Sunday, February 20, 2011

Blue City Exodus - Chicago

Had I known, when I left the city in 2000 to move my family to the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, that 200,000 of my fellow Chicagoans would follow clumping after us, fleeing en masse to the surrounding region, according to the United States Census, well, I might have given it a second thought.

OK, that’s not true. It wasn’t my fault. People left Chicago over the past decade for a variety of reasons — some were public housing residents who had their homes demolished out from under them. Some lost their jobs in the Great Recession and had to seek work elsewhere. And yes some — 20,000? 40,000? the number is unknowable — were middle class wage slaves like myself (OK, lower upper middle class wage slaves, to borrow George Orwell’s term) who couldn’t bring themselves to fling their darling children into the stormy chop of the Chicago public school system and couldn’t make the nut at a private school that might not deign to accept them anyway, whatever the price.

And yes, there are good Chicago public schools, and yes, it is possible to get one’s children into them, or so I’m told. But the question was: Is this a risk you’re willing to take?

We weren’t.

Sure, there were other factors. Our boys rode their Big Wheels around and around the dining room table, because it was too much of a hassle for them to find an adult to escort them down the flight of stairs, out the three, count ’em, three locked doors, to finally the busy street and tiny, dog-piss murdered patch of blasted grass, with its anemic locust tree, that served as their playground. A backyard was a plus, or would have been, had they ever put their video games down. But it was there.

This is not to criticize the city — Geez, hold your fire. People seem to have this bellyful of vindictiveness, boiling in their guts, and are scanning the horizon, desperate to find somebody, anybody, for them to spew it onto. Look! A guy who fled to the suburbs! The treachery of betrayal! He’s dissing our city! Get him!

Chicago’s population loss is ominous — first, because a city needs people. Detroit had a population of 2 million in 1950; it has 800,000; just 40 percent of that, now, and it’ll be interesting to see whether our elephant step in Detroit’s direction over the past 10 years will tarnish Mayor Daley’s legacy, the central leg of which is that we didn’t become Detroit under his watch. It isn’t the same if you tack “yet” at the end, “We didn’t become Detroit yet.”

Yes “we.” Because the concerns of Chicago are the concerns of Northern Illinois, which rises or falls with it, and while the bowl haircuts Downstate would like to cut off the city, out of prejudice and parochialism, and the city would like to disown suburbanites like me, out of pure spite, the truth is we are all bound together, sink or swim.

Frankly, I’m not expecting a lot of attention to the population loss story. Like global warming, it’s just too grim for many people to accept or think about. Population loss is connected to every urban problem. How to get those people back? Well, fix the schools, cut crime, create jobs, lower taxes. That’s a start.

Yeah, Ask Scott Walker how easy that is.


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