Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Can the Chicago Turned into a Cesspool of Debt and Corruption be Saved?

There is a dark cloud over Chicago that is getting increasingly difficult to ignore.

As summer comes to a close, murders are up 21% in the city from last year. The depravity seemed to hit a new low earlier this month when the dismembered body parts of a toddler were discovered in a lagoon in a city park. Police still don’t have any clue about who the child is.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to soon seek a massive property tax hike — the biggest in city history — to help make a $500 million pension payment due to city firefighters and police.

Chicago teachers started the school year last week without a labor contract, and the school system is mired in a monumental budget crisis. There could be 1,500 staff layoffs, and the city estimates a $1.1 billion budget deficit for next school year.

To add insult to injury, demographers concluded this week that the swampy oil town of Houston will displace Chicago as America’s third-largest city within a decade. Houston!

Maybe, I’m being too gloomy about the city I love. But it’s hard to ignore that Chicago is at an inflection point. The heart of the problem may be that it’s long been too easy to ignore the issues that have been facing this city for years.

Chicagoans have long talked about “two Chicagos.”

There’s the bustling downtown known as the Loop, with its world-class architecture, a culinary scene in the city’s patchwork of neighborhoods that proud Chicagoans like to boast is better than New York's and Los Angeles', and the enclaves on the north side and surrounding downtown where $1 million condos are plentiful.

Then there’s the other Chicago on the city’s south and west sides, where a vastly disproportionate number of the city’s 325 homicides this year have occurred. These are also the same neighborhoods, predominantly black and Latino, that have endured the brunt of dozens of school closures and seen the shuttering of mental health clinics in recent years as the city has become weighed down by debt.

For those of us who live in that leafier, more idyllic side of town, the violence and inequity in those neighborhoods that we rarely, if ever, visit can almost seem like it is in a foreign country — one that happens to be just miles away from our homes.

We read about the violence in the Monday papers that give us a macabre body count of those killed and wounded over the weekend. More often than not, the crime scenes are far from where we digest the grim mayhem over our cups of coffee. But occasionally reminders of the violence come to even the postcard version of Chicago, where I live and play.

Last week, I was out to lunch with my wife and daughter in the city’s West Loop, a popular neighborhood where airy lofts and some of the city’s most popular restaurants have replaced what in another era was a rancid-smelling meatpacking district.

As we walked through the neighborhood after lunch, we passed a club, Red Kiva, whose name seemed far too familiar to me — a guy who is rarely out after 8 p.m.

It took a couple of minutes before I remembered that I had read a couple of days earlier in one of those Monday morning violence roundups that a young man, LaVell Caron Southern, was gunned down soon after leaving the Red Kiva.

The story registered, in part, because Southern, 23, was a former standout football player at Mount Carmel High School, a sports powerhouse that produced former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb and former three-time NBA all-star Antoine Walker.

According to news reports, Southern had no enemies and was a good guy. His slaying was sadly just another tragedy in a seemingly endless trail of senseless violence that’s become part of this city’s backdrop.

After the remains of the dismembered toddler were discovered, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy called it a “heinous, senseless crime.” It is one, he said, that “goes beyond human reason.”

The police chief’s outrage is appropriate.

Now, it’s time for my neighbors and me to be just as angry about the dark cloud that hovers over our city.

Thanks to Aamer Mashani.

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