The Other Chicago


A few years ago, when I first moved to Chicago, I got off the Garfield Red Line stop on Chicago’s South Side to get on a bus that would take me to the University of Chicago. University of Chicago is in Hyde Park, a uniquely diverse and wealthy neighborhood surrounded by neighborhoods that are mostly poor, and mostly black. As I waited for the bus that would take me to the campus, I took out my phone to text friends that I’d be there soon. Before I knew what was happening, a young man who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, tried to grab my phone out of my hand. My grip was quite tight and we wrestled for about 15, maybe 20 seconds, before he took off running. I wasn’t startled as much as I was annoyed. “Who tries to steal a phone right out of someone’s hand?” I thought to myself. Later I quipped to my friends and family that, “I’m a Nigerian. You’re not going to take my phone out of my hands and I’m just going to stand there and watch you.” Some were amused; some told me I shouldn’t be so pompous – “What if he had a gun?” “What if he shot you?”

The idea that someone can shoot you for a phone is not hyperbolic. It happens everywhere in the world. People shoot people for items of far less value than a phone. It didn’t once cross my mind during that tussle with the young man or immediately after it, that he could have shot me; perhaps it should have. But somebody was trying to take something from me and holding onto it was the only thing I could think of in the moment. I don’t think of myself as a naïve person; it was an adrenaline rush, a learned yet simultaneously involuntarily response to such an incident. And I live in a city where acts like this happen every day. I live in a city where people kill each other for sport. I live in a city where a nine year-old is shot multiple times, and there is no public outcry. But that’s in the other Chicago – the Chicago that many would rather not talk about, or go to, or think of, or even believe exists.

Chicago is a segregated city. It’s often touted as one of the most segregated cities in the country, and it doesn’t take any special research to know the neighborhoods that consist of a greater number of POCs are poorer. You can see it with the naked eye.  A study was done that compared 20 predominantly black neighborhoods to all other neighborhoods, and it was found that the percentage living in poverty for the predominantly Black neighborhoods was 34%, while the other neighborhoods’ poverty rate was 20%. That class is tied to race is a given. But what is apparently not a given is correcting this problem from both a class and race perspective. What is not a given is that all people who live here, find this problematic.

The stories of gang violence, of shootings every weekend, of the blood of the youth being spilled, has tragically become an expectation. Every Monday morning when I remember, I, like many Chicagoans, check the news for “the body count from the weekend.” And if one isn’t not careful, it’s easy to become numb to the numbers; to negate the humanity of the people who lose their lives or those they left behind. In the only Chicago that many people would like you to know, the tragedies that happen in the other Chicago is met with a cognitive dissonance that distances people from having to deal with the reality that the city they love, the city they think is fun and friendly, the city that is a “true American city,” is also a violent city that doesn’t care for its poor. And this city’s poor are often black and brown.

Now, it should be made clear that the South Side and the West Side which often characterize this “other Chicago” are not only poor and violent. I do not ever wish to objectify the people or the geography of a place by making that their single story. But the reality of this city is that it is segregated along geographical lines that correlate with race and class, and this correlation tells us two vastly different stories of the same city.

I live in Lincoln Park, Chicago, easily one of Chicago’s safest neighborhoods. It is home to (rich) young families, young people who are doing alright, reasonably priced restaurants, a Catholic parish that I love, and a health club that I became quite addicted to in my time here. Lincoln Park is my home. But it’s also a place I can easily count how many people who look like me. It’s a very white, very Yuppie-ish neighborhood that sometimes feels like the place where Stepford wives and husbands come to be made before heading to the suburbs. There are good people here and it’s a good place to live. But Lincoln Park, like many other neighborhoods in Chicago, shelters people from the other reality of the city. This is despite the presence of homeless people in most neighborhoods. “I don’t go past Jackson on the Red Line unless I’m going to a Sox game,” is a phrase I’ve heard far too much since living here. But if you live in this Chicago, the other Chicago is not just another side of town, it is indeed another world experience altogether.

As I began really getting out of “my Chicago” last summer to do volunteer work with different projects and programs, I started to really get to know this other Chicago. Now I am no stranger to witnessing poverty – I have lived in poor nations; I am from a rich nation of poor people. And in some ways, that is what going to the other Chicago feels like – being in a rich city of poor people. I understand the local economic and political concerns the city faces, but for all intents and purposes, affluence in this city is not lacking. But being unafraid of the poor is a different story from being afraid to go into a neighborhood during the daytime because both they and you know that oftentimes being the same color as the poor that you see, and even with all you street smarts and awareness – they know you are definitely not from there. This is their Chicago, not yours.

The causes of poverty, crime, and gang violence in the other Chicago are not accidental in the same way that most of humanity’s failings in the world are not accidental. They are the result of oppression and marginalization of certain peoples, with each circumstance or situation contextualized in a given history, time, and space. In Chicago, as in many American cities and towns, the legacy of institutionalized slavery, discrimination laws, the white flight and the creation of the ghetto, prejudiced housing practices, poor education and health care for the poor; and the perpetual ignorance of those who have more, for their fellow men and women who have less, most of whom live just a few miles away, are the causes of this other Chicago.

But why is an African girl who has seen the poorest of the poor concerned with this relative poverty? It is a question that has been posed to me many times. And I often respond like this: Because wherever I have lived and been to, my concern has always been for those most historically disenfranchised, socially, politically, and economically. Moreover, I still believe in those childhood lessons that my parents taught me – one being that charity begins at home. And while I am always concerned for “my people back home,” I am also always concerned for those who I can see and touch and be with, wherever I find myself.

It is a tragedy that we live in a world where hunger and poverty exist. We have more than enough wealth, technology, and transportation to eradicate this type of human suffering. It is indeed a testament to the selfishness of not only our individual actions and inactions that the world is as unequal as it is. But collectively, I believe, we are all at fault. And this truth stands in parts of the world where poverty and war are the prevailing story. But it also stands right here in our Chicago. The poverty and the hunger and the homelessness are on our hands. And so is the blood that is spilled everyday on our streets. And when we start realizing that this other Chicago is holding up a mirror to those of us who have more, to show us what we’re willing to live with, and put others through, at the cost of ignorance or unwillingness or both, we will also realize it is our responsibility to demand that our leaders fix it – it is our responsibility to fix it.

For many of us, we can start by going past that Jackson Red Line stop. And not just to make a trip to the University of Chicago, or to see a Sox game, or a city tour sight. And certainly not to become some kind of white savior. We need to go past our usual stops in order to cut across the color lines of this city, and to remove the otherness from those that are least among us. If nothing else for the reason that they are indeed among us.