“Hope is a discipline.” -Mariame Kaba
By Stacie Williams
Last week, I took my preschool-age sons with me to Jane A. Neil Elementary School in Chatham to vote in one of the first wide open municipal elections in Chicago in decades. We walked down a short hallway to the gym—the same hallway that my mom and her friends walked when she attended Neil as a young girl, only a few short years after the school was built in 1955. Walking with my boys, I imagined my mom in a single file line, waiting to enter the classroom, probably flushed from a recess game of Double Dutch that wrapped before she entered.
“Sometimes there are people who want to stop us from voting, just because of who we are,” I told my sons as I filled in the connecting arrows on the ballot. “So don’t ever let anyone stop you from doing it when you’re old enough to vote.” But as I slid my ballot through the scanner, I wondered how much had actually changed in Chicago since my mother and her friends walked those halls, or even since my grandparents had been Chicago voters, and what impact this election would have, if any, on everyone’s children.
The election returns that night revealed that Chicago will have a black woman as mayor for the first time in the city’s existence; former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle are hurtling toward an April run-off election. Both candidates refer to themselves as progressive, though that may be more a reflection of mainstream political branding. Both posit themselves as outsiders to Chicago’s famed Democratic machine, which keeps the city moving forward but also has a way of sheltering corruption in the highest levels of city and state government.
Truthfully, while I’m in awe of this milestone—that black women who look like my aunts or cousins are in consideration to run the third-largest city in the nation—both of the candidates have taken actions on behalf of powerful institutions that trouble me, that make me wonder how committed they will truly be to a Chicago future that uplifts all of us, rather than centering progress in a few white, affluent north side neighborhoods and the Obamas’ south side Hyde Park.
What changed between the 1950s—when my grandparents first moved to the Chatham neighborhood, which was being vacated by middle-class Italian immigrants who had moved to the former swamp generations prior—and 2018, when the justifiably-maligned Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term? And how much of that change was because of someone with a City Hall office, versus organizers who pushed the progressive agenda that both candidates have now claimed as their political bedrock? We can’t talk about or imagine the future without first engaging with the past, and we have to acknowledge that Chicago’s past is built on a framework of white supremacy and segregation.
The south side Chatham neighborhood, where my grandmother lived for more than sixty years until she passed in 2016, and where I now live with my family, experienced at the micro level the effects of policies that all of those mayors and alderpersons pushed through the platform of racial exclusion. Sustained discrimination in the real estate market, for instance—black people were subject to higher interest rates, riskier loans, less money loaned in total, lower property values, and then being physically steered by real estate agents to all-black, low-income neighborhoods—meant that neighbors were working twice as hard for a tenuous hold on the middle class. In Chatham, this was an especially critical point, as the property values in the neighborhood remain, to this day, lower on average than similar or smaller lots on the north side or in non-white, Latinx-majority gentrifying neighborhoods.
In 1995, then-mayor Richard M. Daley decided he would shut down all of the high-rise Chicago Housing Authority towers on the south and near north sides of town. The demolition took more than twenty years to complete, and residents were dispersed across town with little care for their concerns or their humanity. This, in a city where it was even harder for working-class citizens to make ends meet due to: deindustrialization; ongoing discrimination in the labor market; and later, privatized revenue collection via red-light camera and parking tickets that forced thousands of people into bankruptcy.
The economic insecurity experienced disproportionately by black people in Chicago led to an increase in crime across the city, and especially in Chatham, where the unemployment rate increased 157 percent and the median income dropped nineteen percent between 2000 and 2010. Between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, Chatham’s relative calm was shattered by increasingly grim crimes, including the 2010 murder of police officer Thomas Wortham IV in a robbery outside of the home he grew up in, across the street from Nat King Cole Park. By that time, my grandmother, a non-driver who taught me how to ride the CTA and figure out east from west, had begun relying more on taxi cabs because of decreased physical mobility. She was independent and street-smart, and was not going to be driven from the neighborhood in which she had built community and a family.
