Why Chicago Has No Jane Jacobs

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Writing about the craziness of Robert Moses’ New York parkways this week did not come out of thin air. I was partly inspired by reading two wonderful books about the epic battle between New York City’s 20th century #EmperorOfPlanning and the universally acclaimed godmother of contemporary, citizen-focused urban planning, Jane Jacobs. (The Battle for Gotham by Roberta Brandes Gratz and Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint, and while I’m on the subject there’s also the acclaimed new documentary, Citizen Jane.) Jacobs’ seminal 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities inspired me to research (and eventually attend) graduate school in urban planning when I was 19 years old and hadn’t even started college yet. So like most people who care about cities, I’m a fan.

While I was blogging about Queens roads, I made a point of noting the casual and aggressive racism of the planning decisions of Robert Moses. He decimated numerous low-income, people-of-color neighborhoods across New York City to build the parkways, bridges, and tunnels that now define the urban fabric there. Some of those neighborhoods have never recovered, and that great negative impact on people’s lives is what activists like Jacobs leveraged to finally get Moses shut down. Thing is, Moses served as a model throughout the early and mid-20th century for cities across America that made similar decisions about allegedly challenged neighborhoods, tearing them down in the name of progress.

Thing is too, that still happens to this day in Chicago. Now I don’t mean the decisions that originally created Chicago’s long ago-failed public housing high-rise clusters at the cost of decimating neighborhoods that originally stood on the same sites — and that the city has spent the past 15 years tearing back down again. Nor do I mean the similar mid-20th-century decisions to tear other people’s neighborhoods to build Great Walls of White People to keep people of color away. (Carl Sandburg Village, I’m looking at you.)

I mean the casually racist everyday decisions of the current Emanuel administration in Chicago City Hall. I first and forcefully made the point three years ago when I agreed with Rachel Shteir about the way Chicago elevates mediocrity, a symptom of local government operating like a coercive empire for the benefit of the wealthy, who in Chicago are almost universally white and the only ones here with any real political power, and who use that power to amass greater wealth through land development with the complicity of City Hall. That Chicago tautology between white wealth and power is how the Emanuel administration managed to close dozens of Chicago schools in non-white neighborhoods, not to mention to stay in City Hall in the face of nationally shameful police-shooting and ongoing gun-violence scandals.

It’s also part and parcel of the back-door planning process here. That’s no surprise to anyone who has ever studied Chicago. It’s well-cited that the original Daley administration had an overt policy to push non-white residents south and west of the central area of the city, literally planning away black and brown neighborhoods and economic development so that white people would feel safer shopping and visiting the Loop and its surrounding areas.

In key ways, that still goes on. Before I launched Benami Media, I heard the ideology espoused and saw it in action numerous times in my professional life in Chicago. I’ve experienced it treated like a given by white organizational leaders. Heard it promulgated by rich, white developers. Watched it go undefended by City Hall officials sitting across conference tables from the same developers in discussions that identified development projects in Chicago as aimed specifically at well-off, largely white residents who can afford to live in them and/or shop in them. Once, I witnessed one of the biggest developers in Chicago, sitting at the same table with city and nonprofit planning officials, urge leaders to avoid at all costs talking about a downtown Chicago project as being of any benefit to low-income black Chicagoans—for fear of attracting them to it. This is not the Onion—or New York City in its 1890s Tammany Hall days. This is Chicago in the second decade of the 21st century.

When reporters connect the dots to prove the truth of community-activist claims about the Emanuel administration being beholden to the moneyed development community—not to mention systematically attempting to hide that fact—I wish they would point out how openly racist that alliance truly is. The comment I described above was made at a diverse table of people not all of whom were white—made completely casually, under the clear assumption that it’s perfectly ok to be a public racist in Chicago as long as you’re rich enough to get away with it.

This all comes to mind now because last week I participated in a discussion in a Facebook group to remain nameless but focussed on Chicago’s built environment of bygone eras. The subject of discussion was a recent Chicago Reporter article regarding the taking via eminent domain by the City of Chicago of the longtime homes of several black families in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood in order to give them to Norfolk Southern to enlarge its freight-rail yard. I and others agreed with the inherent racism highlighted by the Reporter. Recent, similarly arch development battles in the same extraordinarily white North Side neighborhood of Lakeview involving the Chicago Transit Authority and the Cubs organization made citywide headlines for months, with numerous public hearings, media stories, and lawsuits from affected homeowners and merchants. And while the local community lost in those instances as well, it was at the very least given every opportunity to air its grievances.

