Friday, January 16, 2009

Chicago's Uptown Is Divided Between North and South

46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller
46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller
Chicagoans are very familiar with the fact that neighborhoods can suddenly change with the turn of a corner. One moment your in a "good" neighborhood, then you turn that corner and you feel like you've been transported into another dimension.

The Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, on the north side along Lake Michigan, is an example of this taken to the extreme.

Like East and West Berlin once were, Uptown is divided by a political border. The border runs east-west, in effect creating a North Uptown and as South Uptown.

If you've ever wondered how the local political structure affects the look, feel and quality of life of any given area, two good examples to study are Berlin, Germany and Uptown, Chicago. "North Uptown" and "South Uptown" are not their official names; I use them here to illustrate my point)

48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith
48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith
"South Uptown" is in the 46th Ward (map) of Alderman Helen Shiller(photo, above).

"North Uptown" is in the 48th Ward (map) of Alderman Mary Ann Smith (photo, left).

After World War Two, defeated Germany was divided into four sectors. The French, British and American sectors together made up "West Germany," with freedom of movement and democracy for its residents. The Russian (then "Soviet") sector was known as "East Germany," and it was a totalitarian communist state whose strings were pulled by Moscow. East Germans often tried to escape into the democratic West, and were sometimes shot as they were trying to get out.

Before East Germany and West Germany reunited nearly 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall was built by the Soviets/Russian to completely surround West Berlin. Berlin is located in the middle of the old East Germany, but by treaty was divided in the same way that the rest of the nation was. So, you had East Berlin and West Berlin. The wall was not built to keep West Berliners in West Berlin; they have complete freedom to enter the East and return to the West. The wall was meant to keep East Berliners and all East Germans out of West Berlin. East Germans lucky enough to escape into West Berlin were given sanctuary and immediately given West German citizenship.

"South" Uptown's epicenter at Wilson and Broadway,
seen from the Wilson CTA train platform looking east
I was lucky enough to spend a full week in Berlin in 1974, during the height of the Cold War. I passed through Checkpoint Charlie, the famous gate controlled by the American military through which westerners passed freely, from west to east and back again. Many people who have had the same experience have agreed with me on a very strange phenomenon.

That phenomenon is this: On a bright, sunny day, as you walked from the clean and modern West Berlin into East Berlin, it was as though clouds suddenly formed over your head. Suddenly, the world was gray and drab. It was mostly psychological, I'm certain, but some it had to do with the fact that the East Germans and their Soviet masters deliberately left many buildings that were bombed out in WWII unrepaired. The Wall itself was depressing enough; to be surrounded suddenly by relics of the most horrific war ever, as well as knowing that none of the East Germans were free to walk back into the West as you were, only added to the illusion of everything being gray.

Walking from North Uptown to South Uptown gives a similar experience.

The invisible political line is Lawrence Avenue, which runs east-west. North of Lawrence, new and vibrant businesses have opened within the past two years. There is color and light, good restaurants, some fun places to shop. Cross Lawrence heading south, however, and suddenly the colors are less bright. Fewer people are smiling. There are far fewer places at which to dine, shop, recreate.

Friend and colleague Lorraine Swanson, Editor of News-Star, sums it up well in her recent commentary, "A tale of two Uptowns" (January 14, 2009):
Experienced urban pioneers are familiar with the invisible line that separates Uptown into two parts along Lawrence Avenue, roughly the boundary between the 46th and 48th wards. South of Lawrence, Uptown stretches like East Berlin. One must traverse multiple gang territories and blocks of urban blight to reach West Berlin on the other side of Lawrence. There, one finds a welcoming mix of retail, theater, night clubs, shops and restaurants that have turned this part of Uptown's fortunes around. 
To be fair, there are certainly gang territories running through Smith's "North Uptown." But the violence in "South Uptown" is remarkably higher. Smith is pro-police, while Shiller is demonstrably anti-police. Smith has public meetings in her office and encourages input from neighbors; Shiller, in contrast, runs her ward like a petty dictator who distrusts the police, seeing them as a threat to much of her voter base. Smith is pro-development and encourages private sector growth; Shiller is generally anti-development and is generally interested only in the kind of "growth" that encourages more concentrations of "affordable housing" on taxpayers' dollars. Smith has alliances with business groups and block clubs; Shiller's strongest alliance is with far Left "progressives," criminals and "the Jesus People," a cult-like religious group. These voters enable Shiller to flaunt her anti-police, anti-CAPS, anti-development attitude.

Shiller vowed early in her political career that her ward would always be a haven for the poor and that she's a vehicle for "social justice." That sounds nice, but Shiller and her allies seem to think it's okay that her anti-police attitude is enabling murderous gangs, and the high level of violent crime in her ward is just the price to be paid for that "justice." Ironically, her anti-police stance in the name of "justice for the poor" (she has stated that CAPS is anti-poor people) has only served to heighten the death rate among the very people she claims to help - and who make up a significant portion of her loyal voting base.

900 block of W. Wilson, a dangerous place in Uptown
Like the old iron-fisted rulers of East Berlin, does her best to keep her people under her thumb. She doesn't shoot people for trying to escape her realm, but she seems content to let them shoot each other. Like the old Soviet kommissars, Shiller placates many of her constituents with government handouts, political favors, and bread and circuses. This helps her in several ways: It instills a sense of dependence on her, but also creates a fear - the fear that if those recipients don't tow the political line they will be cut off from the handouts they grow to depend on. Too often, those handouts become substitutes for earned income. Too often, gang activity is not prevented because Shiller has fought tooth and nail to keep police cameras off of dangerous intersections. Like the old East German communist bosses, Shiller is suspicious and wary of outside influences and of internal dissenters.

Businesses looking at Uptown as a place to locate notice this kind of thing, if they're doing their homework. The Salvation Army once occupied a corner storefront at Sunnyside and Broadway. It was vacated last September. Today, it is still boarded up, located across from Aldi's and Wilson Yard, one block north of Montrose Avenue. Walk north along four blocks from there to Lawrence Avenue and you'll likely be asked for spare change at least four times as you pass unattractive storefronts. Keep a sharp eye out for sudden movement because this area is notorious for open air, broad daylight gang shootouts and non-gang shootouts alike.

On Christmas Day, a woman was shot in the back during daylight at the busy intersection of Wilson and Broadway. Knowing this, merchants hell-bent on opening a store in the Uptown area are quite likely to choose Smith's northern half over Shiller's more violent, less attractive southern half.

That means less job opportunities in Shiller's South Uptown. It means a continual feeling of oppression, not from "the Man" but from one's own criminally inclined neighbors and the constant requests for spare change. It means a lower tax base in Shiller's 46th Ward than it should have, and it has undoubtedly slowed an already bruised real estate climate.

Residents of Shiller's Uptown look north to Smith's "North Uptown" and wonder why the crime rate is so high in "South Uptown." They need only look to their neighbors, who are at once more likely to be gang members than those to the north, and likely to have voted for Shiller over and over and over.

The sooner that a reasonable candidate starts running in the 46th Ward, the sooner the healing might start. The 46th Ward needs a candidate who is at once sympathetic to poor residents and is willing to work with CAPS and the police; a candidate who understands that some people need a safety net but that the rest of us should not be heavily penalized to provide it; a candidate who understands that private enterprise, not forced redistribution of other people's hard earned money, is the best hope for everybody regardless of current economic status.

2011 is another aldermanic election year, and it's just around the corner. If you're thinking of running, now is the time to start getting your campaign together.

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