The Common Good

The 'Other' Chicago: A New Tale of Two Cities

It has been over a week since the news story broke of the deadly beating of 16 year old Derrion Albert on Chicago's South Side. I had only heard the story in passing when I received a text message from my 29-year-old son. "Hear about the kid on the south side in roseland who got beat to death. Do you know the agape community center." My son was recalling his now distant memory of a Thursday evening youth outreach program run by the small African-American church to which we belonged at the time. Our tiny church, which was also located in Roseland, would pick up kids at their homes every Thursday evening and bring them to the Agape Center for a time of recreation followed by a grandfatherly talk by our pastor.

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Ironically, the beating death occurred just days before it was announced that Chicago had lost its much hoped-for bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The twin events encapsulated the dual realities of American urban life -- it is a modern tale of two cities. Even though legal segregation ended over 50 years ago, these two cities-in-one are completely divided from each other. One is the image of a gleaming jewel stretched out along Lake Michigan with its world renowned architecture and sparkling lakefront. The other city is a place of empty lots, boarded up store fronts, and worn down housing. This other space is only seen by those who live there. Yet it exists on the far reaches of Chicago's west and south sides.

I lived in a neighborhood just north of Roseland for 19 years. Roseland, the same neighborhood in which President Obama did community organizing, had originally been a working class community. In the early 1980s many of the neighborhood's African-American residents had good paying jobs in the mills that lined the lakefront on the far South Side.

As the mills began shutting down, one after another, the workers were laid off, and Roseland experienced the highest housing foreclosure rates in the nation. In a matter of a few years, the Roseland neighborhood began its steep slide into urban decay. Local businesses shut down and storefronts were boarded up. In fact, our church worshiped in what had been once been a fried chicken carry-out. Gangs and drug trafficking replaced the vanished industrial jobs.

Most of the kids growing up in Roseland and similar neighborhoods in Chicago have no connections to the city's other half. By 2005, Chicago's downtown had expanded by one-third as gleaming new office towers were built to house the legal, accounting, and financial firms that now connected the Midwest to the burgeoning global economy. Of course, all their new workers also needed new upscale housing nearby, so the city reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down virtually all the high rise public housing that lay in close proximity to downtown. In its place, whole new neighborhoods were erected, completely transforming the areas surrounding the Loop.

The vast majority of former public housing residents were pushed out into privately owned housing in those already declining neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Youth violence spiked as youth with different gang affiliations now found themselves living side-by-side. In my experience, it was difficult to grow up in neighborhoods such as Roseland without some level of connection to a gang.

In 1997, at a moment when my then 16-year-old son found himself under threat from a neighborhood gang member, I exercised my racial and class privileges to get him out of the neighborhood. Overnight, I put him on a plane to spend the rest of the summer with his grandmother, while I moved our household out to Wheaton, in Chicago's western suburbs. I had that option because at the time I was a faculty member at Wheaton College and could take advantage of the college's offer of a bridge loan that enabled me to afford the high price of housing in the suburbs.

My son finished high school and went on to a Christian college where he encountered the living Christ. He still stays in touch with his old friends on the South Side, none of whom have finished any studies beyond high school. Most are working in marginal jobs, still living at home. Derrion has lost his life, but so many others have had theirs shrunk by being trapped in the other Chicago. All of this remained hidden while the gleaming Chicago offered itself as the host for the Olympics.

Last week, President Obama sent two members of his Cabinet, Arne Duncan and Eric Holder, to Chicago where they met with Fenger High School students. I am hoping that this president will draw on his own time spent in Roseland to launch a serious assault on the walls that continue to separate the two Chicagos. We cannot look at the horrible video footage of Derrion's beating without acknowledging that it is symptomatic of the anger and frustration in the hearts of young people who remain trapped behind the invisible barriers that run through many of America's cities.

portrait-helene-slessarev-jamirHelene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Ministries at Claremont School of Theology and a Sojourners board member.

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