This is a love letter to the inner city. This is a love letter to a concept of Chicago that is constantly under attack. This is a love letter to the people in the hood who raised me, sustained me, and supported me.
I’ve been trying to write about Chicago violence for a good two months now. The facts are easy to obtain from any major news source, though the way in which those facts are presented leaves a lot to be desired. Context matters, though, and it appears to be completely missing from most discussions concerning my city. If you were to take a map of Chicago marked with the neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence, and overlay it with a map of school closures, you might begin to see a pattern. Add in yet another map of cuts to public transit–including the decisions to shut down train lines for repairs for months or years at a time–and a picture emerges of neighborhoods that have been systematically isolated.
Experts on Chicago (who often are neither from Chicago or remotely educated about Chicago politics or Chicago history), often disparage the people in the community. And no, I’m not making excuses for gang violence. But when we talk about violence in the communities where gangs are most common, we have to talk about the economics of crime. We have to talk about the impact of poverty, of police brutality, of school closures, of services being cut over and over again to these neighborhoods. We have to talk about the impact of racism on wealth building in communities of color. We have to talk about politicians who think the solution to crime is to throw civil liberties out the window. We have to talk about why the institutional reaction to white-on-white violence was settlement houses, while the institutional reaction to violence in predominantly Black and Latino communities is to bring in the National Guard.
It’s easy to forget that the people living in those neighborhoods are more complex than a sound bite, when those sound bites are often all that make it into the mainstream media. There’s this idea that the community is responsible for fixing itself, as though these things are happening because the people living there have dozens of choices and they choose the ones that leads to violence.
Discussions of mental health issues–like post-traumatic stress disorder–stop when race and crime enter the equation. Yet we know that kids who witness violence early in life are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and yes, PTSD. We know that the kids who join gangs often come from unstable homes. Yet all too often, sympathy for the victims is as minimal as it is for the people doing the shooting. When you look at comments on articles about gun violence here, the racists usually come out to play. They’re happy to lambast poor people of color for living in the only places they can afford in a rapidly gentrifying city where rents have more than tripled in the last 15 years.
When discussions start about “those people,” I am always aware that I am one of those people. I call it “hood made good” because–like a lot of the people I grew up with–I know what it’s like to be poor in dangerous areas, and have to navigate the reality that the police aren’t there to protect and serve you. To know that some of your neighbors are both a problem and a solution. Community policing is a joke in a city where calling the cops might get you help, or might get you killed.
That’s before we get into the reality of poverty, and how often crime is all that’s paying the most basic of bills in homes teetering on the edge of collapse. Survival demands certain hard choices, and while I have the privilege of not having to face those choices myself, I come from a family that faced them for me.
Chicago can be a hard city to love, especially in the depths of a violent summer. But make no mistake; the hood is not a cancer to be cut away. The hood needs healing and access to resources and opportunities that have vanished with each wave of gentrification. Want to stop the violence in Chicago? Save Chicago from a long slow decline into whatever post-apocalyptic wasteland is most popular in the imaginations of those who speak of sending armed troops into faltering neighborhoods? Stop trying to fight fire with fire, and start fighting it with the water of access and opportunity. The violence is the symptom, but poverty is the disease. Attack it with quality schools, health care for bodies and minds, jobs that pay living wages, public transit, open libraries, community centers, and policing strategies that don’t involve brutality.
Instead of spending taxpayers’ dollars to pad the wallets of wealthy institutions, polish up schools that are still brand new, spend that money in the hood. Commit to helping not just this generation, but the next several generations so “hood made good” is not the exception. I succeeded because of the sacrifices made on my behalf; I make sacrifices for my community; but this is not an individual problem. This is a structural problem that dates back generations. From the riots of 1919 to the abuses of the ’80s to the brutality of today, the hood in Chicago has been under attack longer than most of us have been alive.
A people under siege cannot, will not be able to achieve their full potential. Chicago needs to write a love letter to itself.