you from chaff to rubbish.
Homicide rates in ESL and in lower-state cities such as Peoria are still higher than in Chicago, but they don’t have the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue and tourism to protect. No, it is Chicago that the national presenters imply that it is on the bubble, between vitality and fateful disarray.
There are a lot of complaints.
What has to be done? Get 20,000 to 30,000 at-risk teens out of neighborhoods. After all, that’s what everyone who can has done. Perhaps programs such as the Lincoln ChalleNGe residential “training camp”, located in Downstate, started by former Governor Jim Edgar (the camps are for the National Guard, which manages the program). And maybe in CCC-type wilderness camps, the guys who lifted thousands of young white people out of poverty during the Depression – and mostly banned blacks.
We also need to somehow mend the crumpled subcultures of our impoverished neighborhoods (including those of the young white single mothers of my rural Illinois as well). Too many of these young mothers in urban and rural America lack parenting skills or positive support networks and find drugs and alcohol a comfort in a world that overwhelms them.
A small ball won’t make any difference. President Biden thinks big, but he apparently just wants to throw money at people and not use it to hold them accountable for their efforts to improve themselves.
As for Chicago, I think Mayor Lori Lightfoot should take a page from another woman Chicago mayor’s playbook. In 1981, Jane Byrne moved into the infamous Cabrini Green social housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side. Of course, it was a gimmick, but it caught the public’s attention. And Cabrini Green is now gone, but probably more because the developers wanted to put high-end condos in its place.
Lori – and her team – are expected to move to Englewood or another violent neighborhood for six months. Take apartments, live there, and set up a mini town hall, where supplicants should go to do business. After all, Englewood is as much a part of the city as Lake Shore (now DuSable) Drive.
Chicago’s out-of-control gangs pose an existential threat to the otherwise bright and shiny future of Chicago. A small bullet will not do it.
We reap what we have sown.
Jim Nowlan was a senior researcher and professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He worked for three uncharged governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.