This week, Chicago was in the news for a good reason. And that is pretty rare these days. If it’s not more reports of street violence, then it’s the President threatening the city with … well, I don’t really know what exactly.
Former President Barack Obama — who should be the No. 1 contender for the next Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign — announced that he and his wife, Michelle — aka Beyonce’s Beyonce — were donating $2 million to programs designed to help at-risk youth find summer jobs. (I guess now we have an idea what Obama might have planned for with his $400,000 from Wall Street.) But that wasn’t the only reason Chicago was in the news. It was also reported that someone shot and injured two police officers. The second story is unfortunately the kind that America more often thinks about when Chicago comes to mind.
Knowing that more people associate Chicago with street violence than generosity is difficult for me, because despite all my proclamations of being from the Bay Area, I have spent much of my life in Chicago. So I have a deep love and a pretty good understanding of the city. And that’s why this week on “United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell,” I felt so compelled to go back and see if I could get the real story about how the reputation of Chicago matches up with the reality.
While I was there, I asked a man named Wild Wild the General, an admitted gang member in the Altgeld Gardens Homes project on the South Side, whether his city is better or worse off than people think it is. He didn’t hesitate: “It’s worse,” he said.
I was shocked. I was prepared for him to say the media had gotten it all wrong about the pervasiveness of gang violence in Chicago. But he and his crew let me know that people outside of the affected neighborhoods really have no idea how bad it is.
In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Chicago — more than in New York and Los Angeles combined. That is a staggering, heartbreaking number. We’re talking people of all ages, races, ethnicities and genders — the very young to the very old. But I know that violence is not the whole story of Chicago. And I know this because, again, I used to live there.
Our President would have you think violence is the entire story. In various tweets and speeches, he refers to the carnage of Chicago, as if the murder rate has turned the whole city into some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland — the kind of Old West town that only exists in cowboy movies. It is simply not true. (And worse, his rhetoric does a disservice to other cities struggling with similar problems.)
One thing that people outside Chicago need to understand is that the city is not just one thing. It is one city, but it is huge and sprawling. And historically it has been one of America’s most segregated cities.
The size of the city and the nature of how independent the neighborhoods are means that not only do people who live outside Chicago not know what is going on there, Chicagoans often don’t know what is going on there. I remember feeling that myself. While I grew up on the South Side in Hyde Park, when I got my own apartment and moved to the North Side, I might as well have needed a passport — that’s how different life was from how it had been on the South Side.
This is especially true when you compare my North Side neighborhood with those that surrounded Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a neighborhood controlled by the University of Chicago, which means it might as well have a dome on top of it. The University of Chicago has its own police force that is there mostly to protect Hyde Park from the surrounding neighborhoods. It is like an elementary school diorama, showing the surrounding areas what a safe neighborhood can look like. And many of the neighborhoods that surround Hyde Park experience that crime and death for which Chicago is known.
To put it bluntly, here’s how the map of the city works: The South and West sides are in large part the Chicago of rap music, crime stats, miles of undeveloped land, schools that will inspire the next wave of those 1990s “Dangerous Minds”-type movies, and governmental neglect. The North Side is the Chicago of Cubs games, blues bars safe for white tourists, Bill Murray and the future Not Ready for Primetime Players at Second City, and hot dogs that look like the contents of a refrigerator fell on them. The East Side is Lake Michigan.
And while people outside Chicago seemingly love to talk about the city like it is a foreign land that needs military intervention, the people who live in these neighborhoods aren’t interested in being victims. They know what the solutions are and want to see them happen. And. I’m. Including. The. Gang. Members. In. That. Statement. Too.
You’ll meet some of these folks Sunday. There are people such as Diane Latiker who runs Kids Off the Block, which helps youths spend their time productively after school; Kofi Ademola from Black Lives Matter Chicago; and Pastor Jolinda Wade. In addition to being NBA star Dwyane Wade’s mom, Jolinda Wade has a harrowing and inspirational story of drug abuse and gang-banging before she turned her life over to the church and then to her community. I also talk to Grammy Award-winning producer Malik Yusef, who talks openly about how caught up he was in the gang life, and he also talks the same way about how hard he is working to use his success to help people in his community. He introduced me to a few of the rappers who made it out and still feel the pull of their communities (in good ways and bad).
To a person, all of them know what could fix their neighborhoods. In one way or another, they said they need reinvestment from the business community. They need the city to provide better schools. (Public radio station WBEZ points out how drastically librarian positions are being cut from Chicago’s public schools. And here I always thought having a school library was one of the foundational principles of a school. ) They need a criminal justice system that is there to support and not occupy their neighborhoods. Basically, the people of the South and West sides need to be treated like the North Side.
I spoke to some North Side residents on this trip, and I asked them about the South and West sides of town. And it was like I was asking them about the South Side of Aleppo. These people on the North can certainly do a better job of connecting with the other parts of the city. But if North Siders won’t connect with them and the government won’t do it, then it seems like it is incumbent on others to step up. In addition to the people I mentioned, recently Chance the Rapper donated $1 million to the Chicago public school system. When I heard that figure, I thought I had misread it. I hadn’t. He’s got it like that. That figure was matched by the Chicago Bulls.
Chicago is a world-class city filled with amazing people with big ideas. It shouldn’t need outside help — its local government needs to step up to be as amazing as its people. I know Chicago has the resources. All over the North Side and downtown buildings are going up. Change is constantly in the air. But meanwhile the South and West sides are much the same, if not worse. The people of Chicago deserve better. They know they deserve better. The question is: Is anybody listening to them?