Chicago at a Crossroad

This is in response to the July 16th Chicago Tribune article, What Preckwinkle Decision Means for Mayoral Race. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the Altgeld Gardens Housing Projects. Frustrated with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), my parents sacrificed to send me and my siblings to Our Lady of the Gardens Catholic School. A new job afforded us the opportunity to leave the city for the north suburbs. In suburbia, I learned the difference between racism, class-ism, and elitism. Education without access is meaningless. In the suburbs, I had access to everything I dreamt of to get into college to never return to public housing again. Great fortune in mentors and tenacity caused many unforeseen but wonderful doors to open to this wide-eyed girl from the south side of Chicago. I graduated from UIC with BA in political science and received my law degree from UIUC. When I lived in LA, I proudly proclaimed that I was a Chicagoan. Now that I live in NYC, I still claim allegiance to my hometown. However, what I see and read about my city scares and saddens me. When New Yorkers are asking, “What is happening in Chicago,” you know something is wrong.

Chicago is a machine politics city. I voted for Rahm Emanuel because in light of the 2008 economic crisis, I felt that he was the best person to lead the city through uncertain financial times. When President Obama took office, everyone acknowledged that he had been dealt a bad hand – a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2008 economic recession, and America’s debt was climbing. Unfortunately, Chicagoans failed to acknowledge that like President Obama, Rahm had been dealt a terrible hand by Uncle Dickie (former mayor Richard Daley). Rahm is not a people person. However, life and practicing law taught me two valuable lessons. First, you do not have to like or love the person you work with so long as he is good at his job. Second, the person you do not like may be the same person that opens a door for you.

Everybody loved Uncle Dickie. Even when his close confidantes and aides were indicted for crimes, no one turned on Uncle Dickie. They either did their time or committed suicide. If this was Game of Thrones, Uncle Dickie would be Littlefinger. Littlefinger magically made money appear out of nowhere even when the coffers were empty. It was not until Littlefinger was removed as Master of Coin did the council realize that Westeros was broke and owed a boat load to the Bank of Brazos. Likewise, our Uncle Dickie gave us trinkets – flower plantings along the boulevard, plowed the snow, a gentrified downtown, and a nice lakefront. I am not going to lie. I partook of Uncle Dickie’s offerings. I loved Looptopia and the Holiday Sports Festival at McCormick Place. What did we get in exchange? Uncle Dickie tore down federal property (Cabrini, etc) to sell federal land to real estate investors displacing thousands and relocating them throughout the city. Can you say the beginning of the rise in violent crimes? Then he infamously bull dozed Meigs Field. I love Northerly Island, but his act cost the city over a million in fees and fines. Let us not forget the wonderful privatization of parking where we are like victims of real estate fraud – paying more money to rent a home we formerly owned. The coup de grace was putting all of the city’s eggs for financial stimulus into an Olympic berth that did not materialize. Last but not least, how did Uncle Dickie walk away from the police brutality cases involving former police commander Jon Burge under his tenure as Cook County State’s Attorney? These are but a few of the events that lead to Chicago’s current state of affairs.

Despite these weighty infractions, Chicagoans did not lay blame at Uncle Dickie’s doorstep, instead fingering Rahm. Rahm is your go to man for getting the job done. It might not be pretty or nice, but in the words of Big Daddy Kane, he “works, he gets the job done.” He is an experienced politician locally and nationally. I like him because I prefer to know what I am dealing with up front. I do not need to like or love you. Can you get the job done? We are in a globally interdependent world. If Chicago is going to be a global city that attracts businesses, artists, educators, and investors, our leader needs to understand the needs of the community, the changing global economic scene, and how to balance the two.

Let me analyze this focusing on three issues: (1) education, (2) economics, and (3) politics. Regarding education, I grew up in the Chicago Public School system. CPS teachers are like lawyers and cops. Although there are some good ones, the bad ones outnumber the good. Recall when former cop Anthony Abbate brutally beat the bartender? I was appalled at officers that went to the courthouse as solidarity. I am a woman of color and have experienced not so pleasant interaction with those that were supposed to “serve and protect.” Therefore, watching other cops stand by Abbate in light of that video only increased my displeasure. Likewise, Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has a horrible reputation for fighting on behalf of teachers who have clearly violated their duties and sacrificed the education of the city’s children. Yes, some teachers are great. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

CTU had a wonderful relationship with Arne Duncan. That is ironic because the current problems they are complaining of (school closings, etc) were policies put in motion under Arne’s administration, yet they are blaming Rahm. Everybody loved Arne. Arne like other urban schools used NYC as model. Unfortunately, NYC’s problems are unique from other large urban cities in that everything in NYC can be tracked to a common denominator – lack of space. No matter the industry, space concerns are overriding in NYC.

That is not a concern for Chicago. Neighborhood schools are essential to the community. Now kids are waking up early commuting to schools far away traveling through various neighborhoods with different gang affiliations. Even if you are not a gang member, you are not shielded from its violent effect. It is no wonder the gang problem in Chicago has escalated. Specifically, the conversion of Carver High School from a neighborhood school into a specialized military school was disastrous. Carver is located on the far south side of Chicago in the Altgeld Gardens projects where I grew up as a child. It is cut off from the city. If you do not have a car, transportation is limited to one bus that serves that area. Local children could walk to grammar, middle, and high school. Although Carver was not a gifted center, it did offer local students who wanted an academic challenge to take classes at Chicago State University. Instead, under Arne Duncan’s administration, neighborhood schools like Carver High School were either closed or renovated education spaces that locals could not attend. Fast forward to 2009. Remember the fight at Fenger High School between Roseland teens and teens from Altgeld Gardens bused to Fenger? That could have been prevented if Carver High School remained opened to local residents.

I voted for President Obama, but I was immediately disheartened over his appointment of Arne Duncan for Education because I was not convinced Arne did much good for Chicago. The problems with Arne’s vision for CPS started to appear after he left for DC. To add insult to injury, once he arrived in DC, he penalized CPS for not being up to standards. A system you ran for years is not up to standards. Whose fault is that?

Also published here.

Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.