AmericanOpinion

Left behind

Chicago is bequeathing an urban jungle to the next generation

By Richard C. Longworth

Chicago is a city mesmerised by planning. Blame it on Daniel Burnham. 

About a century ago, Burnham, a Chicago architect, drew up a Plan of Chicago, to guide the city as it developed in the 20th century. To a considerable degree, Burnham’s prescriptions for Chicago’s lakefront, boulevards, railway stations, and parks came to pass. Chicago still thrives on Burnham’s vision. 

For the past three months, the Chicago Tribune has been campaigning for a New Plan of Chicago. The campaign invokes Burnham’s plan at every turn. But the two plans couldn’t be more different, and the difference underlines what has happened to America’s old industrial cities in the wake of deindustrialisation and the arrival of the global era. 

Burnham focused on the Loop, the city’s downtown core splaying out from its splendid lakefront. It dealt mostly with the city’s physical layout, not how its millions of people would earn their living. This was the dawn of the industrial age, and Chicago’s leaders assumed the jobs would always be there: a vibrant Loop would be a centrepiece for a prosperous city. If it wasn’t as easy as that, it’s still pretty much how it worked out. 

The Tribune is ignoring the Loop, which is doing fine. It focuses instead on Chicago’s neighbourhoods — more specifically, on the mostly black inner city ghettos that have come to define urban pathology in the post-industrial era. 

Chicago today is almost literally two cities. One is Burnham’s Chicago, the Loop and the gentrifying neighbourhoods, mostly near Lake Michigan or on the north side. This Chicago has bounced back from the Rust Belt depths on the strength of global business services, big universities, tourism, and a growing high tech economy. Most rankings put it in the top ten among global cities. 

For the other Chicago, globalisation is no more than a rumour. This other Chicago has become an international byword for inner city violence, gang warfare, mindless murder, dismal education, and a generational hopelessness. The well-intentioned Tribune series advocates some useful palliative measures — turning closed schools into homeless shelters or designating some parks as “refuges” safe from violence. But its problems run too deep for this. 

Two Chicagos spring from the same era, the sunburst of heavy industry that once made Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders.”

Immigrants came from around the world to work in the city’s mills, factories, and stockyards. So, from about 1910 until 1960, did black Southerners, fleeing the racial oppression and poverty in the South in search of a better life in the North. About 6 million African Americans came north, with hundreds of thousands of them settling in Chicago, because that’s where the jobs were. 

Legal residential segregation confined these arrivals to enclaves on the south and west sides of the city. But these ghettos were economically integrated, home not only to factory workers but to teachers, business people, and other middle- and upper class blacks. The workers themselves were poor but not destitute, earning a living wage, living mostly in intact families. 

Starting in the 1960s, two things happened. First, the big factories and steel mills that provided most of the jobs for unskilled labour went away — at first to the suburbs or the South, later to Mexico and Asia. Second, legal segregation ended and anyone who could leave the ghetto — the more educated and skilled, mostly — did so. 

Everyone else was left behind, without jobs or hope. Today, it’s their descendants — the third or fourth generation by now — who live in these decayed neighbourhoods. Most of these areas carry verdant names — Englewood, North Lawndale, West Garfield Park — but they are killing fields of broken families, drug wars, and 50 per cent unemployment rates. 

There’s more to this than race. As the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote, these people are in the ghettoes because they’re black but they stay there because they’re poor. Not all Chicago blacks are poor: many have moved out into the middle class. Nor are all whites privileged: many belong to the beleaguered lower middle class that may be sliding into a new underclass of its own. (In the middle is the vast population of immigrants working low-paid jobs and struggling to get a toehold in the economy.)

Chicago, like all cities, has always had its rich and poor. But this is different. The old industrial economy embraced the city and all its residents. The new global economy has left the two halves of Chicago living virtually in different centuries. 

From Lawndale or Englewood, jobless residents can easily see the skyscrapers of the Loop but have no idea how to find a job there. The city’s highway system is laid out so that its global citizens can zip from home to airport to office without ever seeing the ghettos or its people. 

One recent statistic put this division in stark terms. Chicago reaped unwanted headlines for its murder epidemic. But virtually all these street slayings took place in only a few neighbourhoods. Englewood has a murder rate of 60 per 100,000 residents; the rate in the globally-connected parts of Chicago is 3.3 — higher than Sydney but about the same as Toronto. What’s more, this lower figure has been falling for years while the rate in the ghettos was rising, at least until recently. 

Daniel Hertz of the University of Chicago, who compiled these figures, saw them as vivid evidence of growing inequality — in income, in education, even in a young person’s chance of living to adulthood. 

This pathology defines many old industrial cities: the homicide rate is worse in places like Detroit and Cleveland. But these are basically impoverished cities, totally left behind by the global economy, without the two-cities contrast that disfigures Chicago. 

Chicago needs not one plan but two — one for its global core, another to repair the damage done to its inner-city neighbourhoods. Only when both halves occupy the same economy can we think about a true new Plan of Chicago.