On and Off the Table at the Chicago Community Trust

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On Sunday, April 20, I was the daily featured Chicagoan in the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table centennial campaign to engage locals in conversations about the city’s future. It’s a remarkably granular campaign with high-minded goals to “generate new ideas, spark partnerships and shape a public agenda to build and sustain strong, safe and dynamic communities.”

If you click through, you’ll learn that I’m interested in issues that affect Jews-by-choice, and that I think Chicago needs to move from a rigid, role-based work environment to one that truly supports talent and creativity. (If you’re a regular reader you know that already, since I’ve been blogging about these issues for a long time.) What you won’t find represented in my On the Table profile, though, is the second half of my comments to the Trust. I don’t blame their PR firm for not including them–the campaign is obviously being spun towards optimistic views on the city.

But the truth is, I did not share an optimistic view about Chicago during my On the Table interview in January. As I blogged in the above-linked post, I told the Trust that after 11 years in Chicago, I did not have much faith in the city, anymore. Among the ideas they heard when they interviewed me:

“In Chicago, we live under an anachronistic and statewide political machine, long gone in most of our peer cities for many decades, that has an entrenched interest to keep itself going. Not to better people’s lives, or improve social justice, or even to abide by the law, but simply to keep those in power in power.

“In this nasty framework, asking real questions about the way things work and, especially, giving real answers, is never the point. Creativity and innovation become the enemy. Acknowledging real talent becomes dangerous. Because all of that can potentially rock the boat, and if there’s one thing you don’t do here in Chicago, it’s that.”

I told them I had trouble not believing that Rachel Shteir was right in her controversial, pessimistic comments shared last year about Chicago’s lack of a reliable economic engine and Chicagoans’ insular, defensive response to constructive criticism. I told them these were the reasons talent leaves Chicago–and never returns. And I told them that after watching so many other people leave in my years here, I was considering leaving Chicago, myself.

I think that’s a powerful perspective on a very real and longstanding civic issue. But this city and its institutions do what they will do, and any real change that may happen will take decades to emerge and take hold. So my being only partially quoted is meaningless in the grand scheme of Second City things.

For anyone arriving here because of the On the Table campaign though, please know the two key things that have happened since my interview:

  • I was unexpectedly hired by a pair of innovative, independent planning and economic development organizations and given the opportunity to work closely on the local and regional levels on the very issues I complained about to the Trust; and
  • My partner and I decided to leave Chicago behind and move to Los Angeles.

And that’s how it goes–so often goes–in Chicago. My current, awesome, dual gig is based substantially on a time-limited federal grant. We’re doing wonderful work together, and I’m thrilled to be part of a growing team working to heal this region’s economic future. And when that time limit is up, I’ll watch and see and if any fundamental change takes hold here from a warmer climate–in an urban region 1,700 miles west of here that is unafraid to do major regional planning, support widespread public input, or fairly reward talent and creativity.

Chicago deserves to be that way too. What the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table campaign edits out is that some Chicagoans fear this city may never get there. And that some Chicagoans decide to get there on their own–by finding the things Chicago so willfully lacks in new lives in other cities. And that just makes it harder for anything to change for the better here.

What the Trust hasn’t put on the table is how high the stakes for Chicago’s future really are. The problem with Chicago is that–over and over again–we refuse to admit there’s a problem. Like so many others before me, that won’t be my fondest memory of the place I thought I’d never leave.

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What do you think?