Last weekend's flash mob attacks on the Magnificent Mile are a reminder of a fact that residents of big, liberal cities don’t like to acknowledge: nowhere else in America is so much inequality concentrated in such small areas.
Chicago is famous for its racial segregation, but it’s also segregated economically. The rich and poor areas are not that far apart -- and they’re linked by bus and train lines.
The attacks took place at the corner of Michigan and Huron, in a census tract with a median household income of $88,384 a year, according to this map. The police were able to release the names of three adults. All live in census tracts with income less than half the Magnificent Mile’s. One young man lives at 1100 N. Cambridge Ave., which is a mile from downtown, but much less magnificent, with a median household income of $29,081 a year.
All over Chicago, pockets of wealth and poverty exist side by side. The neighborhood at Halsted and Roosevelt, just west of the Dan Ryan, has a median income of $102,031 a year. Just four blocks away, at Ashland and Roosevelt, the residents earn a median income of $11,342 a year.
In Sunday’s Sun-Times, Streeterville resident Abbey Perkins, who admits she rarely ventures south of Jackson Street or west of the Dan Ryan, wrote about the uncomfortable experience of riding a bus with teenagers who live outside her self-imposed “box.”
“We’re gonna die anyways,” one said. “We’re going to die no matter what, why die old where we’re at.”
The conversation continued, laced with references to how it would be worse to grow old in their community, continuing to feel the effects of poverty and violence, than to have their existence prematurely terminated for participating in the “game” or simply getting caught in the crossfire. There was no mention of leaving or improving this place. They didn’t mention where they lived by name, but I can assume it was one of the many Chicago neighborhoods, outside of my small box, where gun violence is a daily reality. You know, one of those scary places where you don’t recognize the names of intersecting streets where bullets rain and witnesses are hard to come by.
I felt ill. This wasn’t an NPR report, or a segment on the evening news.
I was sharing a bus ride with two teens who were presumably from the front lines, carefully evaluating the pros and cons of living a full life in a set of circumstances that composed their past, present and, undoubtedly (to them), future.
Proximity is a critical part of how crises of this nature are perceived. Is Chicago dangerous? Only certain areas.
That’s the thing about Chicago. This isn’t Los Angeles, where there is very little public transportation. Or Detroit, where the wealthy and white have retreated to the suburbs, and prevented the poor and the black from building trains to follow them. (One suburban Detroit mayor explained her vote against a line that would have linked her village to downtown by saying she didn’t want a “heroin train.”) In Chicago, inequality is impossible to avoid. You can spend your entire life in a wealthy neighborhood, but the poor will find you there.