Helplessness and Indifference in the Windy City: No Such Thing as a Safe Passage

Noah Berlatsky has an interesting in the Atlantic about how crime and segregation go hand in hand on the streets of Chicago. He writes

“Segregation is so ingrained, and so much taken for granted, that people, or at least white people, don’t even notice it. A couple months ago, for example, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote an editorial in which he argued that, based on murders by population, Chicago isn’t actually all that violent a city. And he’s sort of right. Chicago can be thought of as a bunch of different cities, and some of them are quite safe. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t. And a lot of effort goes into making sure that the folks who have to live in the less safe parts of Chicago don’t trouble the sleep of the folks in the safe areas.”

Coming from the New York suburbs, I found this one of the more unsettling aspects of Chicago life. I know New York City is fairly segregated when it comes to housing, but the high population density (NYC is almost 2.5x as dense) means that different races still interact on a daily basis. But in Chicago you can live on the North Side, take the Metra to the Loop for work, and then take it back in the evening all the while remaining in a bubble of whiteness. But on the South Side, you get a vastly different perspective on the city.

One of the best points that Berlatsky brings up is the fact that Chicago is more like a conglomeration of smaller cities rather than one big one. I became acutely aware of this balkanization a few years ago when I first moved to the city.  The U of C is located in Hyde Park on the South Side and is, as a student told me during orientation, “an ivory tower in a sea of ebony.” And it just so happened that my first real introduction to the city involved me getting punched out on the 55 bus heading back from the Garfield Red Line stop the day before classes even started. Suffice it to say, I didn’t exactly develop the best impression of the Windy City. So afterwards when I heard other people tell me how Chicago is such a great place, I couldn’t help but think: “Are we talking about the same city?” Of course, over the past three years my opinion of the city is a great deal more nuanced. But as someone who is still between an outsider and a local, I am still unsettled by the gap the separates the heart of the city from its underbelly.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any easy answers for anyone. The city is strapped for cash and facing a massive pension crisis that will probably force either major tax increases or dramatic cuts in service. The university, while flush with cash, is focused on making Hyde Park a better place for its students and not necessarily anyone else. And while community leaders and activists have been shouting about this problem for years, they don’t seem to have much to show for it.

To borrow a phrase from the movies:

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chicago.” 

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