But I would bet money that my blog post is the first time you’ve heard about the corner of a major African-American neighborhood in Chicago being grabbed from families to build a bigger rail yard.

If actions speak louder than words—and in this case, they scream—it’s an ideology that in practice negates the human and socioeconomic worth of POCs in Chicago. If you’re not white enough or wealthy enough to fight back, in a very literal sense as a human being you do not matter to the overlords of the Chicago empire. Bar none, that was the biggest reason that Ryan and I first planned to move to Los Angeles a few years ago. L.A., like my New York City hometown, has a longstanding, fertile, and very ballsy history of public debate about the land-use decisions that can make or break neighborhoods, families, and lives. Now that our focus has changed to eventually going back to my native Queens to live near my family, that lack of empire and earnest, officially welcomed public input is something to which I greatly look forward.

But 17 years into the 21st century, why isn’t it like that in Chicago, too/yet/at all?

Until I leave, I’ll continue to love what’s great about this city and stand with the brave, the rank-and-file Chicagoans who stand up to local empire in large and small ways every day. And yet, I still believe that the problem goes deeper than rich racists with Mayor Emanuel’s private email saved in their phone favorites. Like I blogged in my Rachel Shteir post three years ago—and as I told the Chicago Community Trust during its first iteration of the On the Table community development discussion series—living under empire has its costs. You have to learn how to cope, and one of the biggest coping strategies is to eventually become complicit in keeping yourself and your life chances at bay. No Chicagoan is unfamiliar with the concept of keeping your head down — at work, at school, at your place of worship (sometimes repeatedly)— keeping your opinions to yourself no matter how much you want to speak up, out of fear of pissing off those in power at institutions of every size with which you might be associated, for fear of retaliation because you don’t agree. And a place like Chicago, it isn’t just racism that gets normalized from the top down, bullying and coercion get normalized, too.

Think I’m kidding about how Chicago works like an empire? Read this recent Sunday New York Times piece from the world-famous (obviously except in China!) social-activist artist Ai Weiwei about the way official political coercion at the highest levels of Chinese society eventually leads average citizens to become complicit in their own censorship and the limits places on their socioeconomic lifechances. Weiwei’s point: live under empire long enough, you learn to hold yourself down yourself and go out of your way to hold others down. Because it’s simply easier under empire—and less dangerous—to live a limited life.

And that’s why Chicago has no Jane Jacobs. Lord, we need one. The racist reimagining of our city is real and continuing—and rarely observed for what it is.

But what usually happens, instead, is what happened last week in that Facebook discussion. The discussion got shut down—by rank-and-file white people feeling (as so often is usual) uncomfortable in a discussion about race and throwing their privelege around to end the debate. At issue for them? Open criticism of Chicago City Hall. The idea that race could possibly matter in a 21st-century planning decision—even one involving yanking away an entire piece of a black neighborhood for the benefit of freight-rail profit. Having the indecency to go beyond the safe discussion of the outside of buildings to dare talk about the people who actually live in them.

The tsunami of casual racism overwhelmed the comment thread and it became very buried very quickly. Some of us thought the forum moderators deleted it. But what they did was more pernicious—they didn’t defend it. Instead of standing up for tolerance and justice and shutting down racist taunts, they stood on the sidelines and did nothing. Then after I and others left the group in protest, they called us out for not leaving in silence. That’s the other side of the coin of repeatedly witnessing openly racist wealthy white people acting out in Chicago. Not every Chicagoan has had the displeasure of experiencing that the way I have. But we all have been on the receiving end, numerous times, of friends, colleagues, and peers telling us to keep our heads down—or attempting to drag them down for us, for the benefit of their comfort zones, not ours.

It’s why people leave Chicago. Not just the City Hall collusion with racist wealth. But the mundane, everyday actions of minor Chicagoans in moderate power in seemingly the most innocuous of places, going out of their way to normalize the back-door bullying and coercion that keeps the unofficially official racist way things are in this town from ever being fully disinfected by the light of day.

In fact, it makes a lot of people here very uncomfortable when it’s brought out into the light at all. That’s fine if you want to live half a life. Incomplete on so many levels, but at least comfortable in the shallow ways that count when you’ve decided to become aggressively ambivalent about all the other ways.

But the way I see it—especially in Trumpian times likes these—is that when it comes to fighting institutionally entrenched racism like Chicago’s, there are only two places that your head can be. Unbowed, or up your Emanuel.

Where’s yours?

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