I’m sitting in a very comfortable bar, drinking cold beer, watching several sports on a TV screen the size of our house, waiting for a big plate of well-cooked (if a bit unhealthy) food to arrive. These are some of the things I enjoy about this country. But of course, there’s a darker side, which Chicago exemplifies. I’ve been here before, but never really got to grips with it. This visit has shown me why it’s sometimes called The American City.
Even by the brief standards of post-European US history, Chicago has packed an astonishing amount into a relatively short time. I saw a picture yesterday of this place in the early 1830s – a few huts on the side of a river, adjacent to an enormous lake. As with so many other cities, it was shaped by water. What, within a few decades, became the crossroads of America grew because it sat between the trade links of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. There followed a population explosion that made it one of the biggest cities in the world by the end of the 19th century.
Historical landmarks are a bit invidious, but since going from frontier outpost to industrial metropolis, Chicago has seen the Great Fire of 1871 (which destroyed most of the existing city), the Haymarket incident, the fight for the 8-hour day and numerous other important labour movement struggles, the seminal 1893 World Columbian Exposition which sparked an architectural renaissance, a deadly “race riot” in 1919, rife gangsterism during prohibition, the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 and the fight for housing justice, the Democratic Congress of 1968 and more. It’s a city that drips with history and has been memorialised by some of the great American literature.
But today’s Chicago seems to have more that divides than unites it. Socio-economic polarisation, inscribed with ethnicity, has become a feature of most 21st century cities and is particularly pronounced in the US, with its history of racist housing policies and practice (Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law, is well worth a read on this). Even so, I’ve not been to many places where skin colour so clearly marks a line between one area and another. In 1996, I briefly entered the fringe of a township in Cape Town and had an immediate sense that this was another place. Parts of Chicago feel similar.
I’ve heard Chicago described by an African-American who lives here as “the most racist city in America”. In a country where racism is linked to so much social injustice, that seems a big statement. But when Dr. King came here, he said he’d never encountered such hostility, even in the Deep South. Part of the reason for that was that King was deliberately confronting residential segregation, unsuccessfully. Although various legal reforms have prohibited overt discrimination in the housing market, walking around Chicago shows it endures, albeit in different forms.
This is most obvious in certain parts of the south and west of the city. The Bronzeville neighbourhood in the South Side was decimated when thousands of homes owned by the public housing authority were demolished after 2000. Few of these homes have been replaced: thousands of people have been displaced. I first visited the area in 2015 and wrote about it in my book, describing it as a ‘class war zone’. Re-visiting this week, I wondered if maybe I’d exaggerated. I didn’t. The scale of abandonment and neglect is massive. If anything, what I saw of the West Side was even worse. These conditions are compounded by the sense that they are the result of deliberate policy and that for people in “the other” Chicago, they are out of sight and therefore, out of mind.
All of which makes Chicago – and Rump America – a troubling place to be.