Editorial: A crusading priest and an alderman butt heads over ‘Chiraq’

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Chicago Ald. Will Burns

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In a city sometimes called “Chiraq,” a crusading priest and an alderman mixed it up Thursday, trading verbal volleys about whether the nickname is honest, helpful or fair.

As we’ve said before, we side with the priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, on this one. We see no reason the city or state should withhold the usual film industry supports for the movie Spike Lee is making in Chicago, even if the film’s working title — “Chiraq” — does the city no favors. Big cities suck it up when it comes to art that might make them look bad, and the film industry here has created plenty of jobs. Pet the golden goose, don’t kick it, even if it sometimes bites.


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But as we watched Pfleger and Fourth Ward Ald. Will Burns argue the point during a City Club of Chicago panel discussion, we couldn’t help notice that both men make compelling points — and both men are really working the same side of the fence. Denying the epidemic violence in some neighborhoods does nobody any good, as Pfleger said, but labeling a part of town “Chiraq” is a terrific way to discourage banks and businesses from investing, as Burns said.

Burns described the tough job an alderman faces in bringing economic development to neighborhoods afflicted by poverty, violence and institutional racism.

“It is difficult to get private banks to want to lend capital to folks who want to do development deals on the South Side,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get equity investors to consider putting their capital in deals on the South Side of Chicago, or on the West Side of Chicago.And it takes layer upon layer of financing to get even the most simple of projects done, projects that wouldn’t take much to get done on the North Side.”

It’s a heavy lift, Burns said, just to get a grocery store.

“I take meeting after meeting with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, with the Illinois Housing Development Authority, with the CHA,” he said. “You have to have all these different buckets because the market is still reticent about investing in these communities.”

In his own way, Burns is not unlike Pfleger, fighting for the underdog.

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