An Open Letter To Chicago

Flickr/Eric Fischer
Flickr/Eric Fischer

Dear Chicago,

I love you. But damn, sometimes you make it difficult. Recently I’ve felt depleted, perpetually disappointed by you, the place I call home. I hate this feeling — the one you get when ignorance is no longer bliss. When you begin to actually feel all the pain and acrid sensations of a dwindling reality. That moment when empathy creeps in, and you no longer have a choice but to act.

To further explain, I was shaken by a powerful spoken-word poem I saw on YouTube a few months back concerning youth violence in Chicago. As my goose-bump-riddled body tried hopelessly to hold back tears, I began discerning just how deep such issues run in the city. The pieces were coming together. Beneath the political fragmentation and never-ending economic justifications for complex civic actions, our city has been broken. Recent events have made this more evident for me.

In case you’ve been living under a huge frickin’ rock: this past May, the Chicago Board of Education, under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, finalized their vote to close 49 Chicago Public Schools by the next school year. Schools are said to be closing due to a $1 billion deficit in funding, the under-utilization of several facilities, and efforts to further concentrate a highly fragmented public education system.

With a total enrollment of 5,445 students at the time of their closing, these 49 schools are now to displace their occupancy, including the 192 employees (125 of them teachers) who will lose their jobs as a result of the turnaround. With corresponding shifts in schools and classrooms, approximately 27,000 students in total will be impacted in some way by these changes.

Furthermore, the geographic locations of these schools are no accident. Take a look for yourself. Virtually all closing schools are within Chicago’s South and West Side boundaries, the most violent and “futile” regions of the nation’s third most segregated city. Not coincidentally, these communities also present the most poverty, occupied by mass concentrations of mostly African American and Hispanic populations.

The closings have caused quite the stir across Chicago. City officials and board members continue to present reason after reason why their actions are necessary and justified. Although I do not pretend to understand the nuanced politics that sit at the core of each applicable process, I feel as if power-holders are somewhat missing the point.

Only six days prior to the final vote about CPS schools, the city introduced another plan, this one to assist DePaul University in the construction of a new athletic facility. Despite Chicago’s “lack of funds,” the city is investing $33 million of its own money into a total $173 million arena for DePaul University’s basketball programs. Granted, funds are being allocated through tax increment financing (TIF), but nonetheless, the actions are questionable.

This substantial project, located near McCormick Place, is also intended as a point of revitalization for the South Loop. Such revitalization projects are especially relevant to Chicago, a city historically deemed successful with such capital ventures, as with tourist powerhouses like Millennium Park.

But the question is, at what cost? When 49 inner-city schools are simultaneously being closed, the city’s priorities appear to be askew, not to mention contradictory — this coming from a seasoned month-old DePaul graduate.

Certainly there is more to this story than I have or am able to present — nuances that warrant equal representation. My goal, however, is merely to point out that many public officials fail to fully recognize the reasons behind much of the city’s outrage.

It is ironic to me that Rahm Emanuel led his 2010 campaign for Chicago Mayor on the premise of transparency, because what I have felt most lacking in his politics is just that, transparency (though, to be fair, perhaps that’s just politics in general). I see ambiguous explanations and complicated political justifications, but that’s about it. I am sparsely able to dig out even a nugget of clarity surrounding many of the unpopular decisions made under Rahm’s leadership. The school closings are no blue moon. Incessant excuses and pleas to the public — that we might understand — can and will only go so far.

But is the pride and reputation of a city (any city) truly more important than the lives of the children who call it home, those whom the city’s decisions ultimately impact? Is it crazy of me to want a pure moment of honesty from my city, regardless of what is considered “right” or deemed “appropriate?” Is it wrong to want them to say, “We’re sorry. We know this sucks?”

Per usual, it seems politicians are missing the point. Despite its relevance, the closing of Chicago’s public schools is not a matter of politics or economics for all of us. For many, like myself, this tragedy is indicative of social negligence – a blatant dismissal of the psychological and even existential ramifications of a civic system that has historically oppressed and marginalized an entire population.

Don’t get me wrong, in a city paralyzed by fear, poverty, and murder, politics are of the utmost importance. Without the just and equitable centrality of political and economic discourses, reform will never truly be possible. But what really bothers me here is how jaded these issues have become. It seems to me that the ceaseless debates and the overbearing sense of “we’re doing our best” overshadow the simple truth that children are being killed, that post-racism is another mere fabrication of our idealized emotional tendencies. Sometimes, the most progressive thing a people can do for justice is to simply allow our people to be seen.

As Jazmine McKinney (of the film, Ill Poet Society) recites in her poem, “Chicago Youth,” “If they make it through the trenches of modern day poverty to see the day end, their reward is getting the opportunity to do it again, tomorrow.”

