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You are not from Chicago

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I have got a beef with all the origin-claiming of Chicago, my hometown, by suburbanites – a recurring phenomenon of deceit at Notre Dame. Images of Chicago as an urban metropolis, cultural hub or a place for a good time are primary motivations for these claims and compliment the city. However, my position has nothing to do with those who love the city or lament their town’s obscurity. Running along with prevailing attitudes that ignore class and racial issues, idealized characterizations of Chicago excludes the reality of its segregated neighborhoods, under-funded schools and poverty. While my view of the city represents a minority here, I feel the complete picture of urban life is being harmfully distorted.

I have a rather conflictual affection for Chicago due to my experience of its many sides. The city exemplifies the reality of “Two Americas” – one for white or privileged and a different one for minorities and poor. Depending on residency, one can live in Chicago for a lifetime and see nothing of the run-down neighborhoods, struggling schools, abandoned buildings and lack of business diversity, while at the same time, see nothing but these conditions.

I have lived in the class-divided lakeside neighborhood of South Shore since infancy. Lakeside property is dotted with high-rise apartments and condominiums, a golf course, parks and various businesses. Yet blocks away, neglected and vacant houses, shabby playgrounds and garbage-lined sidewalks become the norm. Aside from a few lovable greasy spoon family owned counter-restaurants, my neighborhood seriously lacks business diversity. On the nearest main shopping block, dollar stores, beauty supply shops and nail salons dominate. The saddest part is that a majority of these identical establishments are not owned or operated by the mostly African-American residents of South Shore. If one wanted a job close to home, fast food and grocery chains are the chief options. Movie theaters, coffee houses, bookstores and other signature community business do not exist. The community library is smaller than our dorm common rooms.

As a youngster, I can remember playing in the yard, walking with my mom to the nearby park and merrily pedaling size appropriate bikes down and around the block. As crime and drug activity escalated in the area, those activities stopped. I became paranoid, especially when my mom found a bullet hole in our front window – a stray shot from an altercation – which luckily did not find one of us in its path. Violence is a common experience for many Chicago residents and their stories do not appear in suburban envy narratives.

The state of Chicago Public Schools represents the biggest reason, logically, that a majority of Notre Dame Students could not possibly be from the city. Looking at the relationship between a school’s percentage of low-income students and overall performance on national achievement tests shows the poorer the school, the worse the scores become. A city with a school system that leaves so many of its children behind could not be shuttling its progeny en masse to top tier universities.

Teachers are not to blame. City public school teachers represent the hardest working and least appreciated people. Many, like my mom – the greatest early childhood instructor in the city – assume the role of teacher, mentor, caretaker and disciplinarian. They care when no one else will.

The systemic problem of Chicago schools is indicative of the overall movement to forget low-income areas and misjudge the roots of their troubles. Many residents have never received the various class boosts throughout history or are the first to suffer in our unforgiving market driven economy.

I suspect many outsiders’ perceptions of Chicago begin and end with visions of the downtown area. From the Museum Campus to the Magnificent Mile, downtown Chicago offers a plethora of fine entertainment, shopping and dining places. What people fail to recognize is the area is also a haven for low wage service jobs. Sanitation, food service and sales positions dominate the area east of Chicago’s thriving business hub. Downtown hosts the convergence of the city’s divided classes. Between dawn and 9 a.m., south and west side residents flood the city, gearing up for full and part-time shifts, at their primary and secondary jobs, selling goods and services they could not think of purchasing to rich, predominantly white north-side and suburban dwellers.

When you love something, or even like it enough to claim it as your own, you ought to recognize all its attributes. Ignoring social realities is irresponsible and compiling suffering of others through silent assent to systemic injustices is appalling. All cities like Chicago ought to be habitable for every resident. When that happens – through infrastructure rebuilding, unionization of service-sector workers and income redistribution – Chicago will truly be place to admire, wholeheartedly.

So, if your area code is not 773 or 312, give it up, you are not from Chicago.

Kamaria Porter, a sophomore history major, has “A Right to be Hostile, the Boondocks Treasury,” a book worth your attention. Why Nader why? Her column appears every other Tuesday. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.