My own memories of Chatham are neighbors who would share a freshly-baked pie and fences short enough to have a conversation. I returned to a neighborhood where fear and concern over crime and dropping property values raised the height of everyone’s fences and drive disturbing comments on the neighborhood’s Nextdoor and Ring comment boards, where some of my neighbors profile any younger black people who simply happen to be walking around the area. But I see hope in other messages, in which residents coordinate cleanup of an off-ramp or tout some of the newer small businesses opening in the area.
If black Chicago neighborhoods were holding on by their metaphorical fingernails, Emanuel’s tenure may have done the most damage. Between 2011 and 2013, he and the City Council closed fifty Chicago Public Schools and eliminated mental health services, disproportionately on the city’s south and west sides. For black people all over the city, this disinvestment was the final straw. More than half a million African Americans have left the Chicagoland area in the past ten years—some of them in a reverse migration pattern back to the south.
In the late aughts, I was one of those people who left the city looking for an alternate future, one not so dependent on the whims of corporate media owners. I moved away from Chicago to attend graduate school a little more than a year after Obama was elected president. The Chicago I returned to in 2018 (after stints in Boston, Lexington, Kentucky, and Cleveland) had changed, but the ways that segregation keeps my side of town stuck in the past remain infuriating. My former Old Town stomping grounds had experienced gentrification on steroids; I drove to where the former Cabrini-Green towers stood and sat in my car dumbfounded, looking at the multilevel Target and white people whizzing by on their bikes.
Then I drove back to Chatham. This was not long after the news broke that Target was abandoning both of its south side locations in Chatham and Morgan Park. I thought about the elderly women on my block, most of whom no longer drive to get their prescriptions—but when they did, it was to that Target. I came into the house and looked at my dog, who needed food that was best bought in bulk, and my two-year-old still in diapers, and I wondered about other moms in my neighborhood. I envisioned the miles running up on the dashboard, and the extra gas money that people would have to spend to leave the neighborhood for basic goods. Just because we live in a black neighborhood. Just because we are black.
Author Mensah Demary recently wrote that “visions proffered by politicians of a conditionally improved world is not the same as each of us reconciling the future on present terms, to think and build as things are seen now with our own eyes.” So what can the future of my city be with a black woman at the helm—against a backdrop of segregation; of hypercapitalism that disregards all lives, especially black ones; and of political corruption, which has existed regardless of how many white or black people are in city government? What can the future of any of our cities be?
“We are,” as Chicago’s daughter Gwendolyn Brooks said, “each other’s harvest; we are each other’s freedom; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” I want the black woman mayor of my future city to understand that individual success among a few of us doesn’t translate into community-wide uplift. In my future city, organizers involved in BYP100, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and the #NoCopAcademy movements continue to do the hard work of pushing leadership to embrace systemic change, because in my future city, organizing exists as a continuum of the work that people, and especially women who look like me, have been doing for more than a hundred years, from Ada McKinley, Ida B. Wells, Mamie Till Mobley, Rev. Willie Barrow, and Lorraine Hansberry to Mariame Kaba, Destiny Harris, Charlene Carruthers, and Page May.
We can have a truly progressive, inclusive future for this city, but first we have to acknowledge, name, and seek to understand the things that are holding us back. We can be brave enough to envision a future where education is a priority over incarceration, where there is enough affordable housing for everyone, and where a well-maintained transit system serves the entire city. And we can embrace a future where we understand our responsibility to each other, our magnitude and bond, and actively work to dismantle the fear that keeps us so divided. But this future depends on all of us, regardless of who sits in City Hall. ■
Stacie Williams is a librarian and director of the Center for Digital Scholarship at the University of Chicago. Her first book, Bizarro Worlds (Fiction Advocate, 2018), is a bibliomemoir analyzing race and gentrification in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Her work has been featured in the Gordon Square Review, Midnight Breakfast, VICE, New York magazine, LitHub, Catapult and The Rumpus.
Cover image: Chicago City Hall by Lucas Livingston (CC BY 2.0).
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