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Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

‘Small ball’ won’t fix city’s big needs

By Jim Nowlan

Not long after college, in the late 1960s, I was visiting friends on the gentrifying Near Northwest Side. My host couple and I took a stroll before a night on Old Town nearby. As we came upon the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church, we saw maybe a dozen young men lounging on the broad concrete steps that led to the imposing church doors.

“That’s Bobby Rush,” whispered friend Gordon, nodding to an obvious leader of a lively discussion ongoing at the foot of the Lord’s house.

GSWNH JimNowlan 083019

Jim Nowlan

Seeing us, the gang leaders (even a Downstater like me could tell that’s who these dudes were) beckoned us up. They put quart beer bottles in our hands, and we bantered about nothing for a few minutes, then departed with a wave, beers in hand. The Black Panthers and Young Lords leaders had more important things to talk about during their powwow.

My takeaway: Back then there were just a few big gangs in Chicago, So, bad as the gangs were, there was identifiable leadership. And power can talk to power, when absolutely necessary. Just as city leaders did from time to time, through back channels, with an earlier gang leader, Al Capone, when necessary to see that an election came off without any mayhem.

Today, in Chicago, there are about 60 gangs, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, and many more semiautonomous offshoots, some on but single blocks, and 100,000 plus members. Gang members outnumber the Chicago police 9-to-1. How do you like them odds?! No wonder so many cops long to depart the city for safer jobs in nearby suburbs.

Nor is there anyone for the cops and city leaders to talk to. Power is atomized, and Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods must often seem like free-fire zones among teens.

Fast forward from Bobby Rush, now a 15-term veteran of Congress, to the early 1980s. My boss, Gov. Jim Thompson, directed me to spend some time in East St. Louis, to see if there were any positive leaders in that benighted city across from its Missouri namesake, whom the governor might support with social and law enforcement programming.

I spent a month in and out of ESL (there was no place in the city of 40,000 to stay). I met Sister Julia Huiskamp, a tough, saintly sort of the Mother Teresa variety. There are a rare few like her in many of our depleted neighborhoods; not enough to make much of a difference.

There was a young man, a college graduate, who had started a printing company. Locals were pinning some hopes on him. A printer myself, I could tell from the outdated equipment in his shop that the business wouldn’t last a year. It didn’t.

I reported back to Big Jim: There is really no effective leadership you can deal with. The city is too far gone. Role models like businessmen, the middle class, school teachers and cops, who lived elsewhere, have all abandoned ESL and neighborhoods like it.

Fast, fast forward to a couple of years ago. I return to ESL to be on a panel discussion, sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council, a fine, do-good group. We meet in a government building, the only kind still standing. On my purposeful, slow drive through the city of 25,000 (82,000 in 1950), I see little business activity other than liquor stores and storefront churches, a neon cross faintly blinking above one of them. Whole neighborhoods are vacant, trash strewn, houses falling down—apocalyptic.

Once vibrant neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago mirror ESL. You can see this by taking the Number 20 CTA bus west on Madison, from Michigan Avenue out to Austin Boulevard, on the border with Oak Park. (I’ll bet you don’t.) The bus takes you from glitter to litter.

The homicide rates in ESL and Downstate cities like Peoria are even higher than in Chicago, yet they don’t have the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue and tourism to protect. No, it’s Chicago that national newscasters imply is on the bubble, between vitality and fateful disarray.

Liberals, conservatives, the middle class—we’re all at fault. For example, when I was a college student in the 1960s, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was barred to households in which there was a man present! Further, we ploughed new expressways expressly to keep blacks separate from whites. And we built high-rise hellholes to house lots of poor folks behind those expressway walls. We put “Willis wagon” trailer classrooms (named for a city school superintendent) on segregated school grounds, to keep blacks away from our kids.

There is a lot of blame to go around.

What to do? Get 20,000 to 30,000 at-risk teens out of their neighborhoods. After all, that’s what everyone else who can has done. Maybe to programs like the Lincoln ChalleNGe residential school “boot camp,” located Downstate, started by former Governor Jim Edgar (the camps are for the National Guard, which runs the program). And maybe to CCC-type camps in the wilderness, the types that lifted thousands of young whites out of their poverty plight during the Depression—and which mostly barred blacks.

We also have to repair, somehow, the crumpled subcultures of our depleted neighborhoods (including as well those for young white single mothers in my rural Illinois). Too many of these young mothers in urban and rural America have neither parenting skills nor positive support networks, and find drugs and alcohol a comfort in a world which overwhelms them.

Small ball won’t make a difference. President Biden thinks big, but he apparently wants simply to throw money at people, and not use it to hold them accountable for striving to better themselves.

As for Chicago, I think Mayor Lori Lightfoot should take a page from the playbook of another female Chicago mayor. In 1981, Jane Byrne moved into the infamous Cabrini Green public housing project. Sure, it was a gimmick, but it focused awesome public attention. And Cabrini Green is now gone, though probably more so because developers wanted to put upscale condos in its place.

Lori — and her inner team — should move to Englewood or another violent neighborhood for six months. Take apartments, live there, and set up a mini-City Hall, where supplicants would have to visit to do business. After all, Englewood is just as much a part of the city as Lake Shore (now DuSable) Drive.

Chicago’s out-of-control gangs pose an existential threat to Chicago’s future, which is otherwise bright and shining. Small ball won’t do it.

We are reaping what we have sown.

Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

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