Tag Archives: Chicago

Thoughts on the eve of the 2016 Olympics decision


The people in one of these cities will be celebrating hard tomorrow, but frontrunners Rio and Chicago share other less attractive similarities.

The people in one of these cities will be celebrating hard tomorrow, but frontrunners Rio and Chicago share other less attractive similarities.



Tomorrow, Olympic history will be made.

According to many, Chicago and Rio are in a tightly pitched battle to emerge victorious for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Both cities are making precedent setting bids.

Chicago has the first delegation headed by a black woman, Michelle Obama, who is accompanied by her husband, our nation’s first black president. Rio is seeking to become part of the first Latin American nation in history to host the Olympic games.

Both cities are bringing out the biggest guns in their arsenal to try to clinch the deal.

Rio has brought Pele, the only three time World Cup winner in history and the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete of the Century.

We’ve sent Oprah Winfrey, billionaire media and cultural presence.

Beyond their bids, the cities share many similarities.

Both are part of countries with charismatic and educated presidents who have struggled to translate lofty promises of progressive change into reality for their country’s disenfranchised millions.

Both have some of world’s most beautiful waterfront.

And both cities have major problems of race and poverty.

Rio and Chicago have both poor people maintaining a tenuous grip on mainstream life and an underclass largely disconnected to it.

In Chicago, we have poor neighborhoods and hundreds of thousands out of work, many of whom have stopped looking.

Rio has both urban poor and residents living in the notorious favelas.

It’s a similar story with race.

Despite its face to the world as home of the First Lady and the city where her husband received his political baptism. Chicago remains one of most segregated cities in the country by any measure. A major city in the last nation in Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, Rio has many, many black people still dealing with discrimination and racism.

The Olympics were originally designed to highlight international competition across national boundaries to celebrate the balance of sport, education and culture.

Whichever city wins, let us use this competition to have an Olympics for climate change that increasingly affects each of the continents in the five rings and the other two besides.

Let us have an Olympics to end the racism and poverty that thwart so many people throughout the world from being able to embody the Olympic values.

Sound impossible? Perhaps.

We’ve learned here in the past year just how hard it can be to translate transcendent moments into real change. But if the shattering of seemingly impregnable barriers so many of us celebrated here in Grant Park last November 4 has taught us one thing, it’s that what we think is impossible may not actually be so.

The effort, admittedly, would be, well, Olympian.

But, in the end, we will be judged not on how big our challenges were, but how we met our tasks.

Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.

That will be history truly worth making.


Black History Month: Obama’s Speech and Books About Chicago.

President Obama spoke to the nation last night. Here are some books about black Chicago, his political home.

President Obama spoke to the nation last night. Here are some high-quality books about black Chicago, his political home.

 Last night, President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time.  Standing where presidents before him have stood for centuries, he assured the American people that, despite the current economic crisis, the nation will “emerge stronger than before.”

As has been well-chronicled, Obama’s political roots, his wife Michelle,and much of his cabinet are all from Chicago.  

Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders has been the backdrop for many fine books by and about black people.  Here are some of the best (My only caveat is that I will not write about books I have already posted on like Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block, Studs Terkel’s Race, and James Ralph’s Northern Protest):

1. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton.  Funded by money from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, this massive tome by two acclaimed sociologists remains a landmark in the discipline and in its description of how Chicago’s black community formed and was maintained.   It may be hard to remember what a radical act choosing a black neighborhood, the historic Bronzeville district, as a legitmate subject of scholarly inquiry was at the time: Drake and Cayton built from this base to create a masterwork that still speaks to us today. 

2. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, byAlex Kotlowitz.  I had the great fortune to take a class with Kotlowitz while studying journalism at Northwestern University; the experience gave me a renewed appreciation of the care he gives to each sentence in his work.  This story of two brothers and their mother at the Henry Horner Homes is chockfull of poignant detail.  Kotlowitz’s moral outrage at the conditions in which these and thousands of other families lived throughout the city are the backbone of this compelling work.

3. Native Son, by Richard Wright.  Set on Chicago’s South Side, this tale of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas’ lofty dreams, murder of a young white woman and involvement with Communist Party members committed to his defense is utterly gripping.  Wright’s indictment through Bigger and his initially dim, and ultimately doomed, life prospects is vividly rendered.

4. A Raisin In the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry.  Drawing its title from a Langston Hughes poem, this play tells the story of the Younger’s family’s efforts to leave their dingy apartment and depressing neighborhood and move to a home in a white community moves, inspires and shames at the same time.  Hansberry’s dialogue, the shifts in action and tone, moments of humor and Walter’s gradual emergence into manhood despite white opposition to the move all sweep the viewer away.

