Discover more from Glenn Loury
Chicago's Great Unraveling
with Matt Rosenberg
The city of Chicago made me who I am. When I was growing up there in the ‘50s and ‘60s—and for decades after—it was one of the world’s great cities. For all of the poverty on the South Side where I spent my childhood, teenage years, and early 20s, it was also a tremendously vital place with thriving middle-class communities, restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. My friends and I rode our bikes and played stickball in the alleys without fear. My parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins built lives there that they were proud of, where they could live with dignity and in relative safety.
Now so much of what made life in Chicago wonderful is being stamped out by violent crime and social dysfunction that city leaders seem unwilling or unable to address. In the absence of large-scale changes to the city’s overly lax criminal justice policies, without a concerted effort to restore order, I fear that Chicago may go the way of Detroit and end up as a decaying husk of a formerly great city.
In the following excerpt from a longer conversation, journalist Matt Rosenberg fills me in on what he calls “the Great Unraveling,” the downward spiral of crime and despair now gripping Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. It’s a heartbreaking story, one that we’re hearing from too many American cities. There are plenty of people like Matt who love Chicago and are trying to save it, but city and state political leaders need to intercede in a more proactive way. If they’re unwilling to do so, they need to be voted out.
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MATT ROSENBERG: I'll give you some context from last weekend. Once again, we had a mass shooting in Washington Park. And I know you know where that is, just west of where I grew up in Hyde Park. I think it was nine shot or seven. I forget. Two dead. The news has now come out, police are reporting it was due to an argument facilitated by gang rivalries. And while mass shootings, in fact, in Chicago are only about four percent of gun deaths—we excavated that data also—the the real issue here is temper. It's those five-dollar arguments. It's that hot, delusional entitlement of which Rahmaan Barnes spoke. All summer long, Glenn.
People here, we talk about trauma at many levels, and there is no trauma like the trauma in the African American community from the violence, the deadly violence, the shootings. I won't pretend to have experienced that trauma myself. But I can tell you there's another trauma of living in the city, and the crime is now spreading. We probably talked about this last time. It's in the white neighborhoods. It's in the suburbs. It's in Evanston now. It's in Lake County, up toward the Wisconsin border. Eight shootings in one night in Waukegan. They had an emergency community meeting. So there's another trauma. There's the trauma of reading the news, and, boy, yeah, it sounds like a first-world problem. But then you see, my gosh, they're losing Rogers Park and Edgewater. And to non-Chicagoans, and Glenn, you know what I mean—
GLENN LOURY: I know Rogers Park. I know Sheridan Road going up north, because I used to, from 1970 to '72, drive it every morning from R. R. Donnelley & Sons in order to get to the Northwestern University campus. I know exactly what you're talking about.
And these were Jewish neighborhoods. There are high rises there in Edgewater. This was the North Side where stuff doesn't happen, and people come home and put some Puccini on the stereo and have a crisp chablis from Burgundy.
And where I used to see, excuse me, “Save Soviet Jewry”—I can remember the sign hanging in the 1970s, in the late '60s, hanging above the street, Sheridan Road, all the way across the street.
Yes. And now you best be carrying. It's come to that. So it's kind of gone off the hook. I call it “the Great Unraveling.” Oak Park. Here is the suburb just to the west of Chicago, which you know of well, I am sure, just past the border with Chicago, bordering Austin. The city of Oak Park, where they have those Frank Lloyd Wright homes, where Ernest Hemingway grew up.
And which for many years had been touted as a stably integrated middle-class suburb of Chicago. They worked very hard to maintain racial integration and to avoid the white flight problem from an inner-ring, suburban town.
And there has been so much to commend Oak Park. I mean, it's beautiful. It's leafy. There's historic Frank Lloyd Wright homes, most importantly what you just spoke of. Now, the city council, I believe I read this, has just voted to end late-night hours at gas stations because there have been a series of carjackings there. So you have a situation where, because of the criminal justice system in Cook County, repeat violent offenders, particularly weapons offenders—and this is so ironic considering all the talk about instituting new laws, like you weapons restrictions at the federal level. We are not enforcing existing law against repeated gun offenders. Because with multiple prior convictions for weapons offenses, when they commit new weapons offenses, they are too often let out on low-cash or no-cash bail. And then before their new trial occurs, they're out doing more stuff, including carjackings, shootings, and even fatal shootings. And one night in Oak Park earlier this summer, a brother and sister from the West Side of Chicago—young. One was 17, I think one was 21. They wanted to go jack a car, and they did. And they killed a young woman who was sort of a pillar of her high school community in Oak Park. That shook everyone there to their roots, but it wasn't an isolated incident. There have been a whole series of carjackings, and so now they're mandating—
You're breaking my heart, Matt. I hear death knells. This sounds like you could get over into an area where you can't get back from it. And the other thing I hear is an argument for the Second Amendment, frankly. Y'all can get mad at me if you want to. If the state will not protect you, you have a right to protect yourself. I mean, I can see that argument very clearly. But can we talk about the first thing? Is my city, my hometown dying?
Yes, it might be dying. People are fighting to keep it alive. We'll know a lot more, I'm gonna say, by April of this year. In November, we have a gubernatorial election and state legislative elections. I won't digress into politics. A lot of people feel like it is dying. At the same time, and I should point this out, it may be that we're headed for an extended purgatory. The thing is that Metro Chicago, and you know this well, Glenn, has heft. It has population heft, it has economic heft, and this is still a metro region of some 8 million people. Now yes, Ken Griffin, the well-known conservative billionaire, moved his hedge fund, Citadel, to Miami. That was significant. Boeing moved its headquarters away. The headquarters was largely symbolic, but importantly symbolic. Other new companies have moved here, as Mayor Lightfoot's office points out.
But here's the thing: Downtown is different. Downtown looks like a ghost town. Security card check-ins in office buildings were down to something like forty-four percent of capacity earlier this year, if I remember that report correctly. Real estate leasing rates are not really what to look at. It's how often those office buildings are being used. New York is grappling with the same thing. We're seeing articles in Bloomberg about converting office buildings to apartments, and yet where is the crime rising most in Chicago? In Police District 1 and Police District 18, which straddle the Chicago River on both sides. So we're talking from 31st Street at the south end of District 1 up to about Fullerton at the north end of District 18.
The motor vehicle thefts and the thefts are up dramatically. Criminal sexual assaults are up dramatically in the North Loop. There's a whole lot going on, and so the streets are emptying out. Yes, if there's a music festival, the streets may be jammed downtown. But by and large, it's looking like a ghost town. Retailers are leaving hotels. Historic hotels are being foreclosed upon by the lenders, like the Palmer House. So there are a lot of things—yes, Glenn—that leave people with the impression Chicago is dying. I'm saying don't count it out quite yet. But it's late in the fight. If Chicago were a boxer, he would be bloodied and the styptic pencil's been taken out a lot. We gotta figure it out.
Chicago going the way of Detroit. That thought just makes me ill.