These issues do not exist in a vacuum, and I’m sick and tired of the city’s inability to see it. The school closings are about more than financial insecurities, much like youth violence is about more than kids just being angry. Does anyone bother to ask why anymore? It’s all interconnected.

For example, you cannot cure the evil that lurks in our city without first changing the hell that breeds it. If half of our city’s youth is living in hell, how is it that we are surprised by few demons that are created (again, inspired by McKinney)? What else should we expect when the only thing we give these kids to look up to are prison-cell ceilings? It would be ignorant of us not to acknowledge how violent this beautiful city is; it would be equally ignorant of us to not also take into consideration in the vast array of unfortunate (but not accidental) circumstances that allow such measures to be reached.

Lest we forget, can we take a moment to simply grasp the humanness in those whose lives we’ve altered? Furthermore, can we better our approaches to structural changes, focus more on preventative measures, as opposed to half-hearted, restorative, band-aid methods? It is ironic that schools are being closed for the under-utilization of academic facilities when the very issue is rooted in the lack of access and resources the city is primarily responsible for. Some wounds are simply too deep to simply bandage up, so please, can we forget the politics for a second? Let’s instead take some much needed time to listen to what our communities and our kids have to say.

Our youth are literally bleeding to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized – and too few of us are paying attention. Listen to their cries. (Note: that poem was recited in 2009. Not much has changed, huh?)

It is often made to seem like these communities are solely at fault for the violence they provoke. Although violence is never okay, I challenge us to consider ourselves in these processes. In my eyes, we, the privileged, are equally responsible. It is we who perpetuate stereotypes, live in ignorance, judge, ignore the beauty, and do little to change the realities. Yes, absolutely, there are thousands of ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things to mend the limbs of this broken city. But the reality is, collectively, we’re simply not doing enough. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”

Please note, I am not intentionally labeling any community or identity as evil. If anything, the city holds most of the blame. All I’m saying is that only taking the time to sit and read this blabbering post won’t solve a damn thing.

Although accountability for crime and disorder is never exempt, in a system where brown skin equates poverty, “bypass” policies, food deserts, residential segregation, signs of discriminatory incarceration practices, and now school closings (not to mention an onslaught of other painful realities), I do my best to comprehend the emotional depths that ground these senseless killings, and to begin making sense of the structural disadvantages that foster fear, hatred, and violence. Although never justified, violence is merely a natural expression of oppression and poverty. How exactly does the largest series of school closings in national history help solve such issues?

As a privileged Northsider, I have no problems walking a mile or more to school (though, admittedly, the winters would suck). But what about a nine-year-old kid who has to walk through six different gang territories just to reach her/his school, with no access to a car or resources for safety?

We are told Chicago is doing what it can to “ease this transition.” There is talk of hiring a staff of 600 people to line the streets and protect our youth — to which my response was, “I’m sorry, but what?” Although I appreciate the effort applied towards the safety of our kids, their solution is ridiculous. Chicago has at least 59 gangs with approximately 625 factions; certain parts of Chicago are quite literally a war zone. How exactly does one dodge the gang problem in Chicago by lining the streets with more innocent bystanders to be in harms way?

Can you imagine having to walk a mile or two back and forth from school everyday in a neighborhood where you typically don’t even engage in outdoor activities because you’re justifiably terrified for your life?

I will never forget the terror and indescribable heartache I felt when baby Jonylah Watkins was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting on Chicago’s South Side this past May. At six-months old, this baby was shot and killed over a stolen video game system. I repeat: a stolen video game system.

This tragic death, now a symbol of Chicago’s blood-stained culture, is descriptive of more than just youth violence. We are entering a breaking point (hell, we’re waist-deep in it), one where we can no longer ignore the realities this city faces, realities created and perpetuated by actions that parallel the closing of CPS schools.

The voices of our youth leave haunting echoes along the streets of Chicago. As I continue to reflect on what baby Jonylah could have been, I am sickened by the terror that fills me each time I think about the thousands of displaced kids who will now face more danger on a daily basis. Or what about their parents — the single mothers (and fathers) — who are losing their children yearly to an inexplicable slaughter?

These are lives — beautiful and sacred minds, with pulsing hearts and lucid dreams. So why do we so often treat each other like disposable numbers, as unseen sacrifices amidst a half-hearted and narrow-sighted fight for the “betterment” of a vulnerable city?

Chicago, it is time to wake up. Though my heart is pregnant with sorrow, it won’t let me give up on my efforts to restore this broken relationship. May you find empathy.

Truly and painfully yours,

Matty

Related

More From Thought Catalog