How to Love a City That Doesn’t Love You Back
Acclaimed author and activist Mikki Kendall on why Chicago keeps breaking her heart
Chicago is a beautiful city, one of the best in the world, and it is deeply attached to its racism. Not just the historical kind, but the very real and current kind. It pretends otherwise sometimes, panders to the idea that it’s a city that works. And in that way, it avoids discussing everything from the history of Canaryville and Bridgeport being sundown neighborhoods to the fact that it still isn’t safe to be Black in Mount Greenwood. Chicago loves its reputation for great food and music, but it hates admitting to itself what it costs to erase Black people from a city built on their cuisine and culture.
Chicago is anchored by stunning architecture, amazing restaurants, some of the best people in the world — and some of the worst. Founded on stolen land by a man who may well have been a descendant of stolen people, Chicago has its roots sunk deep in the shared history of Black and Indigenous struggle. Yet Chicago has continuously tried to obliterate that history, first with segregation and race riots, and now through a toxic cycle of neglect and gentrification that has driven Black and brown people out of their own neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Englewood to Albany Park. There’s no better place in the world to Chicagoans than home, but what do you do when the only home you’ve ever known is constantly restructuring itself to force out some of its children?
Like anyone who can’t let go, won’t let go, of her birthplace, I can leave the city, but the city won’t leave me. This is not a breakup essay. I am moving away for a while, but I’m not leaving the city so much as taking a break from it so that I can keep fighting for it. Four years is the plan, long enough for my youngest child to attend a high school with class sizes that reflect an understanding that putting 40 bodies in a single room isn’t conducting an education so much as warehousing.
Chicago, you broke my heart again. That feeling is not new. I’m a girl from the South Side. One of “those people,” as folks afraid to go south of 35th or west of Halsted might whisper in the middle of a stunningly blinkered take on Chicago schools, violence, or police brutality. It’s easy to blame the victims when you ignore reality long enough to assure yourself that you could never possibly be part of the problem.
Does that mean that marginalized people have no agency, no responsibility for what goes awry here? Of course not. But you cannot present people with a slate of bad choices and feign shock when they don’t make good ones. Imagine a Chicago where funding schools, job training, mental health clinics, and after-school programs in the places that need them most was considered a greater priority than bolstering a handful of neighborhoods at the expense of all others. Would that imagined Chicago have the same problems with violence?
We know the answer. We knew it when the settlement house movement was new. We knew it in the ’80s and ’90s, when violence spiked and many of the social programs that are now gone were being built. Chicago knows better, but our politicians often refuse to do better. They create so many of the problems that they later fail to solve and then stand in front of a microphone and tell us that they are doing their best. And the uninformed, the uninitiated, the people who choose not to be aware — they make excuses about their fear of the South and West Sides.
Racism has a way of making people throw out logic, so let me debunk a few things about race in Chicago. It’s not that Black people don’t care about education, it’s that we spend so much time fighting to be able to access any education at all — it’s hard to keep your kids in a school that values only the students who are academically exceptional already. It’s not that Black people are prone to violence, it’s that violence is an American problem. And a police problem. Chicago cops have been guilty of everything from framing children for murder to torturing adults until they confessed to crimes they did not commit. It is fundamentally illogical to assume that cops with a history of lying under oath so often that the term “testilying” was coined specifically for them are reliable narrators of anything that happens in this city.
The damage done to Black communities by brutal policing, though, is just one symptom of a systemic problem that spans generations. High maternal mortality figures, low rates of home ownership resulting from Jim Crow–era lending practices that continue to this day, a disproportionate share of COVID-19 infections and deaths — these are a few of the myriad ways Chicago has sabotaged the very people it has relied on to grow and prosper. And not just Black people, but Latinx and Asian people too.
Making a mess and then making it worse is the Chicago way just as much as any cute lines from movies about the gangsters who used to rule parts of the city. Their legacies are larger than life, and in some ways better protected than those of us who live here now. Chicago is nothing without its people and without its history, and yet sometimes it seems like the proverbial powers that be would rather forget both than reckon with either.
I love you Chicago, and I can never really leave you. But I hate that so often it feels like I have to fight you for that love to be returned.