FRIDAY was the first Chi-Town Rising, a blowout New Year’s Eve party along the Chicago riverfront. It promised celebrity and musical guests, including, naturally, the band Chicago. As the countdown to 2016 begins, a 70-foot steel star will ascend 36 stories up the side of the Hyatt Regency, the celebration culminated in a fireworks show.
The star — the Rising Star, it’s called — is meant to symbolize Chicago’s “rich history of rising in the face of adversity,” according to promotional material.
This privately funded event was initially billed as free to the public, but that has recently changed. Tickets were on sale for $99 or $150, depending on how close you’d like to get to the action. The celebrity and musical guests who were supposed to perform on a public, visible stage have since been moved to ticketed locations.
This is one Chicago: privatized, accessible only to some.
Friday was also the third citywide walkout in the past month, another protest demanding the resignations of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, following what many saw as a cover-up by City Hall over the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke.
The Chicago protests have been effective so far, most notably forcing the resignation of Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent. The University of Chicago also agreed to calls to build a Level 1 trauma center on the city’s South Side.
These demands are long overdue: the removal of leadership that fails to protect Chicago’s citizens, and systemic and structural change to the oppressive policies that target Chicago’s black and brown communities. In a sea of cynicism and politics as usual, the protesters’ hope is electrifying. This is the other Chicago.
It’s trite, but true: Chicago is a tale of two cities. For some, Chicago is a dream. A white middle-class girl like me could rent an apartment on the North Side, wait tables to help pay for college and support herself teaching. Unlike New York and San Francisco, Chicago is affordable. You can make art, take risks, chase dreams, try and fail and try again. And if you settle in a North Side neighborhood, the city is relatively safe.
If you live in one of these places, it’s easy to ignore the other Chicago. The vast South and West Sides are poor, disenfranchised and violent. (And violence is not just a product of high crime, as last weekend’s police shootings of Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student with mental health problems, and Bettie Jones, his neighbor, attest.) Of course, they’re not only that, and the stories of local activists and artists should be recognized, too. But if you’re an aspiring Chicagoan who happens to be black on the South Side, the city’s opportunities are largely closed to you.
Chicago is America’s most segregated city, thanks to racist, government-sanctioned systems that date back decades, resulting in economic inequity, job and housing discrimination, a lack of access to food and inferior schools and health care.
The mayor’s policies feed these disparities. Mr. Emanuel shuttered half the city’s mental health clinics, including several in high-crime areas. The Chicago Housing Authority is a wreck. He ordered the largest mass closing of public schools in American history, primarily in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. His handpicked schools chief recently pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Teachers have voted to strike. Again.
He’s done nothing regarding allegations of a secretive police detention site at Homan Square. He just passed a $755 million annual tax and fee increase on residents while paying out millions to cover up police brutality. Many feel that the Department of Justice should be investigating City Hall, not the Chicago Police Department.
Despite the tumult of last year’s mayoral election — in which a popular, left-wing candidate forced a runoff — Chicagoans seemed resigned to Mr. Emanuel’s victory, even with his lukewarm approval ratings, at 46 percent. He has too much power, they seemed to say. Too much money. Too many connections.
Now, his ratings hover at 18 percent. And yet there is still widespread pessimism. He’ll never resign, people say. Too much power. Too much money. Heavy-handed mayors are the Chicago way. Inevitably, the name Daley will be mentioned (both of them).
It’s still years away from the next election, and many Chicagoans, on both sides of the divide, have probably tried to forget the city’s electoral politics. But in a way, the people attending today’s events, whether the private Chi-Town Rising or the public protest, are making a political statement of their own.
Those willing to pay $150 to stand outside in the cold and watch a giant star climb the side of a luxury hotel are participating in an illusion of stability and progress that the city’s leaders are struggling, and increasingly failing, to maintain.
Those marching on City Hall — or expressing themselves through dozens of other actions planned over the coming weeks — are the real ones “rising in the face of adversity,” demanding that the city not wait another three years before its next referendum on Chicago’s leadership. And they are demanding that even those who don’t march, listen, and that they learn.
Maybe Mr. Emanuel will hold on; the political establishment behind him is still strong. But maybe not. If nothing else, 2015 has seen that establishment shaken by a new movement — not just for justice and racial equality, but for a final end to Chicago’s divided existence.