5.Making the Second Ghetto: Chicago, Race and Housing, 1940-1960, by Arnold Hirsch.  This book can provide a deeper appreciation of the Youngers’ context if read in conjunction with A Raisin In the Sun.  Hirsch shows how the city’s elite and residents worked together when the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kramer declared the enforcement of racial restrictive covenants unconstitutional.  Neighborhood responses varied from outright hostility and violence in neighborhoods like Englewood, to, in one of the most interesting chapters, Hyde Park and Kenwood’s establishment of a commission to “manage” integration so that black people would feel welcomed even as their numbers would remain somewhat limited. 

6. A Fire on the Prairie, by Gary Rivlin.  Former 43rd Ward Alderman Martin Oberman’s objections notwithstanding, this is the definitive account of Harold Washington’s groundbreaking mayoral victory in 1983-a victory that was spearheaded in part by Obama strategist David Axelrod.  A former writer for the Chicago Reader, Rivlin blends a keen eye for detail with his obvious political sympathies to create what some Australians call “a cracking yarn.”

7. The Man Who Beat Clout City, by Robert McClory.  Former priest and South Boulevard neighbor Bob McClory tells the story of Renault Robinson, a young black policeman who endures all kinds of abuse on his way to forming the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League.  I will devote an entire post to this book before month’s end, and wanted to mention it here as an engaging, informative and well-written read.

The Shocking Origins of America’s New First City.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Chicago has been in the national news constantly in recent weeks.

Between being Ground Zero for Barack Obama’s presidential transition, the home of arrested and defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and, last month, the site of the nation’s highest-profile labor action at Republic Doors and WindowsCarl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders has filled the nation’s airwaves and contributed significantly to the depletion of whatever remaining lumber exists on the planet.

Those interested in learning more about America’s New First City have plenty of writers from which to choose. 

From Upton Sinclair to Nelson Algren to Richard Wright to Mike Royko to the much loved and recently departed Louis “Studs”  Terkel to current masters like Aleksandar Hemon and my former teacher Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago has been a much-chronicled City on the Make, to lift from Algren’s essay by the same title.

Today, I’d like to offer another, less well-known contribution that sheds a lot of light on the city’s development as well as its continual capacity for reinvention: Loyola University History Professor Harold Platt’s Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago

Full disclosure: I have contacted Platt and shared my positive thoughts about his work over a breakfast with him and my father.  Platt and I have also discussed a project on which we might collaborate.

The work is meticulously researched and, once one gains some steam, enthralling reading.  The shock in Platt’s title refers to cities whose development augurs a new age for the country in which it is located.   He effectively compares and contrasts the impact of industrialization and various reform movements in England through looking at Manchester and in the United States by examining Chicago’s development.

The product of many years of research, Shock Cities contains a provocative argument about the role of elites in shaping political change, the significance of the physical environment in that process, and the potential for reform movements that vary according to each country’s democratic rhetoric and practice. 

Anyone who watched the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Region in 2005, for example, cannot help but wince while reading Platt’s descriptions of the plans generated and ignored repeatedly in mid-19th century Manchester to prevent similarly destructive flooding-destruction, of course, of which poor people bore the disproportionate load.  Platt’s description of how upper class members steered sewage systems to their neighborhoods and then advocated an ethos of cleanliness is similarly poignant.

The book is not all depressing, though.

The descriptions of the reform movements is uplifting.  Familiar characters like future Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams  appear, cutting her spurs fighting pollution and the ward bosses as well as establishing the settlement house movement with women like Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop, who later had a public housing development named after her.

Platt also talks at length about the emerging field of public health, which took hold in Chicago toward the late nineteenth and early 20th century.

In addition, Chicago lovers will find plenty of juicy nuggets to chew.  To give just a few examples, a host of people who are now better known for having their names on streets and/or schools-beer brewer Michael Diversey, entreprenuer William Ogden, and attorney and horseback rider Paul Cornell immediately spring to mind-fill the book’s pages. 

To do this kind of research about a single city would be impressive enough for one book, but Platt’s ability to conceive and then successfully execute his comparative framework  is, well, shocking. 

So … the next time you need an escape from Blago, Burris and the Politics of Hope, consider settling into Shock Cities.  At 500 pages, it will undoubtedly take a while to wade through, but is more than worth the effort.