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Chicago’s post-pandemic recovery plan won’t fix its problems. Here’s an idea that will

The goal can’t merely be to improve the lives of people who already live here, important though that is. It must be to attract talented people from elsewhere — Black people in particular — and keep stoking the downtown jobs machine that will draw them.

More than half of all Chicago jobs are now downtown, a percentage sure to increase, writes Ed Zotti.
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Forward Together, Chicago’s plan for fixing the problems exposed by COVID-19 once the pandemic is past, starts off well enough.

It speaks of building “a stronger, more inclusive Chicago” and ending the city’s long history of injustice and inequality. It reviews some well-conceived plans already in the works, such as the INVEST South/West initiative.

Then it describes a new round of measures that presumably will usher in a brighter day.

“Create the most advanced healing-centered region in the country ... Increase access to mental and emotional health resources and services in communities ... Create a culturally sensitive, diverse mental health workforce.”

Increasing access to mental health resources is surely a noble goal. After the past year, most Chicagoans could stand a little therapy. But it treats what’s arguably a result of injustice and inequality, not the root cause.

Much of Forward Together is like that: lofty talk, but few ideas that would drive structural change. Stakeholders will be convened. Moments will be seized. Some city programs and processes may be improved, but mostly it sounds like there will be a lot more meetings. No disrespect to the well-intended individuals who contributed to the plan, but the net effect is likely to be zip.

To materially improve the lives of its citizens, Chicago needs a plan that’s more than just words. The goals: rebuild the city’s Black middle class and invest in infrastructure that will make that possible while also helping the city grow again.

Accomplishing that will require a clear vision of what’s achievable and how to get there. That means coming to grips with the changes transforming Chicago, explored in this column over the past 18 months:

First, many of the city’s problems stem from the loss of more than 300,000 Black people since 2000 — an exodus accelerated by the disruption of Black middle-class neighborhoods following the demolition of public housing.

Second, the city as a whole is becoming better educated and more middle class. Almost 40% of Chicagoans have college degrees, twice the percentage of 30 years ago.

Third, the major generator of new jobs is the expanding urban core. Since 2010, the number of downtown workers has grown by 134,000, more than any other sector of the Cook County economy. More than half of all city jobs are now downtown, a percentage sure to increase.

Fourth, 90% of the college grads who’ve played a pivotal role in rebuilding Chicago were born outside the city limits. Fifty-six percent aren’t even from Illinois. The city has thrived while other Rust Belt towns have stagnated because it has become a magnet for college grads from around the U.S. and the world.

Fifth, despite Black flight, Black college grads here are increasing. They’re concentrated along the lakefront, from the South Loop to Woodlawn.

The implication is clear, though some may not want to hear it. The goal of city policy can’t merely be to improve the lives of people who already live here, important though that is. It must be to attract talented people from elsewhere – Black people in particular – and keep stoking the downtown jobs machine that will draw them.

The city has no difficulty attracting talented people of other ethnicities. The challenge is luring more Black people. Here’s how it can be done:

1. Hire the top Black college grads in the U.S. for downtown jobs

A sustained, coordinated effort must be made to recruit the most qualified Black college graduates in the country for professional jobs in the core — not a token few to look good in a diversity poster but, in time, tens of thousands.

The federal government adopted this policy long ago. Today Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of Black college graduates of any large U.S. metro area.

The heavy lifting will have to be done by the downtown business community, but many firms recruit nationally anyway. The hard part may be persuading an ambitious Black kid that Chicago is a land of opportunity — a task made easier if Chicago actually is.

2. Establish the south lakefront as a bastion of Chicago’s Black middle class

The process is already well underway. The residential real estate market along the south lakefront has grown steadily stronger.

But it needs a boost. What’s lacking is a lively business district that will attract more young Black college grads — the equivalent of the Clark Street and Broadway commercial strips running through Lincoln Park and Lake View.

The Lightfoot administration has the right idea. Its INVEST South/West initiative would focus public investment along selected commercial streets with the aim of catalyzing private investment and drawing a vibrant mix of people and businesses. That’s happening now in Bronzeville, where developers are working on mixed-use projects around Green Line stops — an ideal place to start.

3. Leverage rail transit to increase opportunities for all

Rail transit is critical to increasing opportunities for Black people and everybody else. It provides the best way to get downtown — where, realistically, most job growth will occur. The city needs to expand the system and make the most of existing assets, partly to keep downtown booming but also as a matter of basic equity. Many improvements are already in the works:

· The Metra Electric and Rock Island commuter lines need to be upgraded to “L” standards, with lower fares, more frequent service and easy transfer to CTA. That’ll make it easy for residents of the Far South and Far Southwest Sides to get to work downtown and bolster the south lakefront. The county will cover the cost; the city must merely give its assent.

· To increase affordable housing, revitalize neighborhoods and boost ridership, dense transit-oriented development needs to be encouraged near rail stops. That means simplifying approvals and revising the zoning map to reduce the overemphasis on single-family housing — tweaks in support of a policy the city has already embraced.

· New rail service must be built in the core to connect the existing system to outlying sites such as Lincoln Yards and The 78. If the only people who can get jobs in new developments on the edge of downtown are those who can walk, bike or drive there, those who live far away or lack cars will be shut out. Guess who that means.

A visibly affluent Black community in a revitalized dense city would be an extraordinary achievement — the U.S. has no comparable examples. It would secure Chicago’s future and hasten the day when the country’s major divide was no longer race.

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