Returning to Chicago: From Beaches to Blight

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Reflections

 

Driving back to Chicago

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I enjoyed the beauty of the beach and sun on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, where we have a family home.  For years, after similarly idyllic weekends, we have returned to  Chicago on Sunday evenings, and each time I feel a pang of anger and shame upon entering the city.  In this reflection, I try to explain why.

My wife and I had a good Fourth of July weekend.   Children and grandchildren joined us in a resort community on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan where I grew up, about two hours from Chicago.

Even though my parents moved several times during my childhood, this is where all my life I have returned in the summer.  I recognize the leaves on the trees.  I know the cracks in the sidewalks.  It is this place, more than any other, I consider home.

There is an expansive beach, where children play.   Beautiful cottages overlook the water.  SUV’s come and go.   For virtually everyone there, their houses are a second home.

At the end of the weekend, we pack up the car, and head south around the bottom of Lake Michigan, into Indiana, through Gary, and then, over the Skyway at the 87th Street Exit, and onto Stoney Island Drive.  We pass Jackson Park Hospital, boarded up stores, a lot of fast food places, and there we are –right in the middle of the south side of Chicago.

There is no way I can understand what I see as we come into the city.  I just know that I have spent the weekend in a very different place.   It’s hard to think about this for very long; and, of course, I don’t have to.  My wife and I have a car to unpack.

During the weekend, I spent time with a beach read, John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer.  The lawyer protagonist was paying a visit in prison to a son’s friend:

“Young and black, almost all of them.  According to the numbers, they’re in for nonviolent drug offenses.  The average sentence is seven years.  Upon release, 60 percent will be back here within three years. And why not? What’s on the outside to prevent their return?  They are now convicted felons, a branding they will never be able to shake.  The odds were stacked against them to begin with, and now that they’re tagged as felons, life in the free world is somehow supposed to improve? … Our prisons are packed.  Our streets are filled with drugs.  Who’s winning the war?  We’ve lost our minds.”

I don’t know what most of my summer community neighbors think, or feel, if and when they ever drive over the Skyway into the Chicago’s South Side.  Some may think the difference isn’t their problem:  “I didn’t create it.  I don’t notice it.  I’ve ‘made it.’  Why can’t everyone else?  We don’t do drugs, unless you count wine, vodka, and anti-depressants.”

When I was growing up, we had a much greater sense of community.  But something has changed.   The largest property owner has built at least a forty-room mansion, totally out of proportion to the surrounding smaller cottages, overlooking the channel that leads to Lake Michigan.

An increasing number of our neighbors want more exclusivity.  What really frosts me is that the property owner denies public access to the beach.  In addition, they only allow the public to visit the iconic “Big Red” lighthouse that guides boats into the harbor from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I can’t apologize for “going home” there, even though my childhood home has become a “gated community.”  I can’t judge my friends who also grew up there, even though most live in a different political world than I do.  Many of them I love as family.  They are good people.  “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Luke 6:37).

But I am going to continue to feel sorrow and anger every time I drive home to Chicago across the Skyway.  I am going to do everything I can to fight the massive and growing inequalities that divide us as a society.

For the misery and pain so evident as we return to the city following this Fourth of July weekend, we should all feel a sense of collective shame. We must do better.  In the words of Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”