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What Vice Gets Wrong About ‘Chiraq’—and Chicago

The outlet’s latest article points out real problems in the city, but it fails to understand how Chicago actually works.

Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Vice recently dispatched Pulitzer-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff to Chicago—or specifically to “Chiraq,” a nebulous subset of the city they’ve gone in on before. LeDuff’s piece has come in for a lot of pointed criticism from local journalists, from its rhetoric to its content, but what really bothered me about it was a tossed-off aside:

Whenever I travel, I avoid the corridors of power, the clubs of high importance, the restaurants with starched table clothes [sic]. You’ll get no answers to real life there. You have to go to the alley. A meeting with a group of men was set up for me on a South Side backstreet.

It reminded me of Laurence Ralph’s book Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, an anthropological portrait of Ralph’s years of work in part of the city that Vice presumably considers “Chiraq.”

Given the title, you would expect gangs and violence to appear in the book. And they do—but not right away. Ralph begins the book with a grinding, depressing portrait of… community members working with and against the city simultaneously about housing policy and tax-increment financing, navigating the many intersecting (and conflicting) gears of neighborhood organizations, nonprofits, city departments, and community bonds.

As a reader, I will confess that it is not the most enthralling entry point into the world Ralph describes. But I understand why he did it, in part because he told me why he did it.

When I talk about [the limitations of prior research and rhetoric], I’m talking about having a particular notion of what you’re going to find going in versus allowing that to be more flexible, contingent, based on how people themselves are discussing research in relationship to their lives.

That ties into the idea of isolation that you’re working with—like William Julius Wilson’s concept of isolation. We think of neighborhoods like Eastwood as being “isolated,” but they’re deeply tied to the state and the globalized economy.

What I want to do is—not necessarily negate isolation altogether, but look at it as a Janus-faced thing, where there’s two sides to it. How does isolation produce a different kind of network? You can look at mass incarceration, for example, as a global phenomenon that also generates revenues in a particular way.

[snip]

I think the possibility for those intersections are always there, especially when a community is under threat, or they feel themselves to be under attack, and in may ways the redevelopment chapter was about that—the community feeling like they were under attack, so it lends itself to broad coalitions.

It’s not that it’s wrong for LeDuff to head straight for the “backstreet,” skipping the corridors of power or the ivory tower; it’s done with some frequency—especially in Chicago, which Richard Wright called “the known city"—and it’s produced excellent journalism and other forms of research.

But it’s worrisome to say that “real life” can’t be found in the corridors of power. For one thing, LeDuff would basically get the same answers about Chicago’s problems from most any bureaucrat, researcher, or teacher as he got from the men he talked to. E.g.: “Look around. Do you see any stores?” He hits on something very important, but within the corridors of power we can put numbers to it: Woodlawn, the University of Chicago’s Mario Luis Small found, has about 13 pharmacies and grocery stores per 100,000 people. (It has less than 13 in real life, since the population is about 25,000.) Central Harlem, which has a higher poverty rate, has 40 pharmacies and 34 grocery stores per 100,000 people.

Or the next sentence: “Do you see any places where anybody can work?” There are fewer, in no small part because the corridors of power have been cutting back on the employees employed by the state, long an anchor for the black-middle class:

The central role played by government employment in black communities is hard to overstate. African-Americans in the public sector earn 25 percent more than other black workers, and the jobs have long been regarded as respectable, stable work for college graduates, allowing many to buy homes, send children to private colleges and achieve other markers of middle-class life that were otherwise closed to them.

Next: “We’re standing in front of an abandoned building.” Where? LeDuff doesn’t say, but perhaps it’s in North Lawndale, the setting for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epic “The Case for Reparations,” which ties the neighborhood’s abandonment back to Federal Housing Administration policies in the 1930s. And those federal policies can be traced back to the nexus of business and academia in Chicago.

And you can easily knit these threads together. When I spoke with the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s Marisa Novara recently, we talked about Mario Luis Small’s research, and why Chicago is such an outlier in terms of commercial density. Her explanation: low population density in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, which get less dense every Census. Central Harlem, though it is very poor, has over nine times the density of Woodlawn: 86,000 per square mile compared to 9,000 in Woodlawn. It’s 11,000 per square mile in North Lawndale.

Density and abandonment, public and private employment, housing occupancy, tax revenues—they’re intimately connected. And they form much of the structure of “backstreet” life.

It’s also worrisome because this idea, that “Chiraq” is “real” and City Hall is not, mirrors the simple idea of “isolation” that Ralph grappled with in his book. Small has written about it as well, in collaboration with Scott W. Allard:

[R]esearchers have approached these questions from a limited set of theoretical perspectives, perspectives wherein the core units of analysis, aside from the market, have been the individual and the neighborhood.

We argue that, today, understanding the conditions of these highly disadvantaged populations requires a focus not only on individuals and their neighborhoods but also, and perhaps more importantly, on the organizations that structure their lives, the systems in which those organizations are embedded, and the institutions that regulate the operation of both (Marwell 2007; Small 2009; Wacquant 2009; Sampson 2012). Economic recessions, difficult job markets, health care changes, and other macro-level conditions do not affect individuals in unmediated fashion. On the contrary, formal organizations, institutional regulations and norms, and the structure of the systems themselves play a major role in how well highly disadvantaged people do. This role is particularly notable in the context of a decentralized safety net that depends on local organizations for the delivery of services to populations in need.

Admittedly that’s the kind of thing that makes people’s eyes glaze over, but… it’s real life, too; the academy influences those structures as much as it documents them. Sometimes it causes the damage that it later tries to repair. “You do him before he does you"? It’s just as real when institutions do it as when individuals do it.

Again, it’s not wrong to focus solely on one aspect of this vast system. And what LeDuff was told by his subjects isn’t necessarily wrong for being a tiny, brief sample; indeed, it’s echoed all over the place and over generations. But the corridors of power are as real as the streets. That’s the point of streets, after all, especially in our gridded city—that in one way or another, they all connect.

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