Last weekend Chicago residents experienced the first taste of Spring 2018 – temps in the 70s, parades, ballgames, and people everywhere.
As I walked along the lake holding my phone to WeChat with my nephew living in Shanghai, I held the phone camera out to give him a view of the beautiful view I was enjoying. Knowing only what he hears from the news media about blight and violence in the city of Chicago, he was surprised by the beauty of the lakefront.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Indeed, an array of architectural, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity. Each neighborhood holds its own unique sights, smells, sounds, and sensations; each street stretches the length of the city to carry a traveler from one amenity to the next, accompanied by views of neighborhood parks and occasional glimpses of the gorgeous skyline. Chicago boasts some of the greatest schools in the country, from preschool to University; theaters, museums, restaurants, festivals, sports teams and various other attractions provide opportunities unimaginable for many.
Unfortunately, the very facets of Chicagoland that make it such a great city remain out of reach for many of its residents. Between the beauty of the lake and the architectural richness of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Oak Park, and from the glory of Northwestern University in Evanston to the golf course near Lake Calumet, sit vast areas void of the fabulous food, fitness, education, and cultural opportunities that make Chicago great. While residents of certain neighborhoods enjoy a little bit of everything, including a coffee shop and health club on every other corner, others suffer a lack of most amenities.
A short ride to the west, the far north, and the south sides, into neighborhoods like Garfield Park, Austin, Humboldt Park, Englewood, Morgan Park, and Pullman will reveal the neighborhoods not photographed for travel magazines and websites declaring the glories of magnificent mile after mile. These neighborhoods make news for school closings, academic achievement gaps, poverty and violence.
What becomes very clear with even cursory investigation is the correlation between lack of accessible grocery stores (food deserts), lack of proper fitness and enrichment programs, and under-performing schools. When a parent is working two jobs to keep the family housed and clothed, spending hours (not to mention money) each week at the local coin laundry – kids in tow, and relying on processed foods to keep them fed, how can they tend to the academic and enrichment needs of the children?
Social service agencies and not-for-profit organizations do a great job addressing some of the issues, and often with strong immediate and local impact. These agencies and organizations struggle to maintain balanced budgets, raise needed funds, recruit volunteers, and handle the many peripheral issues that arise when serving the needs of an under-resourced population.
Many families take advantage of these programs when available: a mother sits in the hallway waiting for a child being tutored or taking a park district gymnastics class – just as the child sat waiting the previous Saturday for the laundry to finish. Children travel by bus, train, and car for miles to attend a charter or magnet school that promises to keep them safe and get them through high school, to college, and out of the neighborhood. Hours are spent, and some would say wasted, by those who are struggling to survive and to provide a glimmer of hope for their children.
As I ponder which part I will play in helping Chicago to embrace the beauty and address the blight, I can’t help but see Chicago as an analogy for my own personal growth. I’ve hit my mid-50s and have learned to enjoy and embrace the beauty of my life but I cannot ignore the opportunity I still have to grow – perhaps by moving beyond personal self-reflection to ask what I might need to do to address the needs of those around me.
Have you found the balance between embracing your beauty and facing